Monday, November 23, 2020

Does America Need to Find Its First Principles? A conversation with Tom Ricks

The past four years, really right up to this moment, have been a test for the American republic. Over and over we’ve heard it asked, “can our institutions hold, are the ideas and documents of the framers adequate for the modern age?” 


At the same time, we’ve heard over and over again, since Nov. 8, 2016, how did we get here? What has driven us to such political and social division, to our appetite for authoritarianism, the disregard for norms, the rural-urban and educational divide?

What ties all of these questions together is the idea that when faced with a complex sometimes unsolvable problem, it’s best to go back to foundational principles.

To deconstruct the enterprise and strip it to its original foundation to see how all of the problems have been layered on and how we might find meaning and/or solutions.

This is essentially what Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and another Tom Ricks does in his new work First Principles: What America's Founders Learned from the Greeks and Romans and How That Shaped Our Country

My conversation with Tom Ricks:

   

Monday, November 16, 2020

A Dolly Parton Moment

During our last great cultural and political upheaval in the 60s, music provided the soundtrack. Rock stars
were not in Silicon Valley, but in the recording studios of Los Angeles, San Francisco and Nashville.

Historically, our culture has been shaped by music and music has shaped by our culture. Additionally music, like sports, has been a way out of poverty for many. Few personify this better, particularly for many women, then Dolly Parton, and no one captures this better than Sarah Smarsh in her new work She Come By It Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived Her Songs 

My conversation with Sarah Smarsh

 
 

Monday, November 9, 2020

The Collapse of America's Founding Mythology

Every company has its foundational myth. From the beginning, it becomes the basis of the company’s culture, its marketing, and really its DNA. The same is true for nations. And perhaps not surprisingly no nation has done a better job of that mythology than the United States.

From the ideas of manifest destiny to John Winthrop's shining city on the hill, from freedom and equality to American exceptionalism, these stories are not only foundational for Americans, but they run in the American bloodstream.

So what happens when it’s discovered that the myth and reality don’t match up? That the emperor has no clothes.

Ultimately, the myth is exposed, the wheels come off, the anger spreads, first internally and then outside and the enterprise usually collapses or morphs.

Arguably that’s what we’ve been living through today. The exposure and crumbling of the American myth. It explains the populist anger that brought Trump to power, as well as the anger on the other side that has fueled Black Lives Matter. When the myth is stripped bare, the company or the nation must be reinvested or die.

These ideas are at the heart of Jared Yates Sexton’s book  American Rule: How a Nation Conquered the World but Failed Its People.

My conversation with Jared Yates Sexton:

Sunday, November 1, 2020

Biden..We Hardly Knew Ye

With the election just hours away, think about how many Presidents we’ve watched grow into the office.
Clinton, Bush and Obama. Earlier JFK and Jimmy Carter also came to the office unseasoned

Compare this to Ike, or Reagan, George HW Bush, or Lyndon Johnson all who arrived, for better or worse as fully formed political and human beings.

In this year’s election, policy aside, Joe Biden comes to us having lived a very long public life during which time he has grown into the person and politician he is today. Arguable, as a man who would become the nation’s oldest president it is fair to say that he is not still becoming.

While our presidential candidates seldom lack for position papers and policies, it’s who they are that ultimately determines if they have what it takes. Our vote for president is essentially a gut check vote about the man and the moment.

And sometimes, not always, but when we are lucky, the man and moment match up.

This is the question much of the nation is asking and answering about Joe Biden. After almost 50 years in the arena, it should be easy to answer. But amid all the clamoring, it takes work like the new book by National Book Award winner Evan Osnos to pull it all together in Joe Biden: The Life, the Run, and What Matters Now

My conversation with Evan Osnos

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Is Socialism Coming To America?

Bernie Sanders an avowed Democratic socialist, never a member of the Democratic party, ran two failed presidential campaigns, and yet he has succeeded in moving the Democratic Party to the left.

AOC, is a one-term congresswoman with no previous political experience and yet her Democratic Socialist views have gotten attention on a national scale.

Particularly among young people, there is a growing dissatisfaction with the state of capitalism and free markets today. Even the likes of billionaires such as Chase’s Jamie Diamon and Salesforce’s Mark Benioff have talked about the need for a new more inclusive capitalism.

While this is essentially about the economy, it’s also about shifts in the social, cultural, and political landscape. The coronavirus has laid bare many of the lurking flaws in our system and the politics of the moment magnify everything.

Is this a tectonic shift in the politics of America or a temporary blip in an otherwise centrist nation?

John B. Judis breaks this down in his new work The Socialist Awakening: What's Different Now About the Left.

My conversation with John B. Judis

Friday, October 23, 2020

Are We So Divided that Secession Is The Only Answer?

There was a time when there were things that united us. Through most of the 20th century for example, they were things that had nothing to do with politics. They were movies and TV shows and books and sports and one of the three choices for getting our evening television news. We were for a long time part of a commonweal, a kind of national town square that provided our water cooler conversation around the things we had in common.

Over the past 40 years all that changed. Technology and the proverbial long tail atomized us into our individuals interests. The explosion of thousands of sources of news, entertainment and information satisfied us, satiated us really, but took away our common bonds.

The result is where we are today. On the verge of session. Divided as never before in an environment so fragile that the house divided may not stand.

David French has been thinking and writing and living this experience. He brings it forward in Divided We Fall: America's Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation.

My conversation with David French

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Jimmy Carter: A Good and Decent Presidency


Before his massive failure with the Covid crises, someone remarked that Donald Trump may not turn out to be the worst President we ever had, but for sure he will be the worst person ever to be President. In many ways, Jimmy Carter is the opposite. He may not have been a great President, but he may have been one of the best people to ever be President.

It’s hard to say if the problems that Carter faced, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, inflation, unemployment, and the Iranian hostage crisis, might have happened to any President of that period. But history tells us they were the crisis he was dealt. And the nature of them brought out some of Carter's worst, not his best qualities.

It really is a job that’s about the nexus between crisis and character. Sometimes they line up and sometimes they don't. For Carter, it was often out of sync. Jonathan Alter tell the whole story in His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, a Life.

My conversation with Jonathan Alter:

Monday, October 12, 2020

Is White Collar Corruption the New Normal?

Fitzgerald got it right. The rich are different. Even in the way they commit crimes.

Law and order phrases are shouted from rooftops with respect to street crime, as small time criminals are abused by law enforcement and often overcharged. The reality is that crimes of much bigger significance, and many more victims, are committed in and from the boardroom.

While anger is still palpable in many places over those executives not not charged as for their role in the 2008/2009 financial meltdown, many smaller but similar white collar crimes have been committed with no oversight, no punishment and not even any more anger.

Has high end while collar crime simply become an acceptable cost of doing business? Has it become the collateral damage of capitalism that we are willing to accept? This is where Jennifer Taub takes us in Big Dirty Money: The Shocking Injustice and Unseen Cost of White Collar Crime.

My conversation with Jennifer Taub:

Monday, October 5, 2020

Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry: Advice for Times Like This Week/Month/Year

The world has been through tough times before. Wars, depression, the threat of Armageddon, and racial hatred are all nothing new. And yet something seems different today. Perhaps it’s the result of a generation that focused on the self. The me generation, the culture of selfishness, the enduring power of the work of Ayn Rand and obsessive focus on self esteem. Maybe these things have come together to make this moment as corrosive as it feels. 

So what the answer? The Beatles said that “all we need is love.” The Most Reverend Michael B. Curry, the presiding bishop and primate of the Episcopal Church, also thinks love is the answer, but in a less sentimental and more transformative way. Reverend Curry garnered worldwide attention to his idea in his sermon at the wedding of Prince Harry and Megan Markel in May of 2018. 

Now he has taken it step further in his new book Love is the Way: Holding on to Hope in Troubling Times 

My conversation with Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry:

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Should Donald Trump Make Us Rethink the Reagan Legacy For the Worse?

Day after day people ask “how we got here?” In fact we don’t need a time machine. All we need do is to look back at the political history of the past 50 years and and we can see exactly how we got here.

With the rise of Reagan in the mid 70’s we can see with almost GPS precision, that map that got us to our tribalism that so deeply divides us today. 

We see the meanness, the racism, the quest for raw political power, particularly on the right. And while Reagan may have masked it in sunny optimism to make it digestible, it would later become the stuff of talk radio and the exploitation of populist anger. 

All of this is captured by Rick Perlstein in his new book Reaganland: America's Right Turn 1976-1980  

My conversation with Rick Perlstein:





Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Science and Politics are Now Linked

If you picked up the New York Times one day last week, you would have discovered that about half of the stories on the front page were directly related to science. Think about what we are dealing with; public health, vaccines, climate change, fires and hurricanes, technology, privacy, transportation, artificial Intelligence, medicine, the frontiers of space and of our oceans and this is just some of it. 

The future of science is the future of mankind. As a result science journalism has come into its own, as recently we have seen that poor science reporting can lead to dangerous misinformation. Leading that effort in quality science journalism is Scientific America. It has been the gold standard and is the oldest continuously published monthly magazine in the United States. 

Last week, for the first time in its 175 year history, it dipped its toe in political waters making a presidential endorsement for the very first time. Explaining this decision is the Editor and Chief of Scientific America, Laura Helmuth

My conversation with Laura Helmuth: 


Tuesday, September 15, 2020

The Curse of the US/Britain Special Relationship

Back on the 4th of July I saw a hat that said, "Make America Great Britain Again."  A good laugh, even more so when superimposed on the current relationship between the two countries.

Certainly there is that much vaunted “special relationship''. Not just between the countries, in an abstract geopolitical way, but between leaders that have been shaping and reacting to the world at similar times and in similar ways for the past seventy-five years.

While Great Britain may have lost its empire, its connection to the US in contemporary times, has kept it relevant and dynamic. But after seventy-five years is that relationship due for a refresh? If so, perhaps it will require a degree of honesty about the relationship that has been heretofore lacking on both sides.

Ian Buruma looks at the contemporary history of that relationship in The Churchill Complex: The Curse of Being Special, from Winston and FDR to Trump and Brexit.

My conversation with Ian Buruma:


Tuesday, September 8, 2020

The Spouse Also Runs: A Conversation with Chasten Buttigieg

As the late Richard Ben Cramer so brilliantly detailed in his seminal book “What it Takes.” running for president, as a serious candidate, is one of the hardest, most grueling and challenging things one can do. Cramer wrote about the 1988 campaign, before the internet, before 24/7 news and yet he said even then that politics had become a kind of a public utility, with hot-and cold-running politics any time of the day or night.

Today in our hyper politicized non stop news environment it’s even worse.
Now imagine breaking barriers and taboos along the way, as Pete Buttigieg did as the first LGBTQ candidate.

Just as challenging, again as Cramer wrote about, is being the spouse of the candidate. For Chasten Buttigieg, a 31 year old gay man with not political experience, he had only his own personal experience and history from which to draw upon.

He shares that journey in his new memoir I Have Something to Tell You: A Memoir.

My conversation with Chasten Buttigieg:


Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Remember When Diplomacy and the Arts Once Mattered?

Imagine a time when diplomacy mattered.  When the arts mattered. And when they could actually work together to project America at its best. Oh how we might long for the days of the Cold War.

Clausewitz said that diplomacy was simply war by other means. During the Cold War, that diplomacy took many forms. From Richard Nixon showing Khrushchev around an American Kitchen, to Ping Pong diplomacy with the Chinese

A little known form of diplomacy was the role that the arts played in the Cold War. Uniquely in the realm of dance in the hands of one of its great practitioners, and leaders, Martha Graham. Although Graham claimed she was not political, her company and her work were a real part of America’s Cold War propaganda apparatus.

Victoria Phillips tells the story in Martha Graham's Cold War: The Dance of American Diplomacy

My conversation with Victoria Phillips:


Thursday, August 27, 2020

McCarthy to Cohn to Trump: A Conversation with Larry Tye

Most of you know or have lived in cities with long streets or boulevards and you know that some of the same stores repeat themselves over and over again. Starbucks, CVS, etc. The neighborhoods change, but some of the retail landmarks remain the same.

In a way, history is like that. It goes on and on. And while the neighborhoods often change, there are things along the way that repeat themselves over and over again. In American history, one of them is certainly racism and discrimination, but also our ongoing flirtation with authoritarianism. Our fascination with bullies, the appeal of strength that sometimes proves to be more than just meanness.... it’s really evil.

Whether it was Father Coughlin on radio, Joe Pyne on television, Huey Long in politics, or in the contemporary era, Joe McCarthy and Donald Trump.

The added reality is that each episode pushes the envelope of what’s acceptable. The predicate for new norms is laid out and the next would-be talk show host or political demagogue has to go further.

Perhaps no one pushed the envelope further than Joe McCarthy. So much so that the idea of McCarthyism became baked into our lexicon. Needless to say, now in the midst of one of those flirtations, it seems the perfect time to go back and look at Joe McCarthy with journalist and author Larry Tye, whose new book is Demagogue: The Life and Long Shadow of Senator Joe McCarthy

My conversation with Larry Tye:










Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Gail Sheehy: In Memoriam

I guess it’s just that we are all getting older, but these In Memoriam programs are coming much too frequently lately…...Over the years I had the opportunity to do five interviews with Gail Sheehy. Beginning in May of 1998 we talked about everything from Men's Passages, to older women, Hillary Clinton, and the changes in middle America.  Our last conversation was in the fall of 2014 upon the publication of her memoir Daring: My Passages: A Memoir.
Photo: Carolyn Cole/LA Times

My conversation with Gail Sheehy from October of 2014:







Sunday, August 23, 2020

Only The Best People: Why The Best and The Brightest Sometimes Aren't

Donald Trump came to power on a wave of distrust. Americans had lost faith in government, it’s institutions, and the ability of their government to be honest with them.

It’s a through-line that begins perhaps with the assassination of John Kennedy, runs through the endless lies Americans endured about the Vietnam war, and continues through to the Iraq war; the lies about weapons of mass destruction.

And while Americans often want simple answers, the reality of policy, particularly foreign policy is far more nuanced and complex.

I have said over and over again of late, that I wish I could get into the time machine to read, 50 years from now, what historians will say about this period we are living through.

So it’s equally important that now, almost 20 years after 9/11 and 17 years after the start of the Iraq war that we can look with some perspective at the distrust that got us where we are today.

Again, the reality is nuanced, complicated and shaped by the foibles of human beings. Robert Draper tells that story in his new book To Start a War: How the Bush Administration Took America into Iraq

My conversation with Robert Draper:



Monday, August 17, 2020

Why Are Millennials Feeling Left Behind?

Every generation faces the challenges thrust upon it by the generation that came before. Today the millennials face the challenge of how they pick up the baton and carry it forward Their contribution, their imprimatur is still being written. Will, it simply be too scold those that came before, or as we see millennials doing in silicon valley redefining the very nature of society.

This is what Jill Filipovic bring to the fore in OK Boomer, Let's Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind.

My conversation with Jill Filipovic:


Thursday, August 13, 2020

Nixon and the Dawn of the White Working-Class Revolution

Over the 200 plus year history of political parties in the US, something our founders advised against, the same parties have, at different times, stood for different sets of ideas. The Federalists, the Whigs, the national Republican Party, the Democrats and others all have been made up of different coalitions at different times

We all know for example that Lincoln and his Republicans were once the anti-slavery party. Oh how that’s changed.

The modern Democratic party really emerged with the New Deal coalition beginning with FDR in 1933. It was an amalgam that was considered the core of American liberalism. It was anchored in ethno-religious constituencies (Catholics, Jews, African Americans,) white Southerners, well-organized labor unions, urban machines, progressive intellectuals, and populist farm groups.

However, like all previous party coalitions, it would begin to splinter. Elements of the once liberal base of the new deal coalition would become part of the Republican party of Nixon and Reagan and Trump.

The story of how this happened is really the story of our modern politics that begins in 1970 and it’s the story that David Paul Kuhn tells in The Hardhat Riot: Nixon, New York City, and the Dawn of the White Working-Class Revolution.

My conversation with David Paul Kuhn:


Pete Hamill in His Own Words - Excerpts from 27 Years of Conversation


In this podcast, we’re marking the legacy of legendary journalist Pete Hamill. Hamill’s career is synonymous with New York where he became a celebrated reporter, columnist, and an editor at the New York Post, and the New York Daily News. He was also a foreign correspondent for the Post, a writer for New York Newsday and The Village Voice and Esquire, and well as several other publications. He wrote numerous books, mostly novels, but also biographies and collections of short stories.

Over the years, I had the distinct pleasure of speaking with and interviewing Hamill six times since 1997. There was no subject that he could not hold forth on. Our discussions involved subjects ranging from immigration to tabloids, the lexicon of news to urban America and even Frank Sinatra.

This podcast includes some lengthy excerpts from three of those conversations.

First in a conversation from June of 2011, we talked about tabloids, the state of news today, and the way in which tabloids stitch communities together.

Our second conversation in this excerpt is about why Sinatra mattered. Hamill argued that it’s not possible to understand the country without fully understanding the music and personality of Frank Sinatra.

Finally, in what was my very first conversation with Hamill from May of 1997, just after the publication of his book Snow in August. We talked about immigration, the misguided power of television, and the story of a boy growing up in New York in the late 1940s. Jeff Schechtman: I have to tell you that because of the age of this conversation, the audiotape had not held up as well as I might have hoped, and I ask that you bear with 23 years of decay of audio quality. However, I think it’s worth it. I hope you’ll enjoy this reminiscence of the life and words of Pete Hamill.



Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Marilyn

58 years ago today, the world awoke to the death of Marilyn Monroe. At her death, she was already one of the most well known Americans of the twentieth century. In death she would become even more famous, steeped in mythology and contradiction, she would become a symbol of her times. The lens of her own dysfunction gave her a unique ken on post-war American. Today, looking at her life gives each of us a unique perspective on how far we’ve traveled in those 58 years.

This is the story that Charles Casillo tells in Marilyn Monroe: The Private Life of a Public Icon

My conversation with Charles Casillo:



Thursday, July 30, 2020

Can Local Journalism Rewire Democracy?

For journalism, it may be the best of times and the worst of times. The national media seems more vibrant than ever. The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, as well as the cable news networks are thriving For these outlets the transition to digital was painful, but somewhat successful

For local news, the story of what happing in your neighborhood, your school board, your city council, is a very different story. Thousands of local newspapers and local radio stations have shut down. The economics of the enterprise has proven to be unsustainable, and even large regional papers in places like L.A., Chicago, and Miami, have proven to be problematic at best and striped by hedge funds at worst.

All of this begs the question of whether our political, cultural, and social divide stems from the top, as is assumed, or whether the hollowing out of the news in our communities, something that should be bringing us together, is at the heart of what’s wrong.

It was the great NY Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia who said that there is no Republican or Democratic way to clean the streets. His comments remind us that locally, there is only the common community interest. Take that away and what’s left is all the bad stuff.

This is with Washington Post media columnist and former NY Times public editor Margaret Sullivan examines in her new book Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy

My conversation with Margaret Sullivan:


Sunday, July 26, 2020

Do We Have The Strength and Wisdom to BEGIN AGAIN?

It’s rare that the laws of physics and our ideas of race and politics find common ground.
Newton’s third law of motion says that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. The American story of the struggle for racial equality seems to be subject to that law.

As the Founding gave way to the Civil War, and reconstruction to Jim Crow and segregation, and the civil rights struggle of the ’60s gave way to law and order and Richard Nixon, the election of our first black president would give us Donald Trump and where we are today.

One wonders what it is, particularly around the subject of race and the desire to establish a truly multiracial democracy that drives these contradictory reactions.

Equally, what toll does this whipsawing back and forth take on our democratic experiment, it’s people and those left behind when the moral weather changes. It’s no wonder we are anxious, angry, and exhausted.

That just the surface of Professor Eddie Glaude’s new book Begin Again: James Baldwin's America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own

My conversation with Eddie Glaude Jr.



Monday, July 20, 2020

Christopher Dickey: A Remembrance

Christopher Dickey reported from war zones and published many books, including a powerful memoir about growing up with his father, the poet, and author James Dickey.

I had the opportunity to speak with Dickey several times over the years, usually about geopolitical hotspots around the world. Places where his unique reporting skills enabled him to see not only the politics but the cultural heart of what he was reporting on. His reports and books were more than just words and analyses.

However, our most memorable conversation and one I share here was about his memoir Summer of Deliverance. Memoirs, have over recent years, become a genre onto themselves. What Dickey uniquely does is to turn the tables and actually report on himself.

My conversation from September of 1998 with Christopher Dickey.



Wednesday, July 15, 2020

The Unexpected Role of Feminism in Mass Incarceration

We regularly go through paroxysms of demanding law and order. It's a form of political rhetoric that while it has roots all the way back in the 16th century, is with us once again today.

In our contemporary history we watched Nixon in 1968, New York in the 70s and then were was 1994. A time when the law and order obsession seemed to reach some kind of peak

Rudy Giuliani had become Mayor of New York, the Simpson case shined an arc-light on domestic violence, California passed “three strikes,” and Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act.

It was a kind of perfect storm of both enforcing law, protecting women, and injecting steroids into the business of mass incarceration.

How this ultimately worked out for women, and the broad impact of these efforts on the criminal justice system is a subject that University of Colorado law professor Aya Gruber tackles in her new book The Feminist War on Crime: The Unexpected Role of Women's Liberation in Mass Incarceration.

My conversation with Aya Gruber:


Saturday, July 11, 2020

Without Newt there is no Trump: How we Got Here.

Donald Trump’s presidency was not an immaculate conception. Rather, the result of 30 years of increased hyper-partisanship, the reshaping of the Republican party, the rise of Rush Limbaugh and talk radio, Robert Ailes and Fox Television, and Newt Gingrich. They all contributed to the pugilistic style of American politics. But perhaps Gingrich did the most damage.

It’s arguable that if Gingrich hadn’t come along, others would have picked up the mantle of this style that lead us directly to where we are today. But Gingrich was uniquely suited to the moment.Julian Zelizer tries to answer in his new book Burning Down the House: Newt Gingrich, the Fall of a Speaker, and the Rise of the New Republican Party
Understanding him, maybe a big part of that question that gets asked every day, amidst death, unemployment, and anger, how did we get there. That’s what historian and professor

My conversation with Julian Zelizer:



Friday, July 10, 2020

Is It 1968 All Over Again?

Then, as now, there was pent-up frustration, which boiled over, particularly in many poor black neighborhoods setting off riots that rampaged out of control. At the time, many Americans blamed the riots on what they saw as misplaced black rage and often vague outside agitators.

But in March 1968, the Kerner Commission Report turned those assumptions on their head. It declared that white racism, not black anger, was at the root of American turmoil. It talked about bad policing practices, a flawed justice system, unscrupulous consumer credit practices, poor or inadequate housing, high unemployment, voter suppression and other culturally embedded forms of racial discrimination that all combined to ignite the fuse on the streets of African American neighborhoods.

 “White society,” the presidentially-appointed panel reported, “is deeply implicated in the creation of the ghetto.” “The nation,” the Kerner Commission warned, “was so divided that the United States was poised to fracture into two radically unequal societies, one black and one white.”

Today, there is only one living member of that commission, and he also happens to be the oldest living current or former United States senator. He was once a candidate for president to the United States. He served as chairman of the Democratic National Committee. He served for two terms as a senator from Oklahoma. He is Senator Fred Harris.

My conversation with Senator Fred Harris: