Friday, December 29, 2017

A Look At What A Real President Was Like

I’m not sure when politics became a dirty word. But there was a time when it was a noble profession. When the best the the brightest sought to serve, and when differences of opinion were about how to better the lives of all people, not just those at the top, or those at the margins, or those in power.

To successfully engage in politics tooks a very special skill set, that was about understanding people and what they wanted, and forming coalitions to compromise and get things done. How far we have fallen from that ideal.

It was Bismarck who said that “politics was the art of the possible.” Few understood this better than the 32nd President of the United States, Franklin Roosevelt. Presidential historian Robert Dallek takes a deep dive into the political Roosevelt, in  Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life

My conversation with Robert Dallek:

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Our Collective Search for Meaning And What Happens If We Can't Find It

From the time we first enter the world, to the moment we read or listen to the morning news, we are trying to make sense of the world. We are trying to discern patterns, to create a narrative, to fit the puzzle pieces together in ways that make sense. All the while creating the minimum amount of cognitive dissonance, so that we can move forward each day without having a complete nervous breakdown.

And so it is that societies and cultures do exactly the same things as part of a kind of collective effort to finding meaning. Be it in art, as we try to find metaphorical meaning in the equivalent of a grain of sand, or in the worship of religion, money, success or hierarchical achievement. The problem often comes when these patterns we internalize, run headlong into reality.

That’s a part of what I explore with Jeremy Lent as we look at The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity's Search for Meaning.

My conversation with Jeremy Lent:

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Sleep...It's Not Just For Wimps Anymore

Tune in to the news any day, and there is lots to lose sleep over. Not the least of which is the worry that if we are not sleeping correctly, we will age faster, increase our risk of Alzheimer's and be susceptible to a host of other illnesses.

It’s hard to imagine, that with all of the other crisis going on, how much time and conversation gets devoted to the subject of sleep. It must mean that it’s pretty important. At least Matthew Walker thinks so. He is a professor of neuroscience and psychology at UC Berkeley, the Director of its Sleep and Neuroimaging Lab, and a former professor of psychiatry at Harvard University, and the author of Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams.

My conversation with Matthew Walker:

Saturday, December 16, 2017

This Man Could Have Prevented 9/11

Bill Binney was an NSA analyst whose work was so effective it was shut down. It threatened to derail the gravy train fueled by the kinds of problems he might have solved — including preventing potential terrorist attacks. The contractors and executives riding that train had a motto: “keep the problem going, so the money keep flowing.”

My conversation with Bill Binney:

Monday, December 11, 2017

The Joys of Refugees

In our hyper partisan and over politicized culture, we’re always quick and anxious to talk about DACA, Dreamers, immigration, deportation, etc. Too often even the most well meaning stories are often lost in the weeds of policy and politics.

What we often forget, or can’t personally understand, is that all of this is about real people. About kids who are caught up in events they can’t control while getting impressions of how they are accepted or not as refugees. The result will shape how they grow up, what they will always believe about this country.
Even in the best of environment refugee resettlement is hard work. Although as my guest Helen Thorpe show us, in her book The Newcomers: Finding Refuge, Friendship, and Hope in an American Classroom, it should be filled with joy.

My conversation with Helen Thorpe:

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Espionage 101: How the CIA, FBI, and Foreign Intelligence Secretly Exploit America's Universities

Once upon a time, at the apogee of the cold war, the CIA recruited the best and the brightest from our most elite universities. The likes of George HW Bush, James Jesus Angleton, William Bundy, Porter Goss, and Cord Meyer, all owed their allegiance to God Country and Yale. And Harvard also had its share. These universities were, as someone once referred them, “a nursery of spooks.”

Today, like everything else, espionage has gone through its own creative destruction. Colleges and universities are still at the epicenter of espionage, but it’s all been impacted by globalization, technology, the free flow of international students and professors and information, and yes, 9/11. It’s as if the military industrial-complex that Eisenhower warned us about, is now the military, industrial, intelligence and university complex.

Bringing this all into bold relief is Pulitzer Prize winning author Daniel Golden, in his book Spy Schools: How the CIA, FBI, and Foreign Intelligence Secretly Exploit America's Universities.

My conversation with Dan Golden:

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

How Was It Ever Possible To Be Spiritual in Washington, D.C?

There was a time when faith was a very private matter. Of course there was also a time when we didn't live our lives in social media, and in the spotlight of a 24/7 always on culture.

But even as that has changed, faith and how we personally process it, or think about it, still often remains deep inside each of us. As a result we learn, if we live long enough, we come to be understanding and respectful of how people exercise their faith. Just as we do with how they deal with illness or grief, as these are the most personal of endeavors.

So it’s both rare and brave when a public figure choses to share that with us. In so doing it certainly gives us a deeper insight into them, and at its best, it should make us stop and think about ourselves in new and often insightful ways.

That what Sally Quinn has done in her new memoir Finding Magic: A Spiritual Memoir.

My conversation with Sally Quinn:

Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Life and Times of Jann Wenner & Rolling Stone Magazine

The online world has given us whole new ways of reading news and of staying informed. Not just about the day's events, but about social and cultural shifts and the zeitgeist of our time. This was once a job that was filled by Magazines. Magazines that became the totems of a particular time and place. Time Magazine ushered in the American Century after WWII. LIFE magazine provided the bonding of iconography in the 50’s. And certainly Playboy and Hugh Hefner reshaped a sexual coming of age from the mid 50’s and beyond.

Add to this pantheon, Rolling Stone. Founded by Jann Wenner in 1967, Wenner and his writers would come to define the culture, ethos and ambitions of the 1960’s, as well as the ways in which those ideas would be kept alive in succeeding decades.

The story of Rolling stone has never been fully told until now, by Joe Hagan in his new book Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine.

My conversation with Joe Hagan:

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Is Identity Politics Just Coalition Building or Something More Sinister

Back in 1964, a full fifty-three years ago, a novel came out entitled The 480. It was about the social and political effects of slicing and dicing society into 480 specific groups; by socioeconomic status, location, origin, etc. Creating computer simulations to manipulate public consciousness and win elections.

Today, such ideas are fully backed into our system. Big Data companies like Cambridge Analytica, make what was once a futuristic novel, a political fact of life. It’s the ultimate form of identity politics. Since the 1960’s, this has been the underpinnings of Democratic politics.

But does it work anymore? Does the focus on dividing the electorate run counter to what the Democratic party needs to win both local and national elections?

Columbia University Professor Mark Lilla looks at exactly this in The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics.

My conversation with Mark Lilla:

Monday, November 27, 2017

Why We Do What We Do...Even When We Know Better

Perhaps never before in history has it been harder for people to understand each other. It seems that the mix of social media, technology and our siloed political and cultural attitudes has led us to only seek refuge in people just like us.

Yet at the same time, modern science and psychology has given us greater insight into who we are, and why we do what we do. Science has added to our knowledge about our attempts at reasoning our way out of problems, and almost every aspect of our behavior.

So why then is it so hard for us to do the right thing. Yale Professor Dr. John Bargh takes a look at all of this in Before You Know It: The Unconscious Reasons We Do What We Do.

My conversation with Dr. John Bargh:

Monday, November 20, 2017

Now More Than Ever We Need Courageous Leadership

It was Winston Churchill who said, that we “should never let a crisis go to waste.” When the Chinese write the word crisis, the combine two symbols. One stands for danger, the other opportunity.

So it is that crises have the potential to break us, or to strengthen us. This is even more true for our leaders, who are in short supply these days. But at their best, they should have the ability to define the crisis, and while not necessarily leading us to the promised land, they should show us all that we have the ability, the strength, and the reason to walk through the fire to the other side. This is true of leaders on a grand global scale, or for leaders within a family or community. The skill set is similar.

That's the skill set that Nancy Koehn explore in in her book Forged in Crisis: The Power of Courageous Leadership in Turbulent Times.

My conversation with Nancy Koehn:

Sunday, November 19, 2017

How One Emotion Connects Altruists, Psychopaths, and Everyone In-Between.

It’s easy to see how both Hannibal Lecter on the one hand and Mother Theresa on the other, represent opposite sides of a continuum of human behavior. What’s hard to understand is that the ultimate altruist and the ultimate psychopath have anything in common.

Yet, what they have in common is that they both have an inverse reaction to fear in others. And if we can understand what makes one tick, maybe we can better understand the other. In so doing, perhaps we can embrace, encourage, and even refine the better angels of our nature.

This is underlying the work that is being done by Abigail Marsh, the author of The Fear Factor: How One Emotion Connects Altruists, Psychopaths, and Everyone In-Between.

My conversation with Abigail Marsh:

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

The Impossible Presidency

Think about the job of the modern day corporate CEO. He or she has a board and often difficult shareholders to answer to. Usually his or her company is global, with far flung interests and operations. The company has thousands of needy employees. And all of it exists in a swirl of 24/7, always on communications; in multiple time zones with always changing tastes, values and economic conditions. Sounds difficult right?

Now imagine those same issues on steroids. Multiply by ten or even a hundredfold and you just begin to understand the modern Presidency of the United States.

While the current occupant may find endless time to watch Fox news, tweet, and play golf. The reality is that the modern president...particularly since Roosevelt, has become an office almost beyond the functional or intellectual capacity of any one human being.

The speed, the creative destruction, the siloed and specific constituencies, 24/7 media, are just the beginning. After all, those are the things we are all dealing with. All of those things times 325 million plus the world, is the equation of modern and in fact impossible presidency. It's all described by Jeremi Suri in The Impossible Presidency: The Rise and Fall of America's Highest Office

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Dance and Creative Rebirth

In her work and in her the recent documentary about her life, Joan Didion told us that “we tell stories in order to live.” But sometimes those stories and the creative energy around them, expresses itself in other ways, in order for some to live.

Sometimes, for a painter, a dancer, or a musician, it is their method of expression, their artform that gives them air and lift. So what happens then when that special skill grows cold, or is silenced by external events, like an injury? How does life go on? How can a lifetime pursuit of a special artistic expression be reassessed, or called into question, or even relearned? It may be the ultimate experience of creative rebirth.

That’s part of the story that David Hallberg tells, in his memoir A Body of Work: Dancing to the Edge and Back

My conversation with David Hallberg:

Monday, November 6, 2017

How a Failed President Still Defined Public Service

It may be that we are as politically divided as a nation as we have even been, and that events are spinning wildly out of control. Yet history tells us that other times have been equally fraught with peril. The period that encompass both World Wars and the Great Depression was certainly filled with existential dread.

During that period one character, Herbert Hoover, played a major role and defined what it meant to be a public servant. The irony is that his failed one term Presidency, and the man himself, may have had a more lasting influence than Presidents who served much longer and appeared to be much more successful.

This real story of Herbert Hoover is told by Kenneth Whyte in Hoover: An Extraordinary Life in Extraordinary Times.

My conversation with Kenneth Whyte:

Thursday, November 2, 2017

It Is The Economy

Nowhere in the real story of Watergate did anyone really say, “follow the money.” And yet that phrase has resonated for decades in the the American psyche.

Perhaps the reason is, that the concept itself is in the very DNA of America. It really is, as the campaign slogan said, the economy stupid.

Today, when the very fabric of our republic is being stretched as never before, it allows us to examine what it is that really makes us unique among nations. We’re not the only democracy, we're not the only bastion of liberty and human rights, and the idea of American exceptionalism is discredited daily. So what matters, why do people still want to come here, as they have for centuries?

Bhu Srinivasan argues in his book Americana: A 400-Year History of American Capitalism,
that there is something. A special sauce, mixing the right balance of capitalism and democracy. It makes us wonder to what degree our founders understood this…It’s also clear that in that original battle between agrarianism and mercantilism, it’s pretty clear who won.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Today's Real Lesson of the JFK Assination

It may not be as smooth as anticipated, but the final tranche of documents related to the JFK assassination 54 years ago, will soon be released. Hundreds of thousands of pages will make their way to the public.

This event marks not only the effort to answer questions about the assassination itself, but equally about America...then and now. When fakes news out of the White House is a daily occurrence, when alternative facts is a real thing, do we still care about getting to the truth?

And if we can get closer to it, as esteemed author and journalist David Talbot has repeatedly tried to do, what will it tell us about America’s security apparatus and deep state then, and what relationship might it have to the same components of military, security complex today.

My conversation with David Talbot:

Monday, October 23, 2017

Joan Didion: The Center Cannot Hold

There are many writers that reflect a particular time, place and style. Tom Wolfe, Faulkner, Norman Mailer, to name a few. Each conjures up a specific time and place.

It’s very rare that a great writer spans both places and decades. Joan Didion is that rare exception. Be it New York or California; the upheaval of the 60’s, or the aging baby boomers of the present, who must deal with death and grief. Joan Didion has captured it all with precision, insight and the poet's gift for defining the world in a grain of sand.

Never before has there been a documentary about Joan...until now. Until Griffin and Annabelle Dunne have given us The Center Cannot Hold.  It comes to Netflix on October 27th.

My conversation with Griffin Dunne:

Fake Wine Is A Real Thing

We all know the story of Willie Sutton being asked why he robbed banks, and answering “that’s where the money is.” Today, any thief or con man usually goes where they think they can find the easy dollars or the easy mark.

One of the last places of opportunity for crime might seem like the world of fine wine. Often seen as its own cloistered, rarefied world, you’d think it might be hard for an outsider to penetrate and gain the trust and confidence necessary to pull off a world class con.

Stealing wine, loosing bottles in a fire, insurance fraud, we’ve heard all that. But for Rudy Kurniawan the con was far riskier. Especially when dealing with deep pockets of one of the Koch brothers. That the story that author and journalist Peter Hellman tells in In Vino Duplicitas: The Rise and Fall of a Wine Forger Extraordinaire

My conversation with Peter Hellman:

Thursday, October 19, 2017


As divided as we are as a nation, and as divided as we’ve been in times past, one thing seems to be unique and universally embedded within our democracy. It is the carnival that is an American presidential campaign.

Perhaps that’s why chronicles of America's presidential campaigns have been an important staple of political diets. In the modern era, it begins with Teddy White's The Making of the President in 1960, and continues with masterworks like Richard Ben Cramer's What it Takes, Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Camping Trail, Joe McGinnis’ The Selling of the President 1968, Timothy Crouse’s The Boys on the Bus,  and works by Rebecca Traister, Mark Halperin and John Hileman,

There is no question that in the 2016 presidential campaign, Katy Tur's, Unbelievable: My Front-Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign in American History will stand as an equal totem of the 500 days that changed America.

My conversation with Katy Tur:

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

An Old Talk with Richard Thaler

All the way back in April of 2009, I had a conversation with University of Chicago Professor  Richard Thaler, the winner of this year's Nobel Prize in economics.  We talked about the idea of Nudge.

At the time it was a new approach to public policy. One designed around the odd realities of human behavior and the new behavioral research to help people, as well as government agencies, companies and charities, make better decisions.  It was a look at a new concept called Choice Architecture which was, in part, the basis for his Nobel Prize.

Here is that 2009 conversation with newly minted Nobel laureate Richard Thaler:

America, Uganda and the War on Terror

Almost since the beginning human relations we’ve often been guided by the idea that the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

The problem is that in a complex, interconnected world, where the lives of people are at stake, where leaders often manipulate the truth, where fear is often the coin of realm that dictators use to prop themselves up, the consequences can be devastating. Nowhere is this more true today than in Africa. A place where America's so called “war on terror” has been used to support some of the most repressive and evil regimes.

One example is the regime in Uganda.  Helen Epstein explains all of this in her new work Another Fine Mess: America, Uganda, and the War on Terror.

My conversation with Helen Epstein:

Monday, October 16, 2017

Is the Keyboard The New F15?

You may remember that during the cold war, particularly during the Vietnam conflict, we were told that the battle was for the “hearts and minds” of the enemy. We understood that in conflict, propaganda, particularly as told through narrative, was an important tool of warfare.

Narrative, if successful, was there to reinforce the battle. The ultimate expression of this was the phrase, sometimes attributed to both John Wayne and Chuck Colson, that “if you have them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow.”

Today, in our 24/7 always on, social media saturated world, the objective has changed. Now, the battle through social media and television, for the proverbial hearts and minds, is sometime the goal, in and of itself.

As we’ve seen with Russia in both the Ukraine, and in it’s new cold war with the US, sometimes control of the Twitter and Facebook narrative is enough to create disruption, to change the terms of the conflict itself and ultimately to win. Suddenly, in cold war 2.0, a keyboard has as much power as an F15. That's the reality that David Patrikarakos lays bear in War in 140 Characters: How Social Media Is Reshaping Conflict in the Twenty-First Century.

My conversation with David Patrikarakos:

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

How the Right Lost Its Mind

There have been seminal moment in American history when our political parties have realigned. Political parties which, even our founders were suspicious of. But perhaps none of those periods have been as fraught with peril as that which we face today.

Millions of words have been written about the current state of our politics, our country and of our civic discourse, and about the anger that abounds. Every publication, every cable channels, every journalist who covers politics, and many that don’t, have opined on how we got to this fractured state of America.

There are as many theories as there are journalists, pundits, professors and consultants. Yet if you listen to or read all of them, there is at least one thread that connects them over and over and over again. The rise and power of conservative talk radio and the anger that it has captured and fueled. The Economist said last year, that, “to understand the Republican race, get in a car, turn on the radio and drive.”

Few understand all of this better than long time conservative talk radio host, and now MSNBC contributor Charlie Sykes. He takes us through the history in his book How the Right Lost Its Mind

My conversation with Charlie Sykes:

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Jennifer Egan's Manhattan Beach

If any of you have had the chance to be in a truly modern factory, you know that it's a place that is usually gleaming and immaculate. You could eat off of the floor. Robots are hard at work, integrated with a few humans, all much quieter than you might expect

The antithesis of this, just might be the so called factories that produced the ships and armaments during WWII. In their heyday, places like the Brooklyn Navy Yard, were noisy, boisterous, busy and amazing industrial campuses, that produced the bruising machines of war. These places were the center of the lives of real flesh and blood human beings. People like the characters in Jennifer Egan’s new novel Manhattan Beach.

My conversation with Jennifer Egan:

Friday, October 6, 2017

A Spy Story that Helps Explain Korea

In Kurtz’s monologue in Apocalypse Now, he talks about the real “horror” of war. He tells us that to be a warrior you had to make friends with both horror and moral terror. He talks about the uniqueness the makes the perfect who are moral yet at the same time utilize their primordial instincts to kill or watch killing, without feeling or judging. Kurtz reminds us that “its judgment that defeats us.”

The story that author and journalist Blaine Harden tells, about Korea and Donald Nichols in King of Spies: The Dark Reign of America's Spymaster in Korea is it’s own heart of darkness….one we are still very much living with today.

My conversation with Blaine Harden: