Friday, October 24, 2014

No new news.

We do many awfully stupid things in life.  One of mine was to go several years without taking a vacation.  I was just too busy, obviously too indispensible to take time off.  What an idiot, what kind of a life was that?  So I made a pledge to myself: take vacations and truly vacate.  My chosen retreat was the Caribbean off-season, ultimately on the small and beautiful island of St. Barths.  Along with my decision not to forego time off came some self-imposed rules.  First and foremost was to have no contact with my office.  The second was not to read newspapers or otherwise tune in to the news.  Both were possible on the island.  This was a vacation, a rest, from the work world and the whole world.  I would stay in St. Barths for a couple of weeks, governed by my rules of disengagement.

Guess what?  My office was there when I returned and the business functioned perfectly well for the weeks without my indispensible presence.  And what about the news?  The day I returned to reading the Times et al it appeared that nothing had happened in my absence.  It was essentially the same news just repeating itself.  To be sure there was some single story commanding obsessive and urgent coverage (think Ebola) while just yesterday’s (Ferguson) similarly singular focus had receded from the headlines.  And yes, the names and places being covered may have changed somewhat, but remarkably much what had been happening before my escape was still happening after, treading water much as does, surprise, real life.  Well, you’ll say, that may have been the case during those vacations but momentous, transformational, things do happen.  Think for example if I had been on retreat on 9/11?  Got me!  But not really, events like that are exceptional.  Moreover, when something big occurs we can be sure it will be reported ad infinitum for an extended period of time.  Juicy news events are never allowed to rest or fade away.  9/11 was milked for weeks and months on end and, to some degree, still is.

The insightful Biblical book Ecclesiastes (1:9) puts the “new” in its place:
…Only that shall happen, which has happened.  Only that occurs, which has occurred. There is nothing new beneath the sun.  
Ecclesiastes dates back to around 250-300 BCE — that’s a long time and a lot learning ago.  So we might fairly argue with its blanket assertion.  For sure really new things have been discovered over the years, a process that continues — think new drugs or technologies.  On the most elemental level, most of us have experienced the new, or the new to us.  And maybe the operative phrase new to us is the point.  Perhaps it explains why so much of what is reported as “news” comes to us with little surprise.  We approach it with a sense of déjà vu, something we’ve heard or seen it before or, as with my post vacation experience, little and mostly nothing new has happened.

In recent years the character of the “news” we encounter has shifted, though not necessarily for the first time. These things tend to by cyclical (nothing new).  In the golden era of network news, what we may call the (Edward R.) Murrow and immediate post Murrow era, broadcast news was mostly delivered both objectively and authoritatively.  No one embodied that tradition more than Walter Cronkite who anchored on CBS for nineteen eventful years (1962-81).  Cronkite was seen as “the most trusted man in America”, someone we could depend on to deliver it straight and clear.  It was Cronkite who told us definitively that Kennedy was dead, and once he announced it speculation became fact.  When, in a very rare display of opinion, he voiced doubts about our mission in Vietnam, Lyndon Johnson declared, “If we’ve lost Cronkite, we’ve lost middle America”.  When Cronkite stepped down (a move he soon regretted much as had TR promising not to run for another term), the era’s demise would follow.  It took some years, but in proper cyclical fashion (Ecclesiastes “To everything there is a time an season”) the news would revert to the kind of (William Randolph) Hearst tabloidization we see today.  Not only is the news rarely new, it is sometimes seems fabricated out of whole cloth.

If Cronkite was the epitome of trustworthy journalism, Ted Turner is the one responsible in large measure for what came after.  Two years before “Uncle Walter’s” retirement, Turner launched CNN, the 24/7 “news” service that by definition was destined to quickly obsolete the new in news by repeating it over and over.  Once the novelty, the newness, wore off, whatever importance it might have had was greatly diminished.  Far more significant, is that CNN and its successors had to fill a lot of empty space.  The fast-paced up to the minute “headline” or telegraphic format they latched on to proved inhospitable to in-depth journalism.  To keep its audience 24/7, content had to be entertaining, and to build loyalty (a base) it had to abandon objectivity.  This is not to discount how CNN started — it was the place to be when big news broke — but ultimately it had to face the real world where big news is by far the exception not the norm.  In that no news is new place, they essentially had to find another way to make a sustainable living.  Fox and MSNBC followed suit, albeit in a more hyperbolic mode.   For them new is not even the issue or objective.

What CNN wrought should serve as a cautionary lesson for the likes of the NY Times and Washington Post who are themselves transitioning from once a day (print) to 24/7 (on-line).  Their news focus remains pretty solid — for this discussion in the Cronkite mode — but more entertainment is edging its way onto their digital front pages.  They want to keep us engaged and think to do that something entertaining, more fluff, is required.  They are probably right.  Thus far an appropriate balance remains, but that was true in Turner’s early days.  24/7 news was predicated on the idea that people want to access information at their convenience (a prescient precursor to our on-demand internet culture), but it also assumed there was a large news-junky audience hungering for more food.  What’s happened, even to those assumed junkies, is that news, especially when so little of it is really new or new any more.

As I’ve been suggesting all along precious little of what we claim to be new really is new and that is a challenge for those who are charged with giving us the news.   Part of their problem of course is that much as we claim to want depth even the most devoted junkies often don’t get far beyond a story’s headline.  The power of the headline has long been understood and not only by the Hearst’s of this world but by the Sulzberger’s as well.  How often have each of us read a headline only to find that the copy below tells a vastly different story.  Headlines are meant to entice us and writing them is an art.  When the editor or writer has an agenda headlines are often employed as tools of opinion.  Aggregators of the news like Huff Post will take a perfectly straight forward story from the Times, Post, or other publications and headline it into a partisan sensation.  Needless to say, their counterparts on the Right do exactly the same.  The sad thing is that headlining of this kind has become the sum total of our political campaigns, all sound bytes  no substance.

Headlines, they used to say, sell newspapers.  And so they do even when “paper” has morphed into digital screens. Dig beneath the surface of the hype and you’ll probably join me in concluding that very little truly new is happening  nothing new under the sun.  On an intellectual level we’re on to that lack of newness, but we happily play the game.  And why is that?  I’d venture a guess.  We pretend the news is new, but there is something reassuring in knowing that it’s just more of the dependable same.  We actually like the pretense and that, even more than the headlines, is what makes news sell.  It is also why we demand precious little in terms of quality and objectivity.  We don’t want to wake up from the dream, most especially in challenging times.  And that isn’t new.

Note:  Days ago the fabled Ben Bradley died in Washington.  “No new news” notwithstanding, great journalists existed in his hay day and they still do today.  We would all be diminished were not that the case.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Theodore and Franklin

On November 4, 1944, three days before the vote, Franklin Roosevelt appeared at a final campaign rally in Boston’s Fenway Park.  In the audience was a twenty-three year old army private who would depart the next morning for the European front.  Young Albrecht Strauss was among the German refugees, my maternal uncle included, who signed up to fight the man who had robbed their families of both freedom and home and who was murdering millions of fellow Jews.  In a letter some months later, Albrecht told his parents, “I had marveled at the magnificent physical endurance that frail body had withstood — and had feared for it.  His presence, more than anyone else’s, generated a liberal viewpoint, and at the same time a wise handling of the world’s forces in American politics”.  FDR, we now know, would be dead in April.  But the “frail body” notwithstanding, like Private Strauss millions of Americans, “marveled at his physical feats”, idolized a president whom they saw as both indispensable and indestructible.  He was larger than life, a mythical figure.

Of course Franklin wasn’t the only President Roosevelt.  His fifth cousin Theodore preceded him to the White House and was an equally fabled figure.  Their story, together with TR’s niece and FDR’s wife Eleanor, was retold again in Ken Burns’ fourteen-hour documentary, The Roosevelts aired last month on PBS.   I will come to Eleanor in a future post.  For now, let’s consider the two extraordinary outsized men and how their presidencies play against the current American landscape.  The Roosevelts were a presidential dynasty  — not the first (Adams) and not the last (Bush) — in itself interesting as we contemplate the possibility of the second Clinton in the White House. 

The cousins Roosevelt had much in common.  They were both charismatic figures that always commanded center stage.  They had parallel resumes: Assistant Navy Secretary, Governor of New York and Vice Presidential candidates, TR successfully.  They each fathered six children and endured personal adversity.  Was there something in the Roosevelt genes that made them succeed, or was it the strong nurturing that ultimately formed each man?  Perhaps we can attribute some to the former. but like most of us, more of the latter.  Both men had family heroes to emulate including, for Franklin, Theodore the role model upon whose career he fashioned his own.

Comparing presidents is a great American sport.  When they are blood relatives there is an added dimension of interest.  The Burns documentary lends itself to comparison because it presents these men and their somewhat parallel careers in such close proximity, documented with remarkable film footage.  What’s striking to me is, that despite the obvious similarities, how very different they were.  Had they not both been Roosevelts, we might not couple them, as did Burns.  On the most elemental level, FDR was an only child with a doting, domineering and ever present mother.  TR was one of four and had to face competition for his parents’ attention.  But more important, these men were of two different generations and, despite both being of the Twentieth Century, they governed in vastly different times.  TR certainly faced challenges while in the White House, but they pale in comparison to FDR’s Great Depression and World War II.

Those generational and time differences are often lost when we compare presidents and assess their relative performance.  The current occupant of the White House is often measured against Ronald Reagan, especially in how the two confronted our global adversaries.   In fact, just like TR and FDR, and despite governing just decades apart, the foreign challenges confronting these more recent presidents are, as suggested by others, effectively apples and oranges.  Reagan functioned in the Cold War where he faced an opponent who led a nation state and with whom he could and did engage.   Obama faces stateless fanatics with whom any semblance of diplomacy is impossible — different time, very different problem.  What the two Roosevelts shared, at least in public, was tremendous self-confidence.  That translated into a kind of free spirited and ebullient — both traded on winning smiles and obviously loving the job — leadership.  No one inside or outside of government had any doubt about who was in charge on a Roosevelt watch.   Their self-confidence was infectious impacting not only how they led, but also how those being led felt about themselves and the country.  This was especially remarkable during FDR’s tenure where, if you can call it that, the misery index was often through the roof.  I always cringe when we proclaim our country “exceptional”, but there is no question the descriptor can make people feel good, even if in an unrealistic way.

Franklin had an advantage over Teddy.  His cousin had tested the waters of governance and provided lessons to be learned.  Both men are generally ranked in the top ten of US presidents, but FDR is ranked higher in part I think because he had to perform, and did, in far more challenging times.  These were great leaders.  What made them, most especially Franklin, so?  Two things: first, the ability to make tough decisions and second, to communicate those decisions to the public.  It wasn’t Reagan but Franklin who was, hands down, the great communicator of the American presidency.  Between 1933 and 1944 he delivered twenty-seven “fireside chats”, radio talks in which he came figuratively and literally into America’s living room.  I was far too young to understand the import of what he said, but a picture of my family sitting “around the radio” and listening is etched into my early childhood memories.  And that coming into the living room was something unique to the radio age, a voice heard probably having greater impact than any of the television visuals that have now become so common as to be indistinguishable.  A voice without an image has transcending power because it evokes larger-than-life imagination, one consistent with FDR’s personality.

If comparing Obama and Reagan can be characterized as apples and oranges, then certainly measuring any contemporary chief executive against FDR is especially difficult, if not unfair.  Even so, it’s hard to watch Ken Burns’ documentary without being struck at how leadership-impoverished is our contemporary political scene.  To be sure FDR faced some partisans who hated him as much, perhaps even more, than many of our modern presidents, including Barack Obama.  He didn’t live in a time when a president’s popularity temperature was taken virtually on the hour.  But the fact remains that few, if any, of his successors had even close to his leadership ability.  Barack Obama is blessed with great oratorical skills, perhaps ones that can hold their own against FDR.  But somehow he has been unable to come into our living rooms to explain his decisions and give us the sense that he is personally communicating with us.  It will take some time and perspective to understand that deficiency, but we can get some hint from the nick name given him by staff in 2008: No drama Obama.  If FDR, and for that matter TR, was anything, it was full throat drama.   Obama, even six years in, is seen as aloof, his heart nowhere to be found on his sleeve.   He presents two contrasting, even conflicting, images; the skillful campaigner who at the same time seems to dislike the political game.  FDR loved it all, the politics and the governing.  He relished sharing cocktail hour with others and, even in 1944 when he was dying, couldn’t resist going out on the stump, making that final speech at Fenway.  Will history judge Obama harshly?  It’s far too early to know, but lacking TR and FDR’s special spark may account for his lousy poll numbers as we head into the coming election.

Albrecht Strauss returned home, earned a PhD in English Literature and went on to a distinguished academic career as both a gifted teacher and Johnson scholar.  An emeritus professor at UNC Chapel Hill and neighbor, our lives were brought together by a mutual friend on the day after his 90th birthday.  We have become good friends and, despite a difference in age, have found much in common.  Like my mother and two older siblings, Strauss was born in Berlin.  And like my parents, who came to America to escape Hitler, his academic parents settled here in the late 1930s.  Our early conversations revealed friends and acquaintances in common — six degrees of separation.  Both of our parents came here as fully formed adults who had to build totally new lives in America, function with a new language and adapt professionally and socially to a new world.  Franklin Roosevelt, despite his early reluctance to enter the war, was their hero.

The April 13, 1945 letter recounting Albrecht’s memory of FDR’s campaign speech was actually devoted to his death.  He wrote:

I am stunned by the news of the President’s death.  The surprise of it!  And its significance for the future!  The War is won to be sure - but someone else might have handled that purely technical part with equal efficiency.  Where this great man excelled was in diplomacy, in understanding and grasping international problems – and in the days ahead when he would be needed most.  One has to revise one’s entire thinking about the future – and there is a proportionate decrease in hope and confidence.  Two men who had the most liberal grasp of foreign affairs, Willkie and Roosevelt, are dead – and there is no one to take their place.  Certainly, Churchill lacks this breadth of vision – and anyhow, his main interest in preservation of the Empire, not the welfare of humanity.

Private Strauss was 23 and, as with us, contemporary assessments are not always the most accurate.  Nonetheless, it’s quite an astounding and insightful statement by someone so young and such a new American.  Does it reflect an idolized and idealized president?  Absolutely, but as a contemporaneous reflection of how Americans felt at this loss and about this man, it was remarkably spot-on.  Would that any of our contemporary leaders could engender such words, such sentiment much less have them stand up well against more retrospective assessments.  Where are the “Roosevelts” when we need them so?

Monday, October 6, 2014

Hearts and minds.

“Ultimately”, President Obama said in his recent United Nations address, “the task of rejecting sectarianism and extremism is a generational task – a task for the people of the Middle East themselves. No external power can bring about a transformation of hearts and minds.”   I couldn’t agree more. 

Lyndon Johnson often stated the objective of winning the hearts and minds in Viet Nam. We’ve heard similar talk more recently during our forays into Iraq and Afghanistan.  Winning hearts and minds sounds good, so much better than winning military battles, but it is a daunting, perhaps an impossible, task.  Let’s be honest, we were way out of our cultural element in Southeast Asia where religion wasn’t an issue and are perhaps even more profoundly so in the Muslim dominated Middle East where it is.  Despite heartfelt expressions of respect for it (voiced again by the president), Islam is both obscure and foreign to Westerners, especially Americans.  The vast majority has Christian roots, and those of us who don’t share with them a Judeo-Christian oriented mindset.  Deep-rooted tribalism is prevalent across much of today’s battleground.  It is in part what divides Sunni and Shia but also, among others, ethnic Arabs, Kurds and Persians.  In a country where pluralism is an essential element of our story, sectarian and tribal strife are simply not in our cultural vocabulary.  

What exactly were Johnson and more recent exponents talking about when they reference hearts and minds”?  What does changing mean?  To put in marketing terms, what precisely are we selling and is it something that our target audience either wants or, indeed, needs?  Ah, the devil in the details problem.  George W. Bush essentially contended that everyone in the world was yearning for, and deserving of, democracy.  It’s a noble idea in which I think he honestly believed, and likely still does.  Missionaries, among them the many young Mormons who are obliged to go out into the world to spread the Word, believe that everyone, even if they don’t know it, needs Christ in their lives.  Other hearts and minders think the great “unwashed” require modernity, exemplified of course by our “enlightened” ways.

If you see a common thread here, you’re right.  Winning hearts and minds means getting others to think and be much like us.  To paraphrase Henry Higgins, “why can’t they be more like us?”  Of course, we never admit to that and in fact claim it not to be the case.  But if we’re honest with ourselves, a rarity I’ll admit, we approach hearts and minds with some considerable degree of arrogance and self-satisfaction.  We may say we deeply respect who and what people are, that we come to aid and protect not to destroy, but what we really want is for them to fall into line, at the very least to lean in our ideological direction.   And don’t for a moment assume our intentions are not transparent or that, rather than being seductive, they are often taken in as an affront.  I’m not sure how we can win hearts and minds in the hostile environment of the Middle East, and as my questions suggested, I’m not even certain we know what our objective in that regard is or perhaps more importantly should be.  Surely trying to impose our set of very Western or non-Muslim values seems to be a wrongheaded and losing proposition.  Nothing we Americans can do will end tribalism or sectarian strife now or in the future.  Obama clearly understands this when he says, “change can’t be imposed; it has to be generated from within.”  So perhaps the only productive heart-and-mind-winning thing we can do is to admit to the folly and inappropriateness of any such ambition.

Winning hearts and minds, certainly as Johnson and more recent leaders have wished it, has always been problematic, if not totally unrealistic.  That’s especially so since many of those we want to “win” see us as intruding or invading foreigners — aliens may be more accurate.  In their view, even when “invited in”, we’re where we don’t really belong.  The kind of pluralism that works for us, a diverse immigrant nation where differences in beliefs are accepted, just doesn’t pertain in most other places, even in much of the West.  In the Middle East, it isn’t only the militant extremists who look at us as infidels — or more benignly nonbelievers.  Even if they don’t translate their view into violence, many Muslims can’t understand why everyone doesn’t follow Allah.  Needless to say, this is not true for all Muslims, but it is probably a pretty widespread view in those places where we profess wanting to win those hearts and minds.  Let’s remember that there are also Christians and Jews in the West who aren’t necessarily fundamentalists but can’t understand why anyone does not believe as do they.  Are these non-Muslim’s hearts and minds subject to being won over?  I don’t think so.

We are not involved in the world because we want to win over hearts and minds.  We’re out there because we’ve convinced ourselves that hostilities in far off lands pose a potential threat.  President Obama, who probably remains reluctant to reengage, clearly stated protecting Americans as his rationale for moving against ISIS.  Sometimes we’ve been out there to protect oppressed peoples, though admittedly only selectively so.  It’s ostensibly why America entered World War II and considered it a “good war”.  Were we trying to change the hearts and minds of German Nazis?  Of course not, we were committed to stopping their aggression and their murder of masses.  You can argue, and I think accurately, that the Marshall Plan changed hearts and minds, but that was after a decisive defeat and in a Western context.  Europeans and the majority of post war Americans shared common roots.  We no longer live in a world of decisive defeats, of end-of-war signing ceremonies and those “common roots”.

I doubt that anyone has illusions about winning the hearts and minds of ISIS.  Obama told the UN delegates, “The only language understood by killers like this is the language of force.”  Considering how much blood and treasure we expended in Iraq, it’s understandable that policy makers in Washington feel they have some responsibility in preventing it’s collapse.  Much of the pressure of course is political — the often-hyperbolic challenges coming from people like John McCain and, believe it or not, Dick Cheney invigorated by his transplanted heart, one that seems to have the same inclinations as the old one.  But pressure is also coming from some of the so-called endangered, Democrats.  If our politics were not pathetic enough; it goes way over the edge in election season.  We also shouldn’t underestimate the pressure, intuited or real, coming those who put their lives on the line or whose daughters or sons sacrificed theirs.  Yes many of us opposed going into Iraq, but consider what it feels like to think your very real and palpable sacrifice was for nothing.  And the painful reality is that futility is one of the early lessons of this century.  We can’t win hearts and minds, and today’s wars are largely fought without a victory.  We enter the fray and more often than not return empty handed, having won a battle but not the war.  It isn’t a matter of American decline or loss of power, but of a world in flux, of fast moving and elusive targets.  It isn’t only that the rules have changed, but often that there are no rules.  None of us here or anywhere else has caught up to what at best is a time of transition.  Oh, winning hearts and minds  — good luck with that.