Talk Cocktail

Jeff Schechtman

Jeff Schechtman talks with authors, journalists, and thought leaders.

All Episodes

For the past 40 years, the debate about the proliferation of guns in America has revolved around the NRA. All public policy has been shaped and driven by the political influence of the NRA. Few if any lobbying groups in American history have ever been so powerful for so long. But how did this power evolve, and what led to its downfall. What was behind its scorched earth “never give an inch” philosophy and was it simple greed and old fashioned corruption that brought it down? Four years of research have given my guest NPR Washington investigative correspondent, Tim Mak some answers to these and many other questions. He details them in Misfire: Inside the Downfall of the NRA    My conversation with Tim Mak:

Nov 19

26 min 2 sec

Elbridge Colby, is co‑founder and principal of The Marathon Initiative. He served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and force development from 2017 through 2018, and led the development of the 2018 National Defense Strategy. In his recent book, The Strategy of Denial: American Defense in an Age of Great Power Conflict, In it, Colby addresses our relationship with China in brutally frank terms Some of the questions he sets out to answer: Do we need a grand strategy for China, similar to the Cold War policy of “containing” the former Soviet Union? To counter China’s military strength, do we need to remove our troops from Europe and the Middle East, since we are no longer realistically capable of operating in three theaters? What should we do if China moves on Taiwan? What role would our Western allies play if we confronted China? In a US/China conflict, would other Asian nations side with the US or make their own deal with China? Has US credibility in Asia been irreparably harmed by our Middle East performance? If China is politically dominant in Asia, does that mean they would also dominate the world economy? What might a war with China look like? My WhoWhatWhy.org conversation with Eldridge Colby:  

Nov 11

28 min 54 sec

Amidst all of the noise and debate about vaccine mandates, less than clear information from the CDC, and the broader context of healthcare and society, it’s easy to forget that these vaccines are truly miracles of modern science, and that the herculean effort to develop them in record time, is a science story for the ages. But the story doesn’t exist without the understanding the players. The global panoply of scientists, entrepreneurs, government officials and market forces that all came together in a kind of war effort that saved millions of lives. After all, imagine the debate we’d be having today, and what our society would look like, if no vaccine had happened? This story, one of the rare ones about what went right in the COVID battle, is told by Gregory Zuckerman in A Shot to Save the World: The Inside Story of the Life-or-Death Race for a COVID-19 Vaccine.   My conversation with Gregory Zuckerman: 

Nov 9

29 min 14 sec

Never have so many individuals been actively engaged in trading in the equity markets. Robin Hood, Reddit, meme stocks, crypto, blockchain are the language of a whole new world of mostly young traders. And most of them will lose money. They think they can outperform markets that have long humbled the smartest guys in the room. So back in the early seventy, a group of those guys got together to imagine and evolve a way to passively participate in the markets. Long before information about the markets had been democratized. Long before we checked our portfolio every-time we checked our phone, the idea of passive index funds would take hold. And even in our hyperbolic financial world today, they are still going strong. In fact, they are so powerful, they alone can move markets. What this all means for markets and economics is worth examining. To do so I’m joined by Robin Wigglesworth, the global finance correspondent at the Financial Times and the author of Trillions: How a Band of Wall Street Renegades Invented the Index Fund and Changed Finance Forever    My conversation with Robin Wigglesworth:

Nov 2

27 min 15 sec

Without comparing one historical era to another, suffice it to say that we live in a nation filled with anger, despair and at best anxiety. Our ideological, economic and cultural divisions have infected every fiber of the public square. And all of this is happening amidst loss of faith in our once valued institutions, both public and private. A loss of faith in facts and truth, and in the fundamentals founding principles of self governance of fairness and selflessness. But we didn’t get here overnight, nor did some external forces (no not even Donald Trump) create this environment. NY staff writer Evan Osnos went, like Simon and Garfunkel, looking for America. He looked in the mix of places he knew best, Greenwich, Connecticut where he grew up, Clarksburg West Virginia where he worked as a young reporter, and Chicago, the very definition of urban America. The result of that effort is his new book Wildland: The Making of America's Fury  My conversation with Evan Osnos:

Oct 18

27 min 42 sec

A recent survey showed that the reason people are reluctant to go back to the office has nothing to do with COVID, but with their commute. It’s not the office they object to, it’s getting there. Particularly in places like New York, San Francisco, Atlanta and Washington DC, commute times have exploded in recent years. Perhaps when the dust settles, perhaps what we will have changed as a result of a year at home, is less how we work, and more how we move about. But will we ever give up our love affair with the automobile? Will new generations approach transportation in a new way? Are flying cars ever going to be a thing? And what can we learn from the last great inflection point as we went from the horse to the car? All of this is part of Tom Standage’s new book, A Brief History of Motion: From the Wheel, to the Car, to What Comes Next.   My conversation with Tom Standage:  

Oct 8

24 min 41 sec

I suppose even the most ardent technologists have at times wanted to get off the grid...usually that urge doesn't last long. But for the people of Green Bank, West Virginia, it’s an ongoing state of affairs.  The only town that is designated as a national radio quiet zone, is actually not all that quiet. It seems that just as before technology subsumed us, people do find other ways to communicate, and to get into all sorts of trouble.    The story of Green Bank and its people is where my guest Stephen Kurczy takes us in The Quiet Zone: Unraveling the Mystery of a Town Suspended in Silence    My conversation with Stephen Kurczy:

Sep 30

20 min 17 sec

While the issue of systemic racism, along with a long history racial conflict occupies a large portion of our social and political landscape, the issue of racial influence in law enforcement and the problem of police violence directed at people of color, holds a unique place in our history.   The idea of equal justice under the law is a unique pillar in the American experience. It is, arguably, one of the weight-bearing pillars upon which our entire system of law and justice is based. And yet for years this idea has been under siege. Not just on the streets, or in squad rooms, but in the courts rooms of our states and even in the Supreme Court. How the courts have undermined a foundational tenant of their very existence tells us a lot about how we got where we are today. Erwin Chemerinsky, the Dean of the UC Berkeley School of Law expands on this idea in Presumed Guilty: How the Supreme Court Empowered the Police and Subverted Civil Rights.   My conversation with Erwin Chemerinsky: 

Sep 28

24 min 49 sec

It wasn’t very long ago that to see a foreign language film, you wound up in the smallest theater in the multiplex or a little art theater somewhere in a college town...or you lived in New York or San Francisco or Boston. But like everything else, creative destruction has done its job. Streaming and the long tail of the internet has moved to supplant cable, movie theaters, broadcast television, and even the English language as the talisman of all of our entertainment.  Even amidst the bifurcation and division in both the US and the world, filmed entertainment seems to be one of the few things bringing the world together. Suddenly at our fingertips is programming made everywhere. And rather than looking at it as an oddity reserved only for a few cinephiles, it’s now working its way into the mainstream of all of our living rooms. Is this just a temporary blip due to COVID and the pandemic, or has global entertainment undergone a tectonic shift that both reflects and might reshape our culture? We’re going to talk about this with Scott Roxborough.    Scott is an international reporter covering film and television and music. He reports on entertainment from Europe for the Hollywood Reporter, Billboard, and German TV, and wrote a seminal article for the Hollywood Reporter dealing with this subject.    My conversation with Scott Roxborough: 

Sep 18

35 min 18 sec

For journalism, it may be the best of times and the worst of times. On the one hand, the national media is more vibrant than ever. The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal, as well as broadcast and cable news networks are thriving. For these outlets, the transition to digital has been painful, but successful and is still ongoing.  It was recently announced by CNN and NBC News that they would be moving to a streaming model.   Today, The New York Times derives more than sixty percent of its revenue from digital subscriptions. Recurring revenue models are driving the success of independent and specific news outlets and individual journalists on Substack and similar platforms that are thriving. While romantics rap quixotic about the 23 newspapers that once were available in New York City, websites and Twitter have now subsumed that. New sites start up regularly with lower barriers to entry and what some argue is a greater democratization of information. For local news, however, the story is different. For what’s happening 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 LA, Chicago, and Miami have proven to be problematic. While many of the best of these papers have been stripped and plundered by hedge funds, let’s also remember that many were acquired by the hedge funds out of bankruptcy. All of this begs the question as to whether our political, cultural, and social divide stems from the top as is assumed, or whether the hollowing out of news in our communities, something that should be bringing us together, is at the heart of what’s wrong? If so, does the government have a role to play in fixing that effort? Is the problem with the product, with the public, or as it is often so easy to do, should we just blame social media?  Understanding this is the work that Martha Minow takes on in Saving the News: Why the Constitution Calls for Government Action to Preserve Freedom of Speech.   My WhoWhatWhy.org conversation with Martha Minow:

Sep 15

28 min 57 sec

The more we know about disasters, the more we realize that most were preordained. Covid 19 or Katrina, the current fires in California or the deep freeze this past winter in Texas. None of them were what we would call Black Swan events. We are certainly, because of climate change, complexity and complacency, going to be experiencing more such events, we had better become much better at disaster preparedness. If we know these disaster events are coming, how can we get better at dealing with the consequences? Fire season is yet to reach its peak this year, hurricanes are starting early and we know that more infrastructure and buildings will collapse. Therefore, the area of disaster management should be one of our number one priority, just as it has been for my guest Dr. Samantha Montano, the author of Disasterology: Dispatches from the Frontlines of the Climate Crisis    My conversation with Samantha Montano:

Sep 4

26 min 20 sec

Survey after survey shows that trust in the news media is at an all time low. And it’s not just the left/right divide. A recent study by the American Press Association reveals that not all Americans universally embrace core journalistic values, and that the trust crisis might best be understood through people’s moral values even more than their politics. When journalists say they are” just doing their jobs,” the problem is many people harbor doubts about what that job should be. Couple this with an ever changing media landscape driven by economics, the political bifurcation of news via the long tail of the internet, the news/entertainment nexus, celebrity culture, and now cancel culture, and it makes for an environment that has very little to do with getting at the truth. Maybe democracy dies not in darkness, but in the chaos of competing truths. This is the world that long time journalist Robert M. Smith explores in Suppressed: Confessions of a Former New York Times Washington Correspondent.   My conversation with Robert M Smith:  

Aug 31

33 min 4 sec

Almost everywhere in the world, liberal democracy is, if not under siege, or at least being tested. Only in rare historical times have would-be autocrats found such fertile ground. But why?    The world's and yes, America’s standard of living is rising overall. As Steven Pinker has pointed out, crime and violence is down. The census tells us that diversity is naturally occurring and technology has made life easier. While we are not perfect, the arc of history is bending towards justice. And yet we’re angrier, more frustrated, and more willing to buy snake oil than ever before.    We’re quick to cast blame. Quick to believe anything that fits our preconceived narrative, and each side has its Boogeyman and Straw-man. But what if the answer to these problems is not out there? What if Cassius was right? — that the fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves.    This is what Tom Nichols explores in his new work Our Own Worst Enemy: The Assault from within on Modern Democracy    My WhoWhatWhy conversation with Tom Nichols:

Aug 24

36 min 44 sec

From Alexis de Tocqueville, to Alexander Solzhenitsyn to John Lennon, it has often taken those born outside of America to help us understand and define America back to those of us that have grown up here. Those of us long engulfed in both the popular culture and political noise inherent in our society, often can’t see the proverbial forest from the trees. Today British/American broadcaster Roger Bennett has taken up that mantle. The impresario of the Men in Blazers media empire not only explains soccer to its burgeoning American audience, he also explains America in his new book Reborn in the USA: An Englishman's Love Letter to His Chosen Home.   My conversation with Roger Bennett: 

Aug 20

22 min 55 sec

In the 1960s and early 1970s political and social battles were fought by people who were trying to reshape America. Sixty years later, we are still at war. My guests on this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, David and Margaret Talbot, label that war the Second American Revolution. The issues revolved around armed conflict abroad (Vietnam), civil rights, feminism, gay rights, Native American rights, workers rights, and the role of celebrities in the political process. One of the Talbots’ conclusions is that the past is not just prologue — It’s not even the past. They argue — in this conversation and in their new book, By the Light of Burning Dreams — that the ’60s were a time when every cultural and political progressive action was met with an equal reaction. A time when the FBI engaged in the kind of widespread, invasive surveillance that makes even today’s Pegasus project seem like child’s play. The Talbots remind us that charismatic leadership, not just grassroots efforts, catalyzed the political and social activism of the ’60s. Leaders had to put their bodies on the line in the streets, not on social media. Discussing how these efforts morphed from the optimism of the early ’60s to the weary cynicism of today, the Talbots draw a sobering lesson in By the Light of Burning Dreams: The Triumphs and Tragedies of the Second American Revolution.   My WhoWhatWhy.org conversation with David and Margaret Talbot: 

Aug 16

40 min 51 sec

If someone pitched the story idea of a guy who was a former baby clothes salesman who then started a company that sublet co-working office space to millennials, and that that company would then become the most well financed startup ever, and that the story of its eventual rise and fall would give birth to an Apple tv series, a Hulu documentary, an HBO movie, several books, and two podcast series, the pitch would be rejected immediately. And yet this is the story of Adam Neumann and WeWork. But it’s also a story of Silicon Valley, of Wall Street, of international investors, of obsessions with millennials, of portfolio theory taken too far, and it all comes together to create the perfect corporate storm. While there are some bad and greedy actors in this story, I would argue it's one with no heroes, and no real villains….because it exists, like many of our greatest corporate dramas, inside the protective bubble of a unique moment in place and time. - Telling this story, as more than just the story of Adam Neumann and a failed business model, but telling it in the context of all of the aforementioned moving parts, is WSJ reporter Maureen Farrell in The Cult of We: WeWork, Adam Neumann, and the Great Startup Delusion.    My conversation with Maureen Farrell:

Aug 5

32 min 12 sec

If daily news reporting is the first draft of history, books that come out almost contemporaneously to events are I suppose the second draft. But today the world is speeded up. Today, especially in the wake of Trump, we need the facts much sooner. We need to learn not just how to escape the mistakes of history but to escape their repetition and to learn quickly from the actions of recent times. Pulitzer prize winning Washington Post reporters Phil Rucker and Carol Leonnig have become the modern masters of this genre. With their first book A Very Stable Genius, early in the Trump presidency, they telegraphed what was ahead. No one that read their book could have been surprised at what happened next. And now with their latest, I Alone Can Fix It: Donald J. Trump's Catastrophic Final Year they have given us a narrative history of the troubled final days of the Trump presidency, and maybe the final days of democracy as we've come to know it. My conversation with Carol Leonnig:

Aug 2

17 min 17 sec

While everyone has their own personal list, we could all maybe agree on some of the most iconic cars ever made. The VW Beetle, the 1968 Ford Mustang, the 1960 Corvette, the 57 Chevy, the Porsche 911, The 1955 Mercedes gull-wing, the DeLorean, and just for good measure, the 1963 Aston Martin. But equally important is a vehicle that gets little attention, All of its models together only traveled under 100 miles. When it was built it was over budget, over schedule, and was only a two-seater. It was the lunar rover vehicle that was a part of Apollo 15, 16, and 17. Without it, we’d know a lot less about the moon, about our own planet, and even the solar system. Not bad for a car that was bare bones and electrified, long before Elon Musk was born. That’s the story that Earl Swift tell in his new book Across the Airless Wilds: The Lunar Rover and the Triumph of the Final Moon Landings.   My conversation with Earl Swift: 

Jul 29

32 min 32 sec

Two years ago if you convened a focus group to give an opinion on Bill Gates and his foundation, the response would have been overwhelmingly positive. Today, not so much.  The divorce, the behavior with respect to female employees, and violation of rules that any employee would know much less the company’s founder, former CEO, and chairman, and his condoning of poor behavior by his associates would be enough in and of itself to change public opinion. Add to this his relationship with Jeffrey Epstein, and the picture gets darker. Investigative journalist Tim Schwab, argues that none of this is as bad or as global as some of the actions of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  Tim and all of this out in his recent articles in The Nation and in a book he's working on about Gates and his foundation.    My WhoWhatWhy conversation with Tim Schwab:  

Jul 23

30 min 57 sec

When Hal asked Astronaut David Bowman to “open the pod bay doors,” it was as if our most primal fear of machines came rushing headlong into the 20th century. Today, in our 21st-century world, we understand the basics of the artificial intelligence behind HAL. We see on display every day our interaction with Siri and Alexa, our reliance on algorithms in flying our planes and soon our self-driving cars. It’s the full blossoming of the promised brave new world. But AI is just the Internet in1995. While it dominates every conversation about technology, commerce, the workplace and the economy today, there is an awful lot of misinformation. Its impact can be felt in manufacturing, retail, healthcare, automotive, robotics, finance and science, as well as defense and national security. The academic progress of AI is taking place every day in places like Stanford, Google, Amazon and Facebook. And the proverbial elephant in the room with respect to AI is always China and its deep, rich and no holds barred commitment to be the world leader in AI But nothing beats understanding AI’s future like seeing how we got where we are today, who are the people making it happen and what it portents for its future. That is what NY Times journalist Cade Metz does in his book Genius Makers: The Mavericks Who Brought AI to Google, Facebook, and the World    My conversation with Cade Metz:

Jul 18

27 min 11 sec

In the period immediately following WWII, the United States dominated the global economy. We had won the war, and the economic status that went along with it.    Then over time, and initially as a result of our efforts and generosity, other economies began to grow. Japan, West Germany, Canada and Australia would stir, but the world would, in the war's aftermath, acquiesce to an American imposed system of monetary order. One underpinned by gold and the US direction. But 28 years later the children would grow up. The other economies of the world would come into their full inheritance. So much so that by the time of the Nixon administration, in 1971, it had to accommodate the change. What happened next, as Nixon and his economic advisers would meet secretly at camp David, in August of 1971, set the stage for the modern era of globalization. The gold standard would be abandoned, and a new world economic order would be born. I think it’s fair to say that it’s impossible to understand the global economy today without understand this singular moment Jeffrey Garten, the Dean emeritus of the Yale School of Management, takes us back to this moment in his new work Three Days at Camp David: How a Secret Meeting in 1971 Transformed the Global Economy    My conversation with Jeffrey Garten:

Jul 12

30 min 10 sec

Some days it seems that everything we’ve taken for granted with respect to the functioning of America and American democracy is under siege. Hundreds of thousands of words are written and spoken almost every day as to why. However, before we can even begin to answer that question, we must understand what it is that’s being attacked and how the system was built before we can shore it up. It’s like a building after an explosion or a natural disaster. It can’t be righted until someone comes in, looks at the blueprints, develops engineering plans, and lays out the construction work. Today, the American experience feels like it’s in exactly the same place. Jonathan Rauch, digs out those dusty blueprints in his new book The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth    My WhoWhatWhy.org conversation with Jonathan Rauch:  

Jul 9

30 min 52 sec

We are awash in data and information. So much so that we wonder if it has any meaning at all? But what if the very existence of the information and data was actually our society's knowledge. A kind of intuitive database acquired from absorbing all the information that surrounds us. And as we do so, how does it change us? Are we even aware of it, or like velocity and position, can it even be measured. These are just some of the mind bending ideas put forth by renowned astrobiologist and the award-winning author Caleb Scharf in his latest book The Ascent of Information: Books, Bits, Genes, Machines, and Life's Unending Algorithm    My conversation with Caleb Scharf:

Jul 6

24 min 50 sec

Back in 1953, it was reported that Charlie Wilson, the then head of General Motors, said that what’s good for General Motors was good for America. While that quote is a bit apocryphal, the idea was real. The notion that the success of any particular business was inextricably tied up with the success of the nation. Perhaps in the 70’s it might have been said of Exxon. Today it might very well be said about Amazon. The company has changed the way we shop...not insignificant in a nation where retail accounts for 6% of our GDP and 25% of our employment. It has changed the way we think about the cloud, privacy, and electronic storage. It’s now changing transportation, and health care. How did one company become so powerful and successful not just in one area….like GM or Exxon, but in multiple areas. The answer lies in understanding Amazon’s visionary founder Jeff Bezos. Currently, the richest man in the world, the money should not obscure his vision, his talents and his place in the founder/CEO hall of fame. Few understand Bezos better than Brad Stone. Bard is the author of Amazon Unbound: Jeff Bezos and the Invention of a Global Empire     My conversation with Brad Stone:

Jun 30

26 min 43 sec

There once was a time when we were, if not united, at least we had a common set of cultural touchstones. Movies, TV, sports, even the three networks that delivered the evening news were part of a national town square that provided both water cooler conversation and comity. No more! Over the past 40 years, all that has changed. The long tail of the internet coupled with the evolution of our politics has divided us as never before. Even COVID, an outside enemy that should have united us, has become a cultural and political cudgel. Ironically our collective anger over politics may now be the only thing we have in common, even as it’s devolved into trench warfare. We are divided into superclusters of like-minded people. People so siloed that they are literally shocked that everyone does not think and vote as they do. In short, reality has become negotiable and we sort ourselves accordingly. The weaponized culture wars lead to more enmity, disgust, and dehumanization of our opponents. One wonders if all the king’s horse and all the king’s men can ever put the Humpty Dumpty that is our political civility back together again. That's the reality that Peter T. Coleman looks at in The Way Out: How to Overcome Toxic Polarization.   My conversation with Peter Coleman: 

Jun 28

28 min 30 sec

In an effort to make urban American understand rural America, particularly since the 2016 election, books about rural America have become almost a genre unto themselves. Works by J.D. Vance, Sarah Smarsh, Nancy Isenberg, James Fallows, Sara Kendzior and Nichols Kristoff, and others, have cast a class driven and almost apologetic eye on rural America. Certainly much is wrong there. In part as a result of years of external change and neglect at the hands of public policy makers. Places and towns where “everybody knows your names,” are no longer appreciated or reflective of the values that they injected into the nation's DNA. But there really are things they can still teach us. Especially if we look at the best of what these towns have to offer, not the worst. What happens when young people choose to stay? When those with gifts and talent choose to redirect it into their community, rather than spend their intellectual capital in the attempt to escape. It's not a choice for all in places like Downeast, Maine, but it’s good that it’s a choice for some. Those are the one that Gigi Georges introduces us to in debut book Downeast: Five Maine Girls and the Unseen Story of Rural America    My Conversation with Gigi Georges:

Jun 22

26 min 26 sec

I think we can all stipulate that we are at a precarious moment in the relatively short history of American democracy. Even among those not following it on an hour by hour basis via an addiction to cable news, people are anxious.  So many, on both the left and the right, are using millions of words to comment on the moment. But perhaps the only way to really understand it is through the sharp lens of contemporary American political history. Particularly the years since the end of WWII. Our divisions no matter how profound and how powerful, do not stand alone. They exist as a link in the broad scope of our contemporary political story.  Without grasping that history, this moment is just noise. Sure we can study history. Many great books have been written about these times. But those that have lived through all of it, who have paid attention to both the players and the events of this 75 year period are best qualified to try and figure out where we are today. Chris Matthews is certainly on of these.  He writes about it in his new book This Country: My Life in Politics and History.   My conversation with Chris Matthews: 

Jun 18

23 min 16 sec

Think of all the things you have believed in that have recently been shattered. That the government might protect us from a pandemic. That Congress and our democracy were secure. That COVID came from a wet market in Wuhan, and that Bill Gates was a paragon of business and virtue. Now add to this growing list, the belief in quality and ethics of the United States Secret Service. With respect to the secret service, albeit some of our view comes from Hollywood. But surprise, not all secret service agents are Clint Eastwood, or Gerard Butler, or Nicholas Cage. Now, as a result of the great investigative reporting of three time Pulitzer Prize winner Carol Leonnig we have a look inside the reality of life in the secret service. While the service lived by the shibboleth of Zero Fail, today that goal exists inside a nation more divided than ever, more armed and angry than ever before, and a Secret Service that’s overworked, overtasked and even sometimes incompetent. It all part of Carol Leonnig's new book Zero Fail: The Rise and Fall of the Secret Service.    My conversation with Carol Leonnig:

Jun 8

31 min 38 sec

Fifteen months ago most of us knew very little about viruses. Today, spike proteins, mRNA, and monoclonal antibodies are household words.    Perhaps it’s this new knowledge that has forced science and the media to confront the reality, long ignored or covered up, that the SARS-CoV-2 virus could have escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV). Our new knowledge and vocabulary are now liberating tools. Investigative science journalist Nicholas Wade helped to turn the tide. His massive, in-depth article in Medium and in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists opened the floodgates on the discussion. Wade joins me on this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast.    My WhoWhatWhy conversation with Nicholas Wade:    

Jun 7

41 min 54 sec

Ever since 1960, the campaign memoir has become almost a genre unto itself. Over the years many of these books have shaped our view of politics.    In each of these stories men and even some women have competed for the presidency with the strongest of passion, with the proverbial fire in the belly. In many cases that ambition and their foibles have driven the country's narrative.    As divided as we are as a nation, one thing that seems to be unique and universally embedded within our democracy, is the carnival that is American presidential campaign. 2020 was no exception. Chronicling this campaign, or at least the Democratic side of it, is the Atlantic’s Edward-Isaac Dovere. His campaign memoir is Battle for the Soul: Inside the Democrats' Campaigns to Defeat Trump    My conversation with Edward-Isaac Dovere:

Jun 4

29 min 49 sec

As divided as we are today about the state of our current politics and the debate about facts, it seems that at least we should be able to agree about our shared history. And yet even that is debated today.  When did America begin? Who gets credit, and how did it shape us?    Patrick O’Donnell is one of our most distinguished military historians and he always trying to answer these questions.  He is author of twelve books, including The Unknowns and Washington’s Immortals. and served as a combat historian in a Marine rifle platoon during the Battle of Fallujah and has dedicated himself to understanding the truth about our history, particularly our military history, and it’s importance in helping us better understand who we really are and where we come from. His latest is The Indispensables: The Diverse Soldier-Mariners Who Shaped the Country, Formed the Navy, and Rowed Washington Across the Delaware    My conversation with Patrick O'Donnell:

May 29

22 min 41 sec

  Many of our great cities are known for one or two things. Detroit certainly for the auto industry, San Francisco for the 60s and Tech. Houston for the oil industry, and Los Angeles for Hollywood. New York in so many ways transcends that. Sure it’s the home of Wall Street and the capital of finance, but without putting down any other cities, New York stands alone as a pantheon to the very ideas of cities themselves and all that they represent. The great chronicler of cites Jane Jacobs said “that by its nature, the metropolis provides what otherwise could be given only by traveling; namely, the strange.” Very few cities, other than New York offer that strangeness.The ability to round the corner and be surprised, Craig Taylor get to the heart of this in New Yorkers: A City and Its People in Our Time    My conversation with Craig Taylor.

May 24

20 min 41 sec

  We have a fascination with scoundrels. Especially if they are public figures. We love to build them up, to celebrate their success and then when they make mistakes, and disappoint our false expectations, we love to tear them down. It’s a cycle we see repeat itself over and over again. And this is not just an American phenomenon, it’s a global one The publisher Robert Maxwell is a keen example. Once celebrated for the publication of science knowledge around the world, for buying and rescuing the NY Daily News, for serving the good deeds of British Intelligence, he would turn out to be a common thief who who ripped off working men and women, and who mysteriously disappeared on his yacht…..And then there is his daughter Ghislaine. It’s a story, like many that my guest John Preston tells, worthy of cinematic treatment. For the moment John tells the story in his new book Fall: The Mysterious Life and Death of Robert Maxwell, Britain's Most Notorious Media Baron.   My conversation with John Preston: 

May 16

38 min 12 sec

One year ago fear stalked the world. That fear created a common bond. We celebrated those on the front lines who walked into danger, we worried about our neighbors and felt kinship without those suffering halfway around the world. And yet, a year later we celebrate a return to normal, and yet our divisions have intensified. Normal is now represented by a mass shooting every week, and even wearing a mask in the name of health, safety and science divides us. Twenty years ago 9/11 united us for a brief and shining moment. A year ago, it seemed that the pandemic, like war and depressions before, would positively imprint and unite us. And yet in some ways it doesn't seem like we’ve learned very much. However, there are those that see hope, who see the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. Tim Shriver knows a lot about hope and perseverance, as the long time chairman of the Special Olympics. Now he has coedited a new volume entitled The Call to Unite: Voices of Hope and Awakening.   My conversation with Tim Shriver:

May 7

23 min 2 sec

Almost as wide as the wealth gap in America is the gap in the way we view wealth. We look at it as a monolithic thing. Yet part of the country demonizes it, part covets it and part of the country manages. The same is true for kinds of wealth. Those that inherit it are different from those that win it, or those that start from nothing and create it for them and for others. All wealth is not the same The bitch goddess success, William James said, demands strange sacrifices from those that worship her. Some people are willing to make those sacrifice and other are not All of this speaks to the varieties of wealth in America. But are there similarities, are there patterns and behaviors of the wealthy, both good and bad, that we can understand? And if so, what does that knowledge do for us? That’s what Michael Mechanic, a senior editor at Mother Jones, looks at in Jackpot: How the Super-Rich Really Live—and How Their Wealth Harms Us All.    My conversation with Michael Mechanic:

Apr 30

29 min 56 sec

Great art, particularly movies at their best, reflect the times in which they were created. In 1968 political assination paralyzed the nation. In 1969 we were mired in Vietnam, New York City, was in decay and getting worse, The Stonewall Riots were energizing gay people, generational warfare, race riots were the norm, Woodstock reshaped and energized music and Richard Nixon was a year into his presidency. Is it any wonder that the most important film of that year would be a dark, bleak film that pushed the limits of sexuality on screen and would go on to be the first X-rated film to win an Academy Award. The film was Midnight Cowboy. My guest Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Glenn Frankel defines the terms and history of the film in Shooting Midnight Cowboy: Art, Sex, Loneliness, Liberation, and the Making of a Dark Classic My conversation with Glenn Frankel: 

Apr 25

30 min 13 sec

Origin stories are usually part myth, part apocryphal and they often come to define the culture and sometimes the products of the companies themselves. What they always do is to reflect the dreams and perceptions of the founder. The business of news and media is no different. The founders of our great news brands all have a story to tell. Such a powerful origin story is the founding visions of National Public Radio and the extraordinary women who gave it life. These women didn't invent NPR, anymore than many tech found invented their technology. What they did do is give it shape, life and a reason for being, and in so doing assured its growth and survival. These women, Susan Stamberg, Linda Worthhieer, Nina Totenberg and Cokie Roberts are the subject of new joint biography by Lisa Napoli entitled Susan, Linda, Nina, and Cokie: The Extraordinary Story of the Founding Mothers of NPR     My conversation with Lisa Napoli:

Apr 21

25 min 41 sec

The nature of work in America has changed. Good paying jobs in the manufacturing sector have been diluted, the service sector has exploded, and the gig economy is not just about Uber and Postmates. Today, even hard, brutal work in the oil fields has been gigafide. For the men caught up in this change the price is high, but so are the lessons and yes, even the rewards. Michael Patrick F. Smith is a folk singer and playwright who made the dramatic move from Williamsburg, Brooklyn to the booming oil fields of Williston North Dakota in order to participate in what he thought would be a modern day gold rush. What he learned tells us a lot about work, men, and America today. He writes about it in The Good Hand: A Memoir of Work, Brotherhood, and Transformation in an American Boomtown      My conversation with Michael Patrick F. Smith:

Apr 19

19 min 25 sec

Someone once said that the best way to predict the future is to invent it. In many ways that’s been the story of scientific progress. It seems there is always someone that leads us into the future. Someone whose vision and entrepreneurship and obsessive drive combine to turn the next big idea into the next big thing. This has been true from Franklin, to Edison, from Henry Ford to Thomas Watson, from Bill Gates to Steve Jobs, and today Elon Musk is the inheritor of that mantel. Electric cars, commercial space travel, high speed transportation and even new forms of education are all part of the vision that Musk sees, and his vision may be on its way to become our reality. As we all know Musk disruption of the automotive industry is full blown. What we may not fully understand is the way in which Musk, though Space X, is disrupting the aerospace industry, how we talk about space exploration, space travel and simply what a rocket is and does. Aerospace journalist Eric Berger captures Musk's look into the future in Liftoff: Elon Musk and the Desperate Early Days That Launched SpaceX    My conversation with Eric Berger:

Apr 7

27 min 30 sec

There was once a time when we didn’t think a global pandemic was possible in the 21st century. The events of 9/11 took us by surprise as they did at Pearl Harbor and Midway. Yet all of these tragic events were imaginable and some aspects of them even made their way into fiction, long before they happened. They remind us that events like a pandemic or a world war are mostly at core, a failure of human imagination. Imagination which should be our first line of defense in preparing for our eventual future. That is what distinguished Admiral James Stavridis and former Marine and award winning author Elliot Ackerman have given us in 2034: A Novel of the Next World War  My conversation with Admiral James Stavridis and Elliot Ackerman: 

Apr 2

23 min 52 sec

Those of you that are old enough, will remember when people got dressed up to fly. When having a meal onboard, especially on a transcontinental flight was like dining in a fine restaurant. When inflight service was more than peanuts and admonitions about the size of carry on bags. It was also a time when those that provided that inflight serve, were a different breed than Cassie Bowden in The Flight Attendant. It was an era when air travel was awash in glamor not the horrors of today. The flight attendants or stewardess, as they were known, were a select breed. Especially for global airlines like Pan Am. They had to have the right look, the right BMI, the right education, speak more than one language and abide by a strict dress code. By today's standards the requirement would probably generate a class action discrimination or “me too” lawsuit that would put the airline out of business. This is the retro world that Julia Cooke takes us into in Come Fly the World: The Jet-Age Story of the Women of Pan Am My conversation with Julia Cooke:

Mar 29

26 min 34 sec

It’s been a while since the British monarchy was so front and center in our consciousness. The Crown, on Netflix, and Meghan and Harry have pulled back the curtain on the sometimes romantic notion of royalty. But more importantly, it’s also given us a look into what’s been called The Firm or The Institution, the British monarchy and its wider political economies of wealth and power. Because behind the scenes is simply a corporation, engaged in capital accumulation, profit extraction, labor relations, national and international finance arrangements, and a network of legal status, all of which converge with, and impact on, contemporary Britain. Prince Philip, the husband of the Queen, and the Duke of Edinburgh, is quoted to saying back in 1969 that “It’s a misconception to imagine that the monarchy exists in the interests of the Monarch. It doesn’t.”, he said “It exists in the interest of the people.” In fact, history tells us that nothing could be further from the truth. The monarchy is more precisely, in the words of the late Christopher Hitchens, “What you get when you found a political system on the family values of Henry VIII.” To bring all of this in perspective, I’m joined by the right honorable Norman Baker. Norman Baker was a Member of Parliament from 1997 to 2015, and established a reputation as one of the most persistent parliamentary interrogators in the modern House of Commons.    His most recent book about the British monarchy entitled ...And What Do You Do?: What the royal family don’t want you to know In his spare time, he’s also an established singer-songwriter and has released three albums.   My WhoWhatWhy.org conversation with the Right Honorable Norman Baker:  

Mar 22

36 min 50 sec

Racial identity, socialism, the role of art in society, the responsibilities of artists and the position of the artist in popular culture. These subjects which sound like they are taken from today's headlines are also part of the life of Frida Kahlo.   They are all a part of new biography of Kahlo by Celia Stahr that looks at Frida in America: The Creative Awakening of a Great Artist.   My conversation with Celia Stahr:

Mar 18

26 min 30 sec

While the world has changed in so many ways lately and turned most of our routines upside down, the one constant I suspect for many is their ritualistic morning coffee. For the moment it may not be in your favorite coffee shop, but nonetheless, the magic elixir helps start each day and power it along with consistency as the uncertain future unfolds.   But how did Coffee of all things become not just our universal drug of choice, but an essential lubricant in connecting us to each other and to the world? It’s a story that begins in the volcanic highland of El Salvador and is often as complex as the taste of your hand-selected organically grown coffee beans. This is the story that Augustine Sedgewick tells in Coffeeland: One Man's Dark Empire and the Making of Our Favorite Drug. My conversation with Augustine Sedgewick:

Mar 11

21 min 27 sec

Georgetown law professor Rosa Brooks was working at the Pentagon when she heard about the D.C. Metropolitan police corp program. Intrigued, much to the consternation of friends and family she joined up. Suddenly she had a badge, a gun, a uniform and a whole lot of academic ideas about cops, criminal justice, law enforcement and what it means to protect and to serve.  Suddenly she was over and inside the blue wall. It was as if she was going into another country. She had to learn a new culture, a new language, and even her family feared not only for her safety, but that she’d be somehow co opted by the journey.  What she found should radically change how we think about police and policing in America. Hint, it’s not anything that is part of our current rhetoric. She spells it all out in Tangled Up in Blue: Policing the American City  My conversation with Rosa Brooks:

Mar 1

22 min 29 sec

During the past year, perhaps a year like no other year, we have been bombarded with statistics. Covid cases, numbers of deaths, positivity rates and flattening the curve. Add to this an election and polling data that drowned us in information.    On top of all of this is disinformation and the traditional ways in which numbers and statistics can be used to deceive us.    And then just this week, statistics about stocks, and all manner of economic information. Data is everywhere. Every publication of note, now has whole departments devoted to data visualization.   One wonders though, where is the information we’ve lost in all that data. If you are good or bad at math, there is a lot to take in, to process and to try and understand.\   Tim Harford just might be able to help us with that with his new work The Data Detective: Ten Easy Rules to Make Sense of Statistics.   My conversation with Tim Harford:  

Feb 19

23 min 41 sec

Amidst the cacophony of social and cultural noise that’s all around us, we have too often neglected the role of the arts in shaping who we are and how we might be better, or at least different.  Like almost everything else, we tend to commodify the arts. Everything from streaming revenue, to box office grosses, to the price of paintings at auction.    I would argue that what we don’t do enough of is look deep into the artists themselves. Artists who because of the very nature of their work, must keep their emotions closer to the surface. And in so doing, we can see how their work reflects the best and worst aspects of our culture.    Mike Nichols was such an artist. In a multi decade-spanning career, the films and plays he directed have in some ways impacted us all. In the early comedy of Nichols and May, to the social insights of films like The Graduate, Silkwood, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Catch 22, to his plays that reflected who we were in the human comedy, he not only understood his art and craft, but valued other artists; specifically actors and writers as creative tools to help him to help us see the world.    My guest Mark Harris gives us all of this in his new biography Mark Harris gives us all of this in his new biography Mike Nichols: A Life    My conversation with Mark Harris:

Feb 16

27 min 22 sec

Once it was the moon. Today Mars is the holy grail of space exploration. In the coming months three missions, one from the US, one from Taiwan and one from the UAE will be approaching and/or landing on Mars. Next year Russia, Japan, and India have missions planned. It could get crowded up there!  And while NASA, the President and Congress may be less enamored by space than by that latest social media site, there is amazing work being done at NASA. Also the private sector, in the form of wayfarers such as Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Richard Branson are giving the government some competition.    All of this is part of the history of space and its future exploration. This includes an amazing mission planned to Europa, one of the moons of Jupiter in 2024.    Giving us a telescopic view of all of this is David W. Brown in his new book The Mission: A True Story   My conversation with David W. Brown:

Feb 8

30 min 47 sec

As we work the phones and Zoom calls, it makes you wonder if physical connection is even necessary? Has the pandemic given us a new normal. How has it impacted things like conversation in the hallways or parking lot, a lunch meeting or a discussion over a glass of wine.  Just like science, when you change the way and the amount of elements you mix together, you get a different result. It’s just chemistry right? So is the same true for real life? Is the chemistry of our connections a static condition or a dynamic process that will be changed forever for the past year?   To understand this we talk with Marissa King, the author of Social Chemistry: Decoding the Patterns of Human Connection   My conversation with Marissa King:  

Feb 2

18 min 7 sec

For some of us, a sense of history is the only thing that gets us through each day. As divided as we are, as angry as we are, as exhausted as many of us are, history tells us that we’ve been here before.  And while history doesn’t exactly repeat itself, as Mark Twain says, it often rhymes. To better understand our current moment, the run up to the Civil War gives us clues.    We were a country going through transformation. Members of congress were armed. One congressman beat up a member of the Senate. Bloodshed was a part of Washington. Succession was on everyone's mind. Lincoln, with all his skills, could not prevent the war. All he could do was try and manage it.    David Reynolds put all of this in perspective in his new work of history Abe: Abraham Lincoln in His Times.   My conversation with David Reynolds:

Jan 25

24 min 13 sec