I discussed the sudden resignation of U.S. National Security Adviser Michael Flynn with China Radio International this morning. The interview came hours after White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Flynn had breached his trust with Donald Trump by lying to Vice President Mike Pence about the contents of conversations with Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak. Flynn’s call to Kislyak was intercepted by U.S. intelligence sources and a transcript was reviewed by the U.S. Department of Justice.
Here is a Q&A of my conversation, lightly edited for content and clarity:
Q: We know that Flynn resigned because of the scandal involving his talk with Russian ambassador to the U.S. before Trump was in office. But what law did he exactly violate?
A: He did not violate any law simply by talking to the ambassador. If he was promising a future Trump administration action in return for a certain Russian response to the Obama sanctions against Russia that had just been announced, he might have violated the Logan Act. That law, enacted in the year 1799, makes it a crime for unauthorized American citizens to negotiate with foreign governments involved in disputes with the United States, such as promising future U.S. government action.
The bigger issue is whether Flynn lied to the FBI, which is conducting a criminal investigation into Trump campaign ties to the Russian government, about this conversation. That would be a felony crime. Apparently, the acting attorney general informed Trump that Flynn may have lied to the FBI. Trump apparently kept that information from his vice president, Mike Pence, who lied to the press as a result. Trump and Flynn also lied to the press about this call — but it’s not a crime to lie to the press.
Q: Did Flynn have any other choices besides resignation?
A: Not really. According to the White House spokesman, Trump demanded his resignation. If that statement from Sean Spicer is true, then his only choice was to either resign or be fired. By resigning, Trump allowed Flynn to issue a statement explaining his point of view in the matter.
With this scandal, Flynn sets some sort of record for being forced to leave two consecutive White House administrations, first Obama and now Trump.
Q: White House spokesman Sean Spicer later said President Donald Trump knew weeks ago — at the end of January — there were problems with Michael Flynn’s Russia phone calls. Then what’s the long pause between Trump knowing the fact and Flynn’s resignation about? Why the wait?
A: This is the question that reporters — and many Republicans in Washington — want answered. The simple answer is that Trump knew Flynn lied, but the public did not know. We don’t know the backstory yet, but Trump may have thought he could get away with keeping Flynn on the job as long as the lies did not become public knowledge. Once the Washington Post published a report that Trump was told Flynn had lied (and did not tell Mike Pence or others in the administration), Flynn was gone in a day.
Q: Will there be an investigation of the phone call and everyone involved in the White House?
A: Yes, and no. Congressional Republicans say they will investigate Flynn and his ties to Russia. The Senate Intelligence Committee says it will conduct an investigation. The House Intelligence Committee chairman said today he will not investigate Trump’s conversations with Flynn, citing a concept called “executive privilege,” which shields a president’s discussions with aides from public disclosure.
Q: What political implications does this have on the presidency?
A: It elevates the importance of criminal investigations by the FBI and Justice Department into Russian attempts to influence the election, it removes Russia’s most vocal supporter from Trump’s inner circle and empowers Russia’s top critic in the Trump inner circle, Vice President Pence. In the U.S., it’s further evidence of chaos within the White House and reinforces the concept that White House officials regularly deceive each other and lie to the public. Whether that is true or not, the perception is becoming more widely accepted.
Q: Following Mr Flynn’s resignation, the White House announced that Keith Kellogg, who was serving as chief of staff of the National Security Council, would take over as interim national security advisor while the White House would scout for a candidate for the position. What do we know about Kellogg and how does his national security plan for the U.S. look like?
A: He is 72 years old. He is a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War. He was a top civilian official in post-war in Iraq. He was generally respected by people in both parties. He was the first retired general to endorse Trump’s campaign for the presidency when few in U.S. politics took it seriously. He has Trump’s confidence, but some mainstream Republicans believe he is not strong enough by to stand up to Trump’s most hawkish advisers, Steve Bannon and Steve Miller. They would rather have remain as a specialist in policy rather than the top administrator.
If Vice Admiral Robert Harward, a protege of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, is chosen, that is a sign of Mattis’ influence in the administration. If former CIA director David Petraeus is chosen, it is a good sign for the U.S. intelligence community. If Kellogg is chosen, it may be a sign that Trump values loyalty over everything else. The selection may tell us who’s up and who’s down inside the Trump White House.
When I moved to Beijing in 2013 to explain global best practices in journalism to a diverse group of Global Business Journalism Program students, I had not expected that I also would frequently be asked to explain American politics and democracy to a global audience. I’ve been interviewed regularly in Chinese media, but also in European news outlets from Finland to Slovakia (plus the good old USA).
This week, I discussed the rise of Donald Trump with my friend Matti Posio, who heads up the national news operation for a group of Finnish newspapers, Lannen Media. Here’s a transcript of our conversation:
Q: You have met Donald Trump in person. Tell me about it.
I am one of thousands of people who has met Donald Trump at black-tie social events. For me, it was the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner in Washington several years ago. He was cordial and polite, very different than his public persona. He was clearly a celebrity among celebrities. Reporters were coming up to him an asking if they could pose for photos with him. He was patient, unlike the hot-tempered character on the campaign trail. Nobody I talked to thought he would ever run for president. I really didn’t do more than exchange small talk. He seems comfortable with social conversation and, obviously, he has been going to formal events for a half-century. From my very short glimpse into his life, I would say that he is a very good actor playing certain roles that are expected of him at different times.
Q: I don’t see how anyone can actually be like that. Is his personality the same in real life than portrayed on media?
How many of us get to see him in “real life”? Real life is his life in his big mansion in Florida. Real life is his family. I can imagine Orson Welles playing the role.
Q: What is it that foreigners / Europeans really don’t get about Trump?
Do you mean, “Why is he getting so many votes? Why would anyone vote for him for president?” Politically, he is the right man at a very strange time in American political history. After two decades of anti-elitist rhetoric on right-wing talk radio and the Rupert Murdoch-owned conservative cable news network Fox, there is a large minority of the country that believes their way of life has been taken from away from them by the faceless “them” — minorities, immigrants, big companies shipping jobs overseas, corrupt speculators, too-big-to-fail banks, gays and lesbians, working women, feminists, or Big Government giving their tax dollars to undeserving others, Donald Trump is a reality TV performer and is playing to that audience. He is playing the role of populist demagogue, race-baiter, keeper of the working-class flame, proud leader of the “poorly educated,” ranter against the system and the elites and Wall Street and Big Business. So what if he is a son of privilege, a highly educated billionaire and someone who has played the system for years to make deals and make money.
Q: What are the main reasons he has become so popular?
He strikes a responsive chord with less-educated, lower-income white voters across the political spectrum. He is winning among moderate Republicans, conservative Republicans and Evangelical Christians.. He is even getting a modest share of higher-educated, higher-income voters. He is bringing new voters into the system, economically struggling people who thought they had no voice until Donald Trump appeared. While Trump moved relentlessly forward in a media frenzy, his opponents spent months destroying each other rather than going after him. His opponents sound like traditional politicians — which they are — at a time American voters yearn for the myth of “authenticity.” Trump is acting the role of “truth-sayer” supremely well, even if the fact-checking web sites say he is lying much of the time.
Q: He is behind both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders for the real election. Could he still win?
When it is a one-on-one race, anything could happen. If there are independent candidates dividing the non-Trump vote, anything could happen. There has never been an election like this. Bill Clinton says he expects a close general election. Pundits, who have been wrong all year, are predicting a Trump defeat that costs Republicans control of the U.S. Senate. I’ve been predicting that the public will eventually tire of Trump and “cancel” his election-year reality TV show. But I’ve been wrong for months, along with my fellow political reporters and pundits. So, to repeat an American political cliche, never say never.
Q What would happen if he really became the president? How much would he change?
In recent days, his primary opponent rival Ted Cruz has claimed that Trump told the New York Times editorial board privately that he would act very differently as president than he has during the campaign, as least as far as immigration is concerned. None of us know. As a reporter, I’ve always said that the best way to judge what a politician will do after getting elected to office is to study what he or she promises during the campaign. We can’t read his mind. If he does everything he’s promising to do on the campaign trail, there will be a constitutional crisis and a global economic and diplomatic catastrophe. You’ll have the Putin-Trump axis versus the world. I can’t see it. He would have to change or he would be ineffective domestically and isolated internationally.
Q: Let’s assume he doesn’t become the president. Has he already achieved something, left a lasting mark in the country and its politics? What is it?
Yes, he has achieved something of historical significance. He has destroyed Ronald Reagan’s Republican Party. If he wins the nomination, the party of Reagan will have ceased to exist. It is the same thing that happened to the Democrats in 1972, when George McGovern won the presidential nomination and destroyed the four-decade-old New Deal coalition of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Although Democrats won the White House four years later because of Nixon’s Watergate scandal, it took them two decades to recover institutionally from the crack-up of 1972.
Q: You are currently a professor in China. What is told about Trump there? How much of it is true?
Trump has been portrayed in Chinese media as an eccentric, bombastic showman and celebrity. He’s seen more as a curiosity than a threat, so far, at least. Most people who are savvy about the United States ask me, “Could Trump be elected? Why would Americans vote for Trump?” It’s similar to questions people would ask you in Europe. The coverage of him on Chinese state television is generally straightforward, so far, at least. There has been a bit of negative editorial commentary in traditional state print media, but nothing nearly as inflammatory as what Trump has said about China. And Japan. And Korea. And Mexico. And Iran. And Europe. And Obama.
Q: Would you consider moving to China all together, should Trump be elected?
How about Finland?
This week’s summit meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Barack Obama has been overshadowed in the United States by the historic visit by Pope Francis — and then the sudden resignation of U.S. House Speaker John Boehner. But the China-U.S. summit is likely to have broader and longer-lasting implications on both the global economy and geopolitical matters.
Here is my analysis of the high stakes and — at least for leaders in China — high hopes for the summit. It is in a Q&A format based on questions formulated by China Radio International designed to stimulate a roundtable discussion on its Today program.
Q: Xi Jinping’s first speech upon arriving in Seattle was peppered with U.S. cultural references, including the film Sleepless in Seattle and the television series House of Cards. He also shared some personal experiences, like his life as a visiting student in Iowa. Do you think the personal touches went down well with his American audience?
A: It’s always good to drop a few cultural references — though I will say that House of Cards may be more popular in China than it is in the U.S. At Tsinghua University, where I work in the Global Business Journalism program, everyone wants to know if it’s an accurate depiction of American politics and journalism.
More seriously, President Xi definitely connected with his business audience of leaders of major technology companies — and I think that is a big win for future partnerships with the tech and aerospace industries.
Q: Since China and the U.S. established diplomatic ties, only four Chinese presidents have paid state visits to the U.S.: Li Xianian in 1985, Jiang Zemin in 1997, and Hu Jintao in 2006 and 2011. We now have the fifth. How different is this one: what has changed and what remains the same in bilateral relations?
A: The biggest visit from a Chinese leader was not even a state visit, it was from Deng Xiaoping, who was vice chairman, not president.
What is the same? The desire of the leaders of both countries to deepen economic and cultural ties. The differences: the end of the Cold War, the rise of China’s economy (even with current uncertainties) and the increasing importance of China on the global diplomatic and military front. Also, for much of the relationship, China and the U.S. used each other as a wedge against the Soviet Union and then Russia. Now China and Russia are closer in a geopolitical sense than China and the U.S.
Q: Apart from political rhetoric and media outcries, what really makes the two giants like each other and what turns them apart?
A: The leaders like each other. The countries share mutual respect, win-win economic ties and a concern for future of the world economy. The issues that drive them apart include economic competition, Taiwan, U.S. criticism about human rights issues and U.S. military alliances (particularly with Japan).
Q: Is there anything special about the personal relationship between Obama and Xi Jinping? They twice have discussed ideologies and history. The pictures of them walking on the Sunnylands Ranch in 2013 and their late evening stroll indicates some mutual understanding of the top jobs.
A: They have definitely connected on an intellectual level and it’s clear from the body language that they like and respect each other. You don’t see the same thing when President Obama and Russian President Putin get together.
Q: Xi Jinping’s visit comes at a time when geopolitical conditions in East Asia have evolved to a very subtle point. The Obama administration declared to its “Pivot-to-Asia” diplomacy shift in 2012. Tensions have been growing in the region with Shinzo Abe seeking to expand Japan’s overseas military role and several Southeast Asian nations embroiling themselves into a territorial dispute with Beijing. Is the timing of the trip too tough?
A: There’s never a perfect time for a trip. Japanese assertiveness on military matters, issues in the South and East China Seas, cyberspying all have created some tensions. The slowdown of China’s growth also has created some uncertainty on the economic side. But there are many important things the two countries can do to benefit each other and the world situation, economically and geopolitically.
Q: How does China fit into the current global strategy of the United States? And vice versa?
A: That’s a complicated pair of questions. The U.S. has not taken part in the AIIB — the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank — and tried, thus far unsuccessfully, to launch a Trans-Pacific Partnership anchored by the U.S., Japan and Korea. But despite those problems, both countries are eager to welcome investment from the other nation to help grow jobs in their countries. And both are interested in improving the economies of Africa, where both have invested a substantial amount of soft-power capital.
In terms of geopolitics, the U.S. believes that China is a key player in resolving almost all of the most difficult international issues of the day, from the Korean Peninsula to the Middle East. The U.S. wants China as a leading player and not a marginalized actor.
Q: China has been very active in recent years on both political and economic fronts. Despite a global economic slowdown, China still manages to maintain a GDP growth at around 7 percent over the years and is now the world’s second largest economy, right after the U.S. Since Xi Jinping came to power, China has proposed several international cooperation mechanisms such as the AIIB, the New Development Bank, the Land and Maritime Silk Road Initiative and so on, taking more responsibility in regional and international affairs. What do you make of the U.S. reaction to this?
A: I think the U.S. should be more welcoming and more cooperative — while realizing that some tension and competition is natural. I’m not sure how much of this reflects the concerns of Japan about China’s growing influence and how much is Washington policymakers’ policy concerns. The world economy should allow for both nations to grow — it’s not a zero-sum game.
Q: How much damage has been caused by conflicts between the two?
A: There have always been tensions and there still are. Taiwan was and will be a continuing strain, but the strain has been handled by both nations with mutual effort. Both nations have accused the other of spying, and they have had strong words about military actions in the South China and seas. But they have kept their disagreements civil and kept them in perspective. The shared goals of the two nations are much more important than the continuing differences.
Q: What’s the way to bring China-U.S. relations to a new level while properly handling these conflicts?
A: Agree to disagree about some things and work on the issues where progress can be made. A bilateral investment treaty is good for both countries and should not be blocked because of American fears about cybersecurity. However, international companies need to reach a comfort level that their trade secrets would not be compromised if they do business in China.
Q: China and the U.S. both shoulder responsibilities in dealing with major international issues, like the Iran nuclear issue, the North Korean nuclear issue, climate change and so on. What’s a more constructive way for the two sides to cooperate in order to solve these difficult problems?
A: I would hope that we hear more about this from President Xi at the United Nations. The key thing is more and higher-profile Chinese involvement alongside the U.S. and Russia. Korea is a very difficult problem and can only be resolved if China and the U.S. are in complete agreement about the future of the peninsula.
Q: Leaders from both countries have been exchanging visits regularly in history. When people reflect back in the future, how do you think they will think about this visit?
A: To use President Xi’s words, it was the first summit of the major-power relationship era. In my view, the most important meetings between the nation’s leaders were in 1972, when President Nixon came to Beijing, 1979, with Deng Xiaoping, when China was beginning to reshape its economy, and 1998, when Bill Clinton visited China as China was emerging as a global economic power. To me, this is the logical fourth leg of the chair — and could steady the relationship for the decade to come, whoever is elected president of the U.S. next year.
Q: Several economic deals are being announced this week during the visit, including companies such as Boeing and Cisco. How significant are these deals? Can economic and trade links still function as the main stabilizer of the overall China-U.S. relations?
A: Yes. Economic ties and trade not only will help the two nations but the global economy. The world economy may be more dependent on Chinese economic growth than U.S., particularly nations of Africa and Central and East Asia.
Q: Moody’s Analytics’ chief economist has calculated that every 1 percentage point drop in Chinese growth reduces U.S. economic growth by 0.2 percent. This is equal to the price of oil going up $20 a barrel. How interrelated and interdependent are the two economies?
A: I agree with Moody’s. Of course, the Chinese people are hurt more than the American people by any slump in the Chinese economy, but there is a ripple effect in this interdependent world. I think that the African and East Asian economies would suffer more by a prolonged slump in China, but the U.S. would feel it.
Q: China has been on a path towards reforming its economy. How important are China’s economic reforms to the U.S. economy and that of the world?
A: Internal reform in China is important to the U.S. — not reform for reform’s sake, but reform that makes the Chinese economy more efficient and reform that creates more disposable income in China and more markets for global goods. Also, reforms in rule of law and protection of intellectual property are very important to the U.S. and the rest of the world.
Q: Given the moves last month on the value of the RMB, how much of an issue is that in the relationship now?
A: Although some Republican presidential candidates have criticized China’s devaluation of the RMB as currency manipulation, most global economists do not believe that, and neither does the Obama administration. This was a legitimate issue in 1999, but times have changed. The IMF has stated that the RMB has shown signs of floating with the market, and I think the U.S. administration appreciates that.
Q: China and the U.S. respectively have proposed different international economic entities. China proposed the AIIB and the New Development Bank, while the U.S. is pushing forward with the Trans-Pacific Partnership. In what ways can these two countries and these different entities cooperate, especially in terms of global financial institutions reform?
A: It would be ideal to unify these partnerships, and I think that is likely at some time. But it might take a decade or more. International financial institutions are in serious need of reform. I’m not optimistic that such reform is coming in the near term, but it is inevitable in the long term.
Q: The U.S. Federal Reserve recently made a decision to delay an interest rate rise. How much did China’s current economic situation factor into the decision?
A: It played a role — along with the continuing economic softness in Europe. The Fed is ready to raise rates, but it remembers when its rate increases in previous decades created panic in Mexico and other emerging markets. So it is acting more cautious now. However, rate hikes are a near certainty over the next year.
Q: How does the decision affect the Chinese economy? How much should the Fed take such affects into account when making these decisions about the U.S. economy?
A: The impact should be minor, more psychological than real, more based on speculation than reality.
Q: In recent times, U.S. companies and business associations have mentioned issues of market access, national security and cyber-security laws, and potential requirements to hand over corporate security materials. Chinese tech companies like Huawei faces similar problems in the U.S. What can be done about this?
A: Talk about it honestly and openly, as has been going on. Agreeing on a treaty that would provide “rules of the road” for cybersecurity. That’s a first step. The agreement may not be unveiled this week, but a framework for future action is possible.
Q: Another on-going item is the bilateral investment treaty, or BIT, between the two nations. What are the main challenges, and how should they be overcome?
A: The main challenges are rule of law, cybersecurity, openness of U.S. markets to Chinese companies and openness of Chinese markets, particularly financial, to U.S. companies. Prolonged negotiations will be needed to resolve them, but both sides want to achieve results, so I’d be optimistic.
Q: In terms of a compromise, might we see a type of “cyber arms deal” being reached, which would help establish which kinds of cyber attacks could be outlawed – attacks on civilian infrastructure, for example?
A: Yes, that’s exactly right. Government on government spying has always existed. But companies want assurances that they will be able to do business without fear of corporate espionage.
Q: One of China’s most wanted economic fugitives – Yang Jinyun – was returned to the country by the U.S. last week. This marked the first time China has succeeded in repatriating a wanted corruption suspect from the U.S., with whom it has no extradition treaty. Has Yang Jinyun’s repatriation laid an important foundation for bilateral cooperation, or is it just a separate move done only as an olive branch for a presidential trip?
A: It is symbolic but it also is part of a series of concrete actions by the United States to help China in cases of corruption-related fugitives. The U.S. Justice Department has shown a willingness to help China deal with corruption cases, which are different than political cases.
Q: Beyond all specifics, the fundamental question has always been: What does the rise of China mean to the USA, and vice versa? What should Xi Jinping say to Obama? “I have no intention to challenge the existing world order.” What should Obama say to Xi Jinping? “Play the second fiddle.”
A: No, there is no need to talk about who is number one and who is number two. It is the most important bilateral relationship in the world. The leaders must show each other and their nation’s respect. I think that exists. Xi Jinping doesn’t have to make any assurances about the existing world order. The new world order is emerging — and everyone knows it. There is no reason for irrational concern on either nation’s part. The leadership of both countries — economic, diplomatic and moral — is vital.
>> Link to CCTV Dialogue program: http://english.cntv.cn/2015/09/24/VIDE1443041881178448.shtml
>> Link to CRI Today program: http://english.cri.cn/7146/2015/09/25/3641s897467.htm
Global Business Journalism students are improving the quality of journalism in China and around the worldPosted: July 12, 2015
I am so excited about the opportunities I have had in China to work with journalism students — both international and Chinese — and professional journalists to improve the caliber of reporting and writing in China, and to prepare us all for the Brave New World of journalism in the Digital Age. Here is a transcript of my speech at the July 10 commencement of the Tsinghua School of Journalism and Communication Global Business Journalism Program.
I am honored, on behalf of the faculty of the Global Business Journalism Program, to congratulate you on your successful completion of graduate studies at the Tsinghua School of Journalism and Communication graduation.
It indeed has been an adventure – a voyage of discovery – for all of us. You represent the best of China and the best of the world.
Over the past eight years, students from more than 50 countries have studied together, worked together, gotten to know each other here in the Global Business Journalism Program at Tsinghua University. Ours is a vibrant tapestry of cultures and ideas. You have been exposed to new perspectives, whether they are from the minds of brilliant Chinese professors or veteran international journalists who have plied their trade at the highest levels in the United States and around the world. All of us have gained a better understanding of the rapidly changing world we are inheriting, the rise of China and the rapid transformation of its economy, the complicated dynamics of our interdependent global business world, the rapid transformation of our own world of journalism and the imperative to learn new multimedia and data skills to compete in the emerging journalism marketplace. You have been tested with rigor. You have passed the test. I am so proud of you.
Eight years ago, the Global Business Journalism Master’s Degree Program was just a dream, an idea conceived by some exceptionally creative souls at Tsinghua University in Beijing and at the International Center for Journalists in Washington. In just a few years, it has gained tremendous respect throughout China and around the world, attracting renowned international scholars and Pulitzer Prize winning journalists to work with our students and share their wisdom and their skills.
From the beginning, the GBJ program has been nurtured by the invaluable and incalculable support of Bloomberg News, with its unprecedented gift of ten of its priceless terminals, a series of guest lecturers and events, and a wonderful faculty member named Lee Miller.
And special thanks to my partner in the program, Dr. Hang Min, for her support, her wisdom and her guidance in making the GBJ program an invaluable resource for global journalism. Under her leadership, we have offered some of the most advanced classes in communication theory, as well as practical, advanced skills that will help our graduates succeed in their chosen field of endeavor, whether that be global business journalism, business, journalism, or something else somewhere on this globe.
By setting exacting standards and requiring rigorous coursework, the GBJ Program has helped to improve business journalism in China by training a new generation of highly qualified journalists specializing in economics and business. Our Chinese graduates now work at some of the most important media outlets in China, such as China Daily, Xinhua News Service, CCTV, and Radio Beijing, as well as at important international media outlets such as Bloomberg News.
That is a testament to the quality of our alumni. It also is a testament to the iron will of friends in the Tsinghua School of Journalism and Communication who have exhibited an unwavering commitment to our success and our continuing growth. Dr. Shi Anbin has been a champion of our cause and a special mentor to me as a newly minted college professor. Thanks, Dean Shi, for everything you have done to make GBJ what it is today, and thanks to Dr. Jin Jianbin and other school officials for their support.
Of course, as all of us know in business journalism, you can’t have an entrepreneurial venture without some venture capital. I would like to thank our founding sponsor, Bank of America, for its steadfast commitment to the program since 2007.
I would like to close by quoting from my favorite philosopher, who happens to be my grandfather, Barrows Dunham. Despite a turbulent professional career that included an unwelcome appearance before the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee and a spot on the American blacklist during the Red Scare Era of the 1950s, my grandfather, a distinguished philosophy professor and internationally acclaimed author, never lost his sense of patriotism or optimism.
“Even now,” he once wrote, “we ourselves are determining the future, not by knowing what it will be, but by conceiving what it can be.”
None of us know what the future will hold. But with the knowledge we have gained at Tsinghua, the support of our families – and, yes, the Global Business Journalism family – we can conceive that better future.
Congratulations to the Tsinghua Global Business Journalism graduating class. Good luck to all of you. Thank you.
Like many a TV pundit in our 24/7 news world, I was asked to comment on the movie “The Interview” before I saw it. My words of purported wisdom aired on CCTV’s “Dialogue” program on Jan. 2.
Now, through the wonders of Netflix, I’ve finally seen the movie that launched a thousand schemes. Here’s what I thought:
It was rude, crude, puerile, tasteless, sexist, racist, unsophisticated … and better than I thought it was going to be.
You can guess that this isn’t my kind of movie. I don’t like potty jokes. The movie’s fixation on the bodily functions of the North Korean dictator, not to mention the human orifices of its protagonist, are suitable for seventh grade boys, not (chronologically) adult moviegoers. As Roger Ebert wrote in his review of the execrable movie “The Love Guru“: “This film could have been written on toilet walls by callow adolescents. Every reference to a human sex organ or process of defecation is not automatically funny simply because it is naughty.”
But “The Interview” offers much more to loathe. Its treatment of every one of its female characters as sex objects is odious. Its replaying of decade-old Hollywood Asian stereotypes is retrograde racism. Oh, the movie also was way too long and self-indulgent.
Those are some of the less objectionable elements of “The Interview.”
I don’t know about you, but I have a fundamental problem with a movie about the assassination of a living leader. It just crosses a line in my mind. Imagine what Americans would say if a Pakistani … or French … or Chinese … or Canadian “comedy” centered on a plot to kill the U.S. president. I don’t care how odious a leader is. You just don’t make a movie about assassinating living characters. (Remember how “The Manchurian Candidate” disappeared for two decades after the Kennedy assassination. And it was fiction.)
One more thing: “The Interview” is completely unbelievable. I am a big believer in “suspension of disbelief” for Hollywood fantasies. I’ll play along with the far-fetched concept that a CIA “babe” convinced two sex-crazed journalists to join an assassination plot. But they lost me when they got to the North Korean palace and kept talking openly about their assassination plans. OK, buddy, if the movie is about this paranoid North Korean dictator, don’t you think that he might just have been bugging your room and listening to your every word? Don’t you think you might be a wee bit careful discussing your murderous plans in loud voices? That may have gone over the heads of the potty-humor gang, but the other 99.9 percent of us are going to have a problem with it.
“The Interview” may be without redeeming social value, but it does have a bit of political propaganda value. The movie was at its best when it skewered the Kim dynasty for its gulags, its decision to focus on nukes, not nutrition, its overblown rhetoric, its paranoia and personal quirks. The transformation of the Kim Jong Un character from personable Dennis Rodman road show buddy to Stalinesque maniac was, from the perspective of political propaganda, quite effective.
I can understand why (alleged) North Korean hackers didn’t want the world to see this depiction of their dear leader. But I still can’t buy a movie that makes the dear leader into the dearly departed leader.
If you want to see the segment of CCTV’s “Dialogue” program in which I discuss “The Interview” with Tsinghua University colleague Shi Anbin, here’s the URL: http://english.cntv.cn/2015/01/03/VIDE1420295520064235.shtml
Yang Rui: How do these midterm elections damage what President Obama wants to do in the remaining two years?
Rick Dunham: Well, I think right now we’re in for a period of tension, we’re in for a period of confrontation between Congress and the President. The Republicans in Congress think President Obama is weak and they’re going to push very hard for their agenda. They’re going to see how far they can push him. I think the White House will want to reach out a bit more, but I think it’s going to be much harder for the White House to reach out because Republicans think he is weak.
Yang Rui: I believe you must have followed the midterm elections very closely. Anything that surprised you despite the results themselves that are not so surprising?
Rick Dunham: No, I actually was not surprised at the Republicans’ sweep of the Senate. Historically, you look back at almost every big wave election year and you have one party winning almost all the close elections, and Republicans only lost one of them –in New Hampshire. What I was surprised at in this election was the incompetent campaign run by the Democratic National Committee and the White House. There were never on the offensive and they let the Republicans attack President Obama. They almost had no positive message during the campaign. That really surprised me. I haven’t seen a campaign this bad since 1980.
Yang Rui: Exactly 20 years ago, President Clinton was facing the majority that Republicans enjoyed in the two chambers of the Congress. What happened was the shutdown of the federal government and the standoff between Newt Gingrich, Speaker of the House, and the president himself. Now, last year we saw the partial shut down of the federal government, do you think we are likely to see it another repeat of the shutdown?
Rick Dunham: I think it’s highly likely. We saw a short shutdown last year but I think the Republicans are going to push the president to the brink and see if he capitulates. I think it’s almost certain that we’re going to see a shutdown. President Obama is going to have to veto Republican legislation and then force a compromise.
Yang Rui: What are the major obstacles or issues that may be a test of the bipartisan wrangling?
Rick Dunham: I think that number one will be government spending. The Republicans will try to cut the amount of government spending and particularly programs the president likes. The second big one is health care — the president’s health reform law of 2010. House Republicans voted 40 times already to repeal it. I think that the Senate Republicans will try now to push the president and force him to veto.
Yang Rui: Well that’s very bad. Now I start thinking about what I read from Francis Fukuyama, the guy who is the author of The End of History. Now, ironically he wrote in another book, it’s about political decay in U.S. domestic politics, meaning the architect of American constitution was able to restrict powers but they have not been able to create powers, and that has delivered a lot of friction and frustrations between the two parties. And the efficiency of the government, all at different levels, has been seriously compromised.
Rick Dunham: Well, I agree with the conclusion, but not necessarily his reasoning to get to the conclusion. I think that we see this kind of gridlock in the United States and dysfunctional democracy largely for two reasons. One is the amount out of money in politics that is making it difficult to pass anything. And the second issue is that you have partisan media in the United States. You have a fracture of the traditional media and you have people who get information that’s based on their own preconceived notions. So the country is deeply divided now and it’s very hard to have commonality because you have people on one side going to Fox News and on the other side going to CNN or National Public Radio, and you don’t really have a common area where they can reach agreement.
Yang Rui: And there are very serious disagreements between couples under the same roof.
Rick Dunham: Huge gender gap. Men overwhelmingly voted for Republican this election, women voted just about evenly, Democrat and Republican.
Yang Rui: Then there is the situation with the low turnout.
Rick Dunham: There has been a problem with turnout in America starting in 1990s. There was a spike up when Barack Obama ran in 2008. Turnout was the highest in 20 years but it has gone back down to its pre-2008 levels, and the biggest drop of was minority voters, black Americans and Hispanic voters, both of them heavily Democratic.
Black voters voted nine to one for Democrats but the turnout was far down from where it was, which cost the Democrats the governorship of Florida, it cost them the Senate seat in North Carolina. Those very narrow losses in those states were result of very low minority turnout.
Yang Rui: What do you think of the impact of the midterm upheavals on the presidential election two years from now?
Rick Dunham: Well, I think it’s a mixed blessing for Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee. Now there’s no guarantee that she will be the nominee but if she is, the good news for her is that now people are going to be looking at the Republicans, and probably if there’s a backlash in two years it could be against the Republican Congress as opposed to focusing all about President Obama.
The bad news for Democrats is that this election proves that the Democratic electoral majority that elected Barak Obama twice is not strong and is not permanent. The Democrats have to go back and convince minority voters to turn out and they have to go back and convince more women to vote Democratic.
Yang Rui: Thank you very much for joining us.
Here’s a link to the video of the full interview: http://english.cntv.cn/2014/11/06/VIDE1415219400635230.shtml
Thanks to Jade Ladal for her work on the transcript.