Explaining America to the world: I analyze Trump’s populist revolt for a Finnish audience

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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.

Screenshot 2015-12-26 11.17.49

Cruz + Trump = Volatile mix

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.


Talking multimedia innovation at Lannen Media’s Helsinki offices last March

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?

Screenshot 2016-02-29 13.58.51

Dismantling the Reagan coalition

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?


Taping an interview at YLE, the Finnish radio network

Remembering Ken Reigner: A life of passion for politics, words and friends

Last Saturday, my good friend Ken Reigner died just a few hours before we were scheduled to meet for dinner. Ken was one of the first people Pamela Tobey and I met when we moved to Washington in 1984 and he was part of many of our important life events, including our wedding, family holiday gatherings and even Adirondack vacations at the Dunham family compound. Here is my tribute to Ken’s life, written with the indispensable reporting of Michael Gessel and John McDiarmid.

In the fall of 1983, Ken Reigner was shocked to learn that NBC News had canceled one of his favorite programs, the critically acclaimed but ratings-challenged NBC News Overnight.

“It was just as if someone had shot me through with electricity,” the red-haired Michigander with insatiable energy and righteous passion told The New Yorker in December 1983. “I was dumbfounded. After that, it was like being in an accident. A couple of minutes went by before I knew where I was.”

Ken Reigner at the 2000 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles.

Ken Reigner at the 2000 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles.

But while most people would have accepted the program’s fate with disappointment and sorrow, Reigner, already a veteran of four presidential campaigns, decided to fight back.

“Somebody had to start up a movement to save the show,” he decided.

In the days before the Internet, email and social media, Reigner led a crusade to save NBC News Overnight. He led a candle-light vigil in front of NBC’s Washington studios, shared his outrage by calling in to Larry King’s nationwide radio show, organized a letter-writing campaign to NBC Chairman Grant Tinker and even demonstrated his support by distributing campaign-style buttons to members of the show’s audience one night.

“We noticed yellow ‘Save NBC News Overnight’ buttons on an increasing number of chests as the night wore on,” James Lardner wrote later in The New Yorker, “and we traced them to a tote bag carried by a bright-faced man named Kenneth Reigner.”

That bright-faced man, who led a number of crusades during more than four decades as a political campaigner, congressional staffer, writer and editor, died in his sleep at his home in Greenbelt, Md., on Aug. 8. He was 66.

“Crusading was what Ken was best at and enjoyed most — crusading for political candidates in campaigns, crusading for NBC News Overnight, crusading to save Washington Independent Writers,” said John F. McDiarmid, his partner of 16 years and Professor Emeritus of British and American Literature
at New College of Florida. “He could build up tremendous energy and zeal for crusading.”

Described by friends as “naturally enthusiastic,’ Mr. Reigner was accomplished in both the political sphere and the world of Washington writers. He was a former congressional press secretary, presidential campaign radio specialist and Democratic National Convention media operations fixture. He also was the founder and owner of CompuMedia Business Services, a two-term president of Washington Independent Writers, a freelance radio producer for several segments aired on National Public Radio and a tireless advocate for health-care and social safety net services for freelance writers facing tough economic times. One of his proudest “achievements” was earning a spot on one of President Richard M. Nixon’s infamous “enemies lists” along with fellow staffers and contributors to 1972 Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern.

“A remarkable person,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a prominent American author, communications professor and director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania who was a friend of Mr. Reigner’s for three decades after teaching him at the University of Maryland. “A sad loss.”

Paul Dickson, the author of more than 50 non-fiction books, called Mr. Reigner “a wonderful friend and a great person to work with when the going got tough. Watching him in action was to see a man of true determination working with the aid of a great smile and a deep sense of civility.”

Among Mr. Reigner’s ancestors was John Morton of Pennsylvania, a signer of the Declaration of Independence whose decision on July 1, 1776, to side with Benjamin Franklin against fellow Pennsylvanian John Dickinson cleared the way for final approval of independence. Two centuries later, Morton’s descendant entered the American political arena with the active encouragement of his family. Mr. Reigner always credited his mother Ann with instilling in him a keen interest in current events, politics and public service.

“I distinctly remember sitting with my mother when I was only three years old watching the 1952 Democratic and Republican National Conventions on television,” he recalled in 2004. “The message from my mother was loud and clear: this was important stuff that affected real people’s lives and I had better pay attention and learn about it.”

After decades of working on presidential campaigns, Mr. Reigner in 2000 helped his mother fulfill her lifelong ambition to attend a national convention by securing credentials for her to attend the Democratic convention in Los Angeles and hear the acceptance speech of party nominee Al Gore.

In a Washington culture often driven by ego and dominated by a lust for power, Mr. Reigner’s passion for life and his compassion for others made him an icon to many.

“Ken made life nicer for everyone he met,” said former National Press Club president Doug Harbrecht.

Mr. Reigner was born in Detroit, Mich., on May 20, 1949, to Mollie Ann Pocock Reigner and Hal Morton Reigner, a Ford Company engineer. He grew up in Battle Creek and Farmington, Mich., as the only son in a family with three sisters. As a boy, he was in a Battle Creek Cub Scout troop led by his mother. He once contemplated a life in the clergy and graduated from Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit in 1967.

Educated at Wayne State University and later the University of Maryland at College Park, he worked for four years as a retail sales manager at the J.L. Hudson Company in Detroit before moving to Washington in 1972 to pursue his passion for politics.

He worked in five presidential campaigns, starting as a volunteer for anti-war Democrat Eugene McCarthy in 1968 and ending as a volunteer for anti-war Democrat Howard Dean in 2004. He was employed as a radio press assistant three times: for 1972 Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern, 1976 nominee Jimmy Carter, and Carter’s 1980 Democratic challenger, Ted Kennedy.

In the days before digital broadcasting, Mr. Reigner was a master of the radio actuality, a short recording of a presidential candidate’s speeches, press conferences or interviews that Mr. Reigner taped, edited and then trained an army of volunteers to transmit by telephone to more than 2,000 radio stations and broadcast networks across the United States for use in their news programming. He produced audio commercials for the Democratic presidential candidates and assisted with distribution of video spots. During his decade of presidential politics, he estimated that he recruited, trained and supervised about 500 volunteers and staffers.

“I knew no one in the campaign more exacting, dedicated and passionate about his work than Ken,” Carter Radio Director Robert W. Maynes said.

Mr. Reigner was a seasoned spokesman for Democrats on Capitol Hill, serving as press secretary to Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Warren G. Magnuson of Washington and Representatives Bob Matsui of California, John Burton of California, Mickey Leland of Texas and Mike Barnes of Maryland. He was employed as radio press assistant for Brendan Byrne’s 1973 campaign for governor of New Jersey. He also worked as Director of Public Information for the National Credit Union Administration and Communications Director at the Center for Environmental Education.

The devoted Democrat worked with the media at every Democratic national convention from 1976 to 2012, the last seven times as one of the managers in the convention’s office handling printing and distributing of advance speech texts, schedules and news advisories to the thousands of members of the press corps covering the convention.

“Ken loved politics,” said John McDiarmid. “He was passionately and intelligently committed to liberal political causes.”

The Nixon

The Nixon “Enemies List” through the pen of legendary Los Angeles Times political cartoonist Paul Conrad.

Mr. Reigner’s top political heroes were South Dakota Senator George McGovern and Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy, both unsuccessful presidential candidates. He considered Richard M. Nixon the nation’s worst president—and earned a spot on one of of Nixon’s enemies lists.

“Not the first-string list, he would modestly point out, but the longer list that he got on by working for the McGovern campaign,” added Mr. McDiarmid.

Although he made rather a bad enemy of the president known to many as Tricky Dick, Mr. Reigner also had friends in high places. Among those who agreed to serve as job references for him were Vice President Walter Mondale and National Transportation Safety Board Chairman James B. King.

In 1986 Mr. Reigner founded his own writing and editing business, which he operated in suburban Maryland until his death. Over three decades, he edited hundreds of books, articles, academic papers, theses and dissertations, and wrote countless résumés.

“He was passionate about the use of the English language,” said Mr. McDiarmid. “He was knowledgeable and judicious about grammar and style, a hard-working, meticulous editor.”

Mr. Reigner was active in the independent writers movement in the national capital region, working to strengthen networking among freelance writers and editors and to help writers who faced financial or medical crises. He joined the Board of Directors of Washington Independent Writers (WIW), then the largest regional writers’ organization in the United States, in 1997. (WIW was renamed American Independent Writers in 2008, then dissolved 2011.)

When first elected to the WIW board of directors, he was named chairman of the WIW Technology Committee. In that position, he organized annual technology conferences at Washington’s University Club. He chaired technology panels at WIW’s annual Spring Writers Conference at the National Press Club and George Washington University.

Mr. Reigner received the Philip M. Stern Award, WIW’s highest honor, in 2000 “for his exceptional service in bringing WIW into the Electronic Age.” The award is named for the investigative journalist, author, early benefactor and founder of WIW.

A year later, in response to a move to dismantle the WIW main office, he ran for WIW president at the head of a “Save WIW” slate including well-known writers Paul Dickson, Beryl Benderly and others. Swept into office in a landslide, Mr. Reigner served two terms before retiring in 2003.

“For hundreds and hundreds of us, WIW was pivotal to building our careers, and Ken, by leading the ‘Save WIW’ ticket to resounding victory over a board that wanted to dismantle the downtown office, allowed it to continue prospering for an additional decade,” said Ms. Benderly.

As WIW president, Mr. Reigner worked with leaders of other writers’ groups and journalism organizations, particularly future National Press Club President Rick Dunham, to offer first-rate training programs for Washington area writers that focused on technology skills and job opportunities.

Ms. Benderly recalls—“vividly”—meeting Mr. Reigner at the National Press Club on a Friday night in April as dissatisfaction with the incumbent WIW board festered.

“The question arose of who would lead the campaign and take on the onerous and time-consuming role of the president who would have to rebuild the shattered organization,” she recalled. “We were all freelancers, so time was very important to us. Nobody came forward to do that.

“Eventually, Ken stepped forward to take on the burden. I don’t think that most people in the crowd knew him. I know that I didn’t. He was younger than most of us and hadn’t been that active. But that didn’t matter, because he seemed sincere in his outrage and his affection for [former staff director] Isolde [Chapin] and, mainly, he was willing to do it. So the ‘Save WIW’ slate was born that night.”

As a candidate, Mr. Reigner brought his organizational and messaging skills to a much smaller electorate.

“To the shock of our adversaries, who had absolutely no idea what was afoot, we put the plan into effect, completely blindsiding them,” said Ms. Benderly. “Ken, of course, knew what to do and relished the fight, as did we all. We raised money among ourselves to send a letter (by mail) to every member–about 1,500 as I recall. And we divided up the telephone directory—literally gave out pages to different people — and together our group and our supporters personally phoned every member to ask for their vote.

“When the votes were counted, we utterly crushed them, electing our entire slate by huge margins.”

George Bailey's in trouble. With WIW, like Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life, the good guys won in the end.

George Bailey’s in trouble. With WIW, like Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, the good guys won in the end.

Ms. Benderly calls the “Save WIW” campaign her “Frank Capra moment,” like the scene from It’s a Wonderful Life in which the community unites to the cry of “George Bailey’s in trouble?”

“I keenly feel the loss of my partner in those glorious days of doing the right thing for our fellow writers simply because it was the right thing,” said Ms. Benderly. “Ken had such a big heart and because of it played an absolutely crucial role in WIW at an absolutely crucial time.”

As passionate as he was about politics, Mr. Reigner was equally passionate about words and music. His favorite entertainers—David Letterman, Jon Stewart and Garrison Keillor—were masters of intelligent conversation and piercing wit. His favorite authors—including the historians David McCullough and Doris Kearns Goodwin and the journalist and biographer David Maraniss—are masterful storytellers with an eye for detail.

His musical tastes ran the gamut from Rosemary Clooney to Janis Joplin. He loved theater and was a volunteer with the Ushers group in the Washington area. He also was proud to be a member of MENSA. For years, his Maryland license plate was “HIGH IQ.”

Always on the cutting edge of technology, Mr. Reigner was among the first Washingtonians to have a car phone, a cell phone, a personal computer, an email address and an Internet access account. But his first love was always radios.

“He was interested in computers but loved radio technology,” said Mr. McDiarmid. “He was the first person I have ever traveled with who pointed out different kinds of radio towers we passed. I gave him a radio towers calendar one year.”

Mr. Reigner died of natural causes on the 41st anniversary of Richard Nixon’s resignation speech. A year earlier, he and longtime friend Rick Dunham had toasted the 40th anniversary of Nixon’s disgrace.

Mr. Reigner is survived by Mr. McDiarmid, a resident of Falls Church, Va., and three sisters, Judith A. Crowe of York, Pa; Susan M. Justice of Seal Beach, Calif., and Beth Reigner of Garden City, Kan.

A memorial service is planned for later this year.

His ashes are likely to be interred alongside his parents in the suburbs of Detroit, a city he loved faithfully even after it hit hard times.

In lieu of flowers, Mr. Reigner’s family asks friends to consider donations to two organizations that provide financial support to freelance writers in financial crisis: the Author’s League Fund and the American Society of Journalists and Authors’ Writers Emergency Assistance Fund.

American Society of Journalists and Authors, Writers Emergency Assistance Fund

Donate online at http://www.asja.org/for-writers/weaf/weaf-donations.php or mail a check made out to the ASJA Charitable Trust to:

Writers Emergency Assistance Fund


355 Lexington Ave, 15th Floor

New York, NY 10017-6603


The Authors League Fund

Donate online at http://www.authorsleaguefund.org/donate/ or make checks out to The Authors League Fund and mail to its office:

Attn: Isabel Howe, Executive Director

The Authors League Fund

31 East 32nd Street, 7th Floor

New York, NY 10016

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66 questions about the future of 16 potential 2016 presidential candidates

The midterms are over. As Maurice Sendak wrote so eloquently, “Let the wild rumpus begin.”

The 2016 presidential race could well be a wild thing. More than a dozen White House wannabes have been campaigning across the country this year, ostensibly for local candidates for state and federal offices. Hillary Clinton is tanned, rested and ready, and Jeb Bush is being pressured to undertake a second restoration of the Bush Dynasty. There are future dark horses, wild cards and future comedians’ punchlines who tonight are dreaming big dreams.

So many candidates. So many questions. Here are 66 questions for 16 of the potential contenders.

We won’t know all the answers until November 2016.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz:

  • Is Ted Cruz the Phil Gramm of this election cycle?
  • Is Ted Cruz the Barry Goldwater of this election cycle?
  • Is Ted Cruz the B-1 Bob Dornan of this election cycle?
  • Is Ted Cruz the Pat Buchanan of this election cycle?
  • Is Ted Cruz the Ronald Reagan (1980 vintage) of this election cycle?
  • Is Ted Cruz the Barack Obama (2008 vintage) of this election cycle?

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton:

  • Is Hillary Clinton the Bill Clinton of this election cycle?
  • Is Hillary Clinton the Hillary Clinton of this election cycle?
  • Is Hillary Clinton the George H.W. Bush of this election cycle?
  • Is Hillary Clinton the Al Gore of this election cycle?

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie:

  • Is Chris Christie the Rudy Giuliani of this election cycle?
  • Is Chris Christie the Rick Perry of this election cycle?
  • Is Chris Christie the Pete Wilson of this election cycle?
  • Is Chris Christie the Ronald Reagan of this election cycle?

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul:

  • Is Rand Paul the Ron Paul of this election cycle?
  • Is Rand Paul the Barry Goldwater of this election cycle?
  • Is Rand Paul the Bob Taft (1952 vintage) of this election cycle?
  • Is Rand Paul the Warren Harding (1920 vintage) of this election cycle?

Texas Gov. Rick Perry:

  • Is Rick Perry the Rick Perry of this election cycle?
  • Is Rick Perry the John McCain (2008 vintage) of this election cycle?
  • Is Rick Perry the Mitt Romney (2012 vintage)of this election cycle?
  • Is Rick Perry the Richard Nixon (1968 vintage) of this election cycle?
  • Is Rick Perry the Pat Paulsen of this election cycle?

>Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney:

  • Is Mitt Romney the Mitt Romney of this election cycle?
  • Is Mitt Romney the Adlai Stevenson (1960 vintage) of this election cycle?
  • Is Mitt Romney the William Jennings Bryan (1908 vintage) of this election cycle?
  • Is Mitt Romney the Dwight Eisenhower of this election cycle?

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush:

  • Is Jeb Bush the George W. Bush (2000 vintage) of this election cycle?
  • Is Jeb Bush the Bill Clinton of this election cycle?
  • Is Jeb Bush the Bill Bradley of this election cycle?
  • Is Jeb Bush the Bill Scranton (1964 vintage) of this election cycle?
  • Is Jeb Bush the Nelson Rockefeller of this election cycle?
  • Is Jeb Bush the Mario Cuomo of this election cycle?

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum:

  • Is Rick Santorum the Gary Bauer of this election cycle?
  • Is Rick Santorum the Alan Keyes of this election cycle?
  • Is Rick Santorum the Harold Stassen of this election cycle?

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren:

  • Is Elizabeth Warren the Barack Obama of this election cycle?
  • Is Elizabeth Warren the George McGovern of this election cycle?
  • Is Elizabeth Warren the Gene McCarthy of this election cycle?
  • Is Elizabeth Warren the Dennis Kucinich of this election cycle?

>Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley:

  • Is Martin O’Malley the Tom Vilsack of this election cycle?
  • Is Martin O’Malley the Bruce Babbitt of this election cycle?
  • Is Martin O’Malley the Adlai Stevenson of this election cycle?
  • Is Martin O’Malley the Rutherford B. Hayes of this election cycle?

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio:

  • Is Marco Rubio the John F. Kennedy of this election cycle?
  • Is Marco Rubio the Ted Kennedy of this election cycle?
  • Is Marco Rubio the Colin Powell of this election cycle?

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee:

  • Is Mike Huckabee the Mitt Romney (2012 vintage) of this election cycle?
  • Is Mike Huckabee the Pat Robertson of this election cycle?
  • Is Mike Huckabee the Bill Clinton (the man from Hope) of this election cycle?
  • Is Mike Huckabee the Huey Long of this election cycle?

>Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker:

  • Is Scott Walker the Mike Dukakis of this election cycle?
  • Is Scott Walker the Phil Crane (1980 vintage) of this election cycle?
  • Is Scott Walker the Phil Gramm of this election cycle?
  • Is Scott Walker the Calvin Coolidge (1924 vintage) of this election cycle?
  • </ul>Dr. Ben Carson:

    • Is Dr. Ben Carson the Dr. Spock of this election cycle?
    • Is Dr. Ben Carson the Mr. Spock of this election cycle?
    • Is Dr. Ben Carson the Herman Cain of this election cycle?
    • Is Dr. Ben Carson the Wendell Willkie of this election cycle?
    • </ul>Former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb:

      • Is Jim Webb the Gary Hart of this election cycle?
      • Is Jim Webb the Pat Buchanan of this election cycle?
      • Is Jim Webb the John McCain (2000 vintage) of this election cycle?
      • </ul>Vice President Joe Biden:

        • Is Joe Biden the Alben Barkley (1952 vintage) of this election cycle?
        • Is Joe Biden the John Nance Garner (1940 vintage) of this election cycle?
        • Is Joe Biden the Hubert Humphrey (1968 vintage) of this election cycle?
        • Is Joe Biden the George H.W. Bush (1988 vintage) of this election cycle?

Movie night at Tsinghua: All the President’s Men

An exact replica of the Washington Post newsroom was built in Hollywood.

An exact replica of the Washington Post newsroom was built in Hollywood.

I held my first “movie night” for my Chinese journalism grad students on Sunday night. After considering a few journalism-related classics (you can probably guess which they are), I chose one that highlights the best of journalism: “All the President’s Men.” It’s not just a journalism movie, of course. It’s a great detective story and an all-around outstanding movie with crisp writing, superb acting and tension-inducing directing. “All the President’s Men” is important journalism history. It’s also important American history. But I discovered as I played the video that many of the uniquely American topics (and 1970s cultural norms) contained in the movie were difficult to understand for my Tsinghua University students. So, in addition to playing the movie with English subtitles (do you realize how quickly Dustin Hoffman speaks, with that nasal accent of his?), I occasionally paused the movie for verbal annotations. Here are some of the important points I needed to explain to the students:

What is that machine those actors are using? And who is Robert Redford?

What is that machine those actors are using? And who is Robert Redford?

Newspaper references:

  • Why Ben Bradlee and many American journalists curse a lot
  • How Ben Bradlee cursed on live national TV when I hosted him as a speaker at a National Press Club luncheon in 2005
  • What kind of a boss Ben Bradlee was to my wife Pam Tobey
  • Who Deep Throat was and what motivated him to leak
  • Where the real Bob Woodward/Mark Felt garage was located
  • How the movie’s producers created a replica of the Washington Post’s newsroom in Hollywood for the movie — and the Post newsroom looked exactly the same when my wife Pam began working there in 1984
  • Why reporters call the targets of their stories for comment before publishing the story
  • Why it was unethical when Carl Bernstein called the secretary in the Miami prosecutor’s office and pretended he was someone he was not
  • Why Watergate motivated me (and the entire Woodstein generation) to become reporters

Cultural references:

  • Why all of the editors in the Post’s budget meetings were men
  • What a manual typewriter is (or was) and why they were all over the newsroom
  • Why I took Mrs. Wolin’s typing class at Central High when everybody said that typing was for girls who wanted to become secretaries. (Of course, I wanted to learn to type so I could become a reporter.)
  • Who Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman are
  • What the movie “Deep Throat” was about and why Woodward’s editor chose it as a code name for Mark Felt
  • What John Mitchell was talking about when he said Katharine Graham would get a certain part of anatomy caught in a wringer
  • What a “creep” means and why CREEP became the acronym for the Committee to Re-elect the President
  • Why so many people smoked in public spaces

Political references:

  • Who John F. Kennedy was and why his photo was in Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate
  • The fact that JFK and his brother Bobby were assassinated
  • Why the Vietnam War was so unpopular and why American society was torn apart by war, riots and civil rights struggles
  • What the Pentagon Papers are
  • Richard Nixon’s unique definition of “plumbers”
  • Who Daniel Ellsberg is and why he had a psychiatrist
  • Who George Wallace and Arthur Bremer were and how Woodward worked with Felt on stories about the Wallace assassination attempt
  • Who the anti-Castro Cubans in Miami are
  • What the Bay of Pigs is/was
  • The long and sordid history of CIA scandals
  • Why there is tension between the FBI and the CIA
  • Why Nixon hated and feared the Kennedys
  • What Chappaquiddick was
  • Why George McGovern asked Tom Eagleton to leave the ticket in ’72
  • Why Nixon wanted to run against McGovern and not Ted Kennedy or Edmund Muskie
  • Why Ed Muskie “cried” in New Hampshire
  • What a “Canuck” is

Any suggestions for my next American journalism movie night?