Q&A: The causes and consequences of Michael Flynn’s NSC exit


Happier times: Michael Flynn is all smiles as Vladimir Putin and Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein applaud at the 10th anniversary gala for Russia’s international propaganda outlet, RT.

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.


Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak speaks at the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO photo)

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.

How cropping photos can change the editorial content of a photograph

Screenshot 2015-12-20 10.09.47

Marital bliss: This photograph from Donald Trump’s latest wedding is fraught with political overtones.

Photography captures reality.

Or does it?

Yes, a high-quality photograph that follows my 25 rules of photo composition can be a major asset for your multimedia journalism report.

But a photograph is not necessarily objective reality. Why?


As you edit the photograph, you are making editorial decisions: What part of the photo is most important or newsworthy? (That is different than editing decisions based on attractiveness.)

Here are two examples: One benign, one politically charged.

I took the first photo in my final day on the White House beat, Sept. 2, 2013. It shows House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi speaking to a group of reporters outside the West Wing entrance (also known as “the Stakeout”). The second photo is a wedding snapshot featuring Bill and Hillary Clinton at Donald Trump’s most recent wedding.

Screenshot 2015-12-20 10.35.54

Nancy Pelosi at the Stakeout. The viewer’s eye focuses on the media scrum.

Screenshot 2015-12-20 10.36.14

The edited photo focuses on Nancy Pelosi.

Screenshot 2015-12-20 10.09.47

The original image: The Trumps and Clintons are all smiles at Donald Trump’s latest wedding.

Screenshot 2015-12-20 10.09.47 - Version 2

Edited photo #1: That was then, this is war: Hillary and Donald look happy together. That’s not the way they’re acting in the heat of the presidential race.

Screenshot 2015-12-20 10.09.47 - Version 3

Edited photo #2: Editing out the Trumps, this could be any of the tens of thousands of Clinton family photos taken over the decades.

Screenshot 2015-12-20 10.09.47 - Version 4

Edited photo #3: Editing out the spouses, this version looks like Bill Clinton is enjoying his time with Mrs. Trump. It emphasizes their left hands meeting along her waist.

The Trump-Clinton wedding photo is fraught with political overtones. Some of Trump’s 2016 Republican presidential campaign rivals would like to remind voters of his bipartisan past and his longtime coziness with the Clintons. The unedited photo is incontrovertible evidence that the two families were close enough that they were all smiles together in the not-so-distant past.

By focusing on Donald and Hillary, the photo editor chooses to highlight the 2016 rivalry, without the spouses. It’s Hillary vs. Donald. All smiles then. All insults now.

By editing out the Trumps, this is an unexceptional photo of Bill and Hillary Clinton smiling for the cameras. Little news value.

By editing out Donald and Hillary, the photo focuses on Bill Clinton with his arm around an attractive woman. Her left hand touches his, prompting the viewer to reach her/his own conclusion about the body chemistry.

The takeaway lesson: When you are editing photos for content, think about how your cropping decisions change the meaning of the image in the eyes of your audience. Are you sending the message you want to send? Are you fairly reflecting reality? Are you being fair to the subjects in the photo?

If you are a professional photo editor, the answer to all of the questions should be yes.

Analysis: Why Xi Jinping’s summit with Barack Obama is more important than you may think

Analyzing the summit for CCTV.

Analyzing the summit for CCTV. You can watch the entire Dialogue program here.

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?

China US flags

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.

Presidents Obama and Xi walk from the White House to Blair House for dinner on Sept. 24.

Presidents Obama and Xi walk from the White House to Blair House for dinner on Sept. 24.

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.

The two presidents take questions from the U.S. and Chinese media on Sept. 25.

The two presidents take questions from the U.S. and Chinese media on Sept. 25.

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.

Photo opp with CRI crew and fellow guests after the Today program on Sept. 25.

Photo op with CRI crew and fellow guests after the Today program on Sept. 25. You can listen here.

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.

The first families wave from the Truman Balcony at the White House.

The first families wave from the Truman Balcony at the White House.

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.

XI Jinping is honored in Iowa, where he lived several decades ago.

Before becoming China’s president, Xi Jinping visited Iowa, where he lived several decades ago.

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

Analysis: Confrontation inevitable as Republicans test a ‘weak’ Obama

Live on CCTV as a Beijing-based expert on U.S. politics.

Live on CCTV as a Beijing-based expert on U.S. politics.

A day after Republicans swept to a broad, deep victory in the 2014 midterm elections, I appeared on CCTV’s Dialogue program to discuss the impact of the elections on American politics. Here is a transcript of the interview by host Yang Rui, edited for clarity and slightly tightened.

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.

A government shutdown is likely.

A government shutdown is likely.

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.

A durable Democratic majority after 2008? Nope.

A durable Democratic majority after 2008? Nope.

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.

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?

Toxic White House water might have killed three U.S. presidents — Harrison, Polk and Taylor

Tippecanoe … and Taylor, too?

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As a history major, I’ve always struggled for an explanation for the surprisingly bad string of American presidents who served between 1840 and 1860.

This motley crew was politically inept. Think Millard Fillmore. James Buchanan. Franklin Pierce. Zachary Taylor.

The group also had a very high mortality rate. William Henry Harrison died one month after assuming office in March 1841. James Polk (he of Texas annexation and “Manifest Destiny”) died shortly after leaving office. And Zachary Taylor, the old (and I emphasize old) Mexican War hero died less than a year into his term, leaving Americans saddled with Fillmore, who later unsuccessfully sought to return to the presidency as the nominee of the aptly named Know Nothing Party.

He would have become president. Philadelphia's only vice president, George Mifflin Dallas, one of the subjects of my master's thesis.

He would have become president. Philadelphia’s only vice president, George Mifflin Dallas, one of the subjects of my master’s thesis.

I will claim some academic expertise in this period of history. My master’s thesis at the University of Pennsylvania was on the 1844 Philadelphia economic elite, which included Polk’s vice president, George Mifflin Dallas. The city of Dallas, Texas, is named after this Philadelphian who might — just might — have become the nation’s 12th president if Polk had died a few months earlier, while still in office.

With apologies to Alexis de Tocqueville, the stretch of dysfunctional democracy in America had many causes, including the implacable division between North and South over fundamental social issues, the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment and the triumph of extremism (and mediocrity) on Capitol Hill.

Sound familiar to your 2014 ears?

Historians have written lots about the political debacle in ante-bellum America. But they haven’t written as much about the health debacle in the White House. That’s why the story that appeared in the April 1 edition of the New York Times (it’s no April Fool’s joke) is so important.

The piece outlined speculation about the cause of William Henry Harrison’s death. Conventional wisdom has held (for 173 years) that old Tippecanoe, the oldest man to be sworn in as president until Ronald Reagan, died of pneumonia after catching cold while delivering the longest inaugural address in American history. (I think it may have equalled all four of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s speeches combined. He had nothing to fear but pneumonia itself.)

But it turns out that pneumonia may not have caused Harrison’s death. The Times article casts a credible finger of blame at the potentially toxic supply of drinking water consumed by American presidents during the time before indoor plumbing:

In those days the nation’s capital had no sewer system. Until 1850, some sewage simply flowed onto public grounds a short distance from the White House, where it stagnated and formed a marsh; the White House water supply was just seven blocks downstream of a depository for “night soil,” hauled there each day at government expense.

That field of human excrement would have been a breeding ground for two deadly bacteria, Salmonella typhi and S. paratyphi, the causes of typhoid and paratyphoid fever — also known as enteric fever, for their devastating effect on the gastrointestinal system.

According to the Times piece, Harrison’s eventual case of pneumonia is consistent with enteric fever and may just have been one of the manifestations of acute poisoning.

“As he lay dying, Harrison had a sinking pulse and cold, blue extremities, two classic manifestations of septic shock,” Jane McHugh and Philip A. Mackowiak wrote in the Times. “Given the character and course of his fatal illness, his untimely death is best explained by enteric fever.”

Harrison was the first of three U.S. presidents to die in office (or shortly after leaving office) within a span of only nine years. I’d say that’s reason for some serious “cold case” sleuthing.

Mackowiak, a scholar-in-residence at the University of Maryland and author of “Diagnosing Giants: Solving the Medical Mysteries of Thirteen Patients Who Changed the World,” took up the challenge,  joined by San Antonio writer McHugh.

They made a strong case for tainted water as being the cause of Harrison’s death, and suggested that Polk and Taylor may have been its victims, too. They noted that the 11th and 12th presidents “developed severe gastroenteritis while living in the White House. Taylor died, while Polk recovered, only to be killed by what is thought to have been cholera a mere three months after leaving office.”

There’s further evidence to suspect that Mackowiak and McHugh are onto something. The president’s quarters on the second floor of the White House did not get running water until 1853 — Fillmore is given credit by some history books for this major technological advance. After Millard’s move, no president contracted gastroenteritis or died of natural causes. (We’ll leave the mysterious 1923 death of Warren Harding to another blog post.)

So we can’t blame the failure of Fillmore, Pierce and Buchanan on tainted water. Just tainted politics.

Welcome to RickDunhamBlog.com!

Nearly six years after creating Texas on the Potomac — the popular political blog of the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News, I am launching my own personal blog.

I will periodically offer insight, news and analysis on topics I find interesting. I’ll also post multimedia tips for aspiring journalists and mid-career professionals alike. And I’ll experiment with innovative story-telling techniques.

Feel free to interact and send ideas for posts.

Discussing 2012 election results on a Capitol Hill panel.

Discussing 2012 election results on a Capitol Hill panel.

I’ll start with the basic biography:

I’m a veteran political journalist and one of the nation’s foremost authorities on the use of social media for journalism and community-building. I’ve been Washington bureau chief of the Houston Chronicle since 2007 and also served as Hearst Newspapers Washington bureau chief from 2009 to 2012.

I am the creator and chief author of the popular political blog “Texas on the Potomac” on chron.com and mysanantonio.com. I was the leading content provider for Perry Presidential, an award-winning web site dedicated to comprehensive coverage and analysis of Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s unsuccessful 2012 presidential campaign.

“First, readers were lucky to have a newspaper willing to dedicate the staff to cover Perry’s bid as an intensely local story,” the Texas Associated Press Managing Editors wrote in the 2013 award explanation. “Just as important, the overall level of work was superb.”

(Twitter: @RickDunham)

From 1992 to July 2007, I was the national political correspondent for Business Week magazine, covering the White House, Congress, economic issues, and political and policy trends.

I earlier spent seven years in the Washington bureau of the Dallas Times Herald as a national political reporter, congressional correspondent and Supreme Court correspondent. During my 13 years at the Dallas Times Herald, I also was a city desk reporter in Dallas and a correspondent in the Austin bureau, where I covered state government, the Texas Legislature, the state budget, education and Texas politics.

I have offered political analysis on ABC, CNN, CNBC, MSNBC, the PBS News Hour and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. I also have appeared on C-SPAN, the BBC, National Public Radio, ABC Radio, Fox News Channel and numerous radio stations and networks.

From 2005 to 2009, I wrote a “Letter from America” column for the Finnish newspaper Aamulehti explaining U.S. politics and culture to an international audience.

A former president of both the National Press Club and the National Press Club Journalism Institute, the educational and charitable arm of the world’s leading professional organization for journalists, I try to remain on the cutting edge of journalism technology and training. I have taught classes and hosted panel discussions on journalism skills, web content, social media and journalism ethics.

From 1999 to 2005, I was a mentor with the UNITY Mentor Program for young journalists of color, where I worked one-on-one with young journalists and taught workshops on journalism skills. I have lectured to classes at institutions including Texas A&M University, American University, Boston University, the University of Alabama, Towson State University, Carleton College and Flagler College.

I also have written for the Philadelphia Inquirer (as University of Pennsylvania stringer) and the Cleveland Plain Dealer (as a summer intern), and have contributed to three books (“The Founding City,” Chilton Books, 1976, “The Handbook of Campaign Spending,” Congressional Quarterly Press, 1992, and “The Almanac of the Unelected,” Bernan Press, 2006). I wrote a new foreword to the 60th anniversary edition of my grandfather Barrows Dunham’s classic philosophy book, “Man against Myth,” which was republished in 2007.

I have served on the steering committee of The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press since 1999 and am a former chairman of the steering committee.

From 1992 to 1999, I served on the Executive Committee of Periodical Correspondents, which oversees the press galleries on Capitol Hill for more than 2,000 news magazine and newsletter correspondents. As Executive Committee chairman from 1995 to 1997, I helped to coordinate press logistics for the national conventions and presidential inauguration.I am a graduate of Central High School in Philadelphia (233rd class) and hold B.A. and M.A. degrees in history from the University of Pennsylvania. My wife, Pam Tobey, is a graphic artist at the Washington Post.