For Morning Edition's occasional feature "Word of Mouth," Daily Beast Editor-in-Chief Tina Brown sits down with NPR's Steve Inskeep for a chat about a few of the best books and articles — or at least the most provocative ones — to cross her desk lately.
On the list this time around: an argument that Americans have lost their oomph; a takedown of overlong newspaper stories; an insider account of a famous moment in the financial crisis; and a political wife's memoir. Three of these recent reads come highly recommended — but about one of them, Brown doesn't mince any words.
From The Spectator: 'America The Miserable'
Like Brown, Patrick Allitt is a Brit — an Oxford-educated history professor teaching at Emory University in Atlanta — and his recent article "America the Miserable," published in the U.K. magazine The Spectator, argues that the can-do spirit that once defined America is fading, and that Americans themselves are pessimistic about their own country's future.
"He even cites the success of Avatar," Brown notes. "He writes, 'In its lumbering allegorical style it depicts an American way of life that consists in equal parts of cynicism, destruction and a brutal, galaxy-encompassing greed. You might think citizens would object to such demonisation, but they don't.' "
Of course Americans have always argued among themselves about the nation's course. And Brown allows that "it is, in a way, a fashionable thing right now for the thinking classes to write long screeds about how America's power has ended in the world" and how China's rise means ever-increasing limits on a country accustomed to being a sole superpower. But Brown also sees "a genuine malaise with unemployment, where people have a lot to be depressed about."
Still: "Being an immigrant myself, I only see how wonderful America is compared to the U.K.," Brown says. "When I call up, I always hear the rain in their voices." She puts on an Eeyorish tone: " 'Hello-o-o-o-o,' they say. And I think to myself, 'I am so happy that I left.' I don't have to hear 'Hello-o-o-o-o.' "
From Henry Paulson: 'Mr. McCain Comes To Washington'
In the Wall Street Journal on Feb. 6, former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson published an exerpt from his new book, On the Brink: Inside the Race to Stop the Collapse of the Global Financial System. It describes the scene at the White House in September 2008, after Sen. John McCain dramatically suspended his presidential campaign and flew back to Washington, calling on all political hands to join him in rescuing the collapsing U.S. economy.
"It really was, I thought, a riveting account," Brown says. "There is a great scene in here, where McCain finally gets this meeting that he's summoned. And then what Paulson gives is an account of how, in the meeting with the president, with all the players assembled including [then-candidate] Obama, McCain had absolutely nothing to say. It was like, 'I'm here to stop the fire! Uhhhhh, yeah: Well, maybe I'll just stand here and wait for a pail.' And finally Obama says loudly ... 'I'd like to hear what Sen. McCain has to say, since we haven't heard from him yet.' "
As [McCain] spoke, I could see Obama chuckling. McCain's comments were anticlimactic, to say the least. His return to Washington was impulsive and risky, and I don't think he had a plan in mind. If anything, his gambit only came back to hurt him, as he was pilloried in the press afterward, and in the end, I don't believe his maneuver significantly influenced the TARP legislative process.
It's a revealing look, Brown says, at an "amazing moment in politics, completely subsuming any real care for this crisis that the country was in at the time." Better yet, it's a startlingly direct-seeming bit of reportage — in a partisan era, from a Republican-appointed Treasury secretary — on an incident that left a Republican presidential candidate looking less than presidential.
"I think that, to me, is what's authentic about it," Brown says. "It did feel like a real piece of reporting, which I didn't expect."
From Jenny Sanford: 'Staying True'
The estranged wife of South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford has a political memoir, of sorts: Jenny Sanford's Staying True explains why she didn't stand by her man when he returned from a secret trip to Argentina and the mistress he'd been seeing there. Sanford joined Renee Montagne earlier this week on Morning Edition, and while many listeners and readers may have been impressed with her calm and candor, Brown isn't a fan of her book.
"I have to say I'm getting increasingly impatient with The Wronged Wives Club," Brown says. "The men they're married to are utter snakes and worms, but these women — they do buy into this stuff, and then they are so humorless about it at the end. Jenny Sanford's book is such a pious document. At some point, I really wish one of these women would begin their book and say, 'I am writing this book out of sweet revenge; my husband was a total worm, and this is payback time.' It would be a little more honest."
Instead, Brown complains, political spouses often retreat to platitudes: 'You know, 'I'm doing this for the children,' " or some such. "It is all nonsense. It is about one of two things: money or revenge. Very often both."
From The Atlantic: 'Cut This Story'
Michael Kinsley's article in the January/February issue of The Atlantic comes with a no-nonsense tag line: "Newspaper articles are too long."
And while Brown — who's been known to champion long-form journalism — has some thoughts on Kinsley's arguments, you'll have to listen to the audio of this story to find out what they are. Because we're hereby taking them to heart.