Growing Up in America
A reader might ask why two people who have devoted their careers
to writing about foreign affairs—one of us as a foreign
correspondent and columnist at The New York Times and the other
as a professor of American foreign policy at The Johns Hopkins
University School of Advanced International Studies—have
collaborated on a book about the American condition today. The answer is
simple. We have been friends for more than twenty years, and in that
time hardly a week has gone by without our discussing some aspect of
international relations and American foreign policy. But in the last
couple of years, we started to notice something: Every conversation
would begin with foreign policy but end with domestic policy—what
was happening, or not happening, in the United States. Try as we might
to redirect them, the conversations kept coming back to America and our
seeming inability today to rise to our greatest challenges.
This situation, of course, has enormous foreign policy implications.
America plays a huge and, more often than not, constructive role in the
world today. But that role depends on the country's social, political,
and economic health. And America today is not healthy—economically
or politically. This book is our effort to explain how we got into that
state and how we get out of it.
We beg the reader's indulgence with one style issue. At times, we
include stories, anecdotes, and interviews that involve only one of us.
To make clear who is involved, we must, in effect, quote ourselves: "As
Tom recalled ..." "As Michael wrote ..." You can't simply say "I said"
or "I saw" when you have a co-authored book with a lot of reporting in
Readers familiar with our work know its mainly as authors and
commentators, but we are also both, well, Americans. That is important,
because that identity drives the book as much as our policy interests
do. So here are just a few words of introduction from each of
us—not as experts but as citizens.
Tom: I was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and was raised in a
small suburb called St. Louis Park-made famous by the brothers Ethan and
Joel Coen in their movie A Serious Man, which was set in our
neighborhood. Senator Al Franken, the Coen brothers, the Harvard
political philosopher Michael J. Sandel, the political scientist Norman
Ornstein, the longtime NFL football coach Marc Trestman, and I all grew
up in and around that little suburb within a few years of one another,
and it surely had a big impact on all of its. In my case, it bred a deep
optimism about America and the notion that we really can act
collectively for the common good.
In 1971, the year I graduated from high school, Time magazine had
a cover featuring then Minnesota governor Wendell Anderson holding up a
fish he had just caught, under the headline "The Good Life in
Minnesota." It was all about "the state that works." When the senators
from your childhood were the Democrats Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale,
and Eugene McCarthy, your congressmen were the moderate Republicans
Clark MacGregor and Bill Frenzel, and the leading corporations in your
state—Dayton's, Target, General Mills, and 3M—were pioneers
in corporate social responsibility and believed that it was part of
their mission to help build things like the Tyrone Guthrie Theater, you
wound up with a deep conviction that politics really can work and that
there is a viable political center in American life.
I attended public school with the same group of kids from K through 12.
In those days in Minnesota, private schools were for kids in trouble.
Private school was pretty much unheard of for middle-class St. Louis
Park kids, and pretty much everyone was middle-class. My mom enlisted in
the U.S. Navy in World War II, and my parents actually bought our home
thanks to the loan she got through the GI Bill. My dad, who never went
to college, was vice president of a company that sold ball bearings. My
wife, Ann Bucksbaum, was born in Marshalltown, Iowa, and was raised in
Des Moines. To this day, my best friends are still those kids I grew up
with in St. Louis Park, and I still carry around a mental image—no
doubt idealized—of Minnesota that anchors and informs a lot of my
political choices. No matter where I go—London, Beirut, Jerusalem,
Washington, Beijing, or Bangalore—I'm always looking to rediscover
that land of ten thousand lakes where politics actually worked to make
people's lives better, not pull them apart. That used to be us.
In fact, it used to be my neighborhood.
Michael: While Tom and his wife come from the middle of the
country, my wife, Anne Mandelbaum, and I grew up on the two
coasts—she in Manhattan and I in Berkeley, California. My father
was a professor of anthropology at the University of California, and my
mother, after my two siblings and I reached high school age, became a
public school teacher and then joined the education faculty at the
university that we called, simply, Cal.
Although Berkeley has a reputation for political radicalism, during my
childhood in the 1950s it had more in common with Tom's Minneapolis than
with the Berkeley the world has come to know. It was more a slice of
Middle America than a hotbed of revolution. As amazing as it may seem
today, for part of my boyhood it had a Republican mayor and was
represented by a Republican congressman.
One episode from those years is particularly relevant to this book. It
occurred in the wake of the Soviet Union's 1957 launching of Sputnik,
the first Earth-orbiting satellite. The event was a shock to the United
States, and the shock waves reached Garfield Junior High School (since
renamed after Martin Luther King Jr.), where I was in seventh grade. The
entire student body was summoned to an assembly at which the principal
solemnly informed us that in the future we all would have to study
harder, and that mathematics and science would be crucial.
Given my parents' commitment to education, I did not need to be told
that school and studying were important. But I was impressed by the
gravity of the moment. I understood that the United States faced a
national challenge and that everyone would have to contribute to meeting
it. I did not doubt that America, and Americans, would meet it. There is
no going back to the 1950s, and there are many reasons to be glad that
that is so, but the kind of seriousness the country was capable of then
is just as necessary now.
We now live and work in the nation's capital, where we have seen
firsthand the government's failure to come to terms with the major
challenges the country faces. But although this book's perspective on
the present is gloomy, its hopes and expectations for the future are
high. We know that America can meet its challenges. After all, that's
the America where we grew up.
Thomas L. Friedman Michael Mandelbaum Bethesda, Maryland, June 2011
If You See Something, Say Something
This is a book about America that begins in China.
In September 2010, Tom attended the World Economic Forum's summer
conference in Tianjin, China. Five years earlier, getting to Tianjin had
involved a three-and-a-half-hour car ride from Beijing to a polluted,
crowded Chinese version of Detroit, but things had changed. Now, to get
to Tianjin, you head to the Beijing South Railway Station—an
ultramodern flying saucer of a building with glass walls and an oval
roof covered with 3,246 solar panels—buy a ticket from an
electronic kiosk offering choices in Chinese and English, and board a
world-class high-speed train that goes right to another roomy, modern
train station in downtown Tianjin. Said to be the fastest in the world
when it began operating in 2008, the Chinese bullet train covers 115
kilometers, or 72 miles, in a mere twenty-nine minutes.
The conference itself took place at the Tianjin Meijiang Convention and
Exhibition Center—a massive, beautifully appointed structure, the
like of which exists in few American cities. As if the convention center
wasn't impressive enough, the conference's co-sponsors in Tianjin gave
some facts and figures about it (www.tj-summerdavos.cn). They noted that
it contained a total floor area of 230,000 square meters (almost 2.5
million square feet) and that "construction of the Meijiang Convention
Center started on September 15, 2009, and was completed in May, 2010."
Reading that line, Tom started counting on his fingers: Let's
see—September, October, November, December, January ...
Returning home to Maryland from that trip, Tom was describing the
Tianjin complex and how quickly it was built to Michael and his wife,
Anne. At one point Anne asked: "Excuse me, Tom. Have you been to our
subway stop lately?" We all live in Bethesda and often use the
Washington Metrorail subway to get to work in downtown Washington, D.C.
Tom had just been at the Bethesda station and knew exactly what Anne was
talking about: The two short escalators had been under repair for nearly
six months. While the one being fixed was closed, the other had to be
shut off and converted into a two-way staircase. At rush hour, this was
creating a huge mess. Everyone trying to get on or off the platform had
to squeeze single file up and down one frozen escalator. It sometimes
took ten minutes just to get out of the station. A sign on the closed
escalator said that its repairs were part of a massive escalator
What was taking this "modernization" project so long? We investigated.
Cathy Asato, a spokeswoman for the Washington Metropolitan Transit
Authority, had told the Maryland Community News (October 20,
2010) that "the repairs were scheduled to take about six months and are
on schedule. Mechanics need 10 to 12 weeks to fix each escalator."
A simple comparison made a startling point: It took China's Teda
Construction Group thirty-two weeks to build a world-class convention
center from the ground up—including giant escalators in every
corner—and it was taking the Washington Metro crew twenty-four
weeks to repair two tiny escalators of twenty-one steps each. We
searched a little further and found that WTOP, a local news radio
station, had interviewed the Metro interim general manager, Richard
Sarles, on July 20, 2010. Sure, these escalators are old, he said, but
"they have not been kept in a state of good repair. We're behind the
curve on that, so we have to catch up ... Just last week, smoke began
pouring out of the escalators at the Dupont Circle station during rush
On November 14, 2010, The Washington Post ran a letter to the
editor from Mark Thompson of Kensington, Maryland, who wrote:
I have noted with interest your reporting on the $225,000 study that
Metro hired Vertical Transportation Excellence to conduct into the sorry
state of the system's escalators and elevators ... I am sure that the
study has merit. But as someone who has ridden Metro for more than 30
years, I can think of an easier way to assess the health of the
escalators. For decades they ran silently and efficiently. But over the
past several years-when the escalators are running-aging or ill-fitting
parts have generated horrific noises that sound to me like a
Tyrannosaurus Rex trapped in a tar pit screeching its dying screams.
The quote we found most disturbing, though, came from a Maryland
Community News story about the long lines at rush hour caused by the
seemingly endless Metro repairs: "`My impression, standing on line
there, is people have sort of gotten used to it,' said Benjamin Ross,
who lives in Bethesda and commutes every day from the downtown station."
The National Watercooler
People have sort of gotten used to it. Indeed, that sense of
resignation, that sense that, well, this is just how things are in
America today, that sense that America's best days are behind it and
China's best days are ahead of it, have become the subject of
watercooler, dinner-party, grocery-line, and classroom conversations all
across America today. We hear the doubts from children, who haven't been
to China. Tom took part in the September 2010 Council of Educational
Facility Planners International (CEFPI) meeting in San Jose, California.
As part of the program, there was a "School of the Future Design
Competition," which called for junior high school students to design
their own ideal green school. He met with the finalists on the last
morning of the convention, and they talked about global trends. At one
point, Tom asked them what they thought about China. A young
blond-haired junior high school student, Isabelle Foster, from Old Lyme
Middle School in Connecticut, remarked, "It seems like they have more
ambition and will than we do." Tom asked her, "Where did you get that
thought?" She couldn't really explain it, she said. She had never
visited China. But it was just how she felt. It's in the air.
We heard the doubts about America from Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell,
in his angry reaction after the National Football League postponed for
two days a game scheduled in Philadelphia between the Philadelphia
Eagles and the Minnesota Vikings-because of a severe snowstorm. The NFL
ordered the games postponed because it didn't want fans driving on icy,
snow-covered roads. But Rendell saw it as an indicator of something more
troubling-that Americans had gone soft. "It goes against everything that
football is all about," Rendell said in an interview with the sports
radio station 97.5 The Fanatic in Philadelphia (December 27, 2010).
"We've become a nation of wusses. The Chinese are kicking our butt in
everything. If this was in China, do you think the Chinese would have
called off the game? People would have been marching down to the
stadium, they would have walked, and they would have been doing calculus
on the way down."
We read the doubts in letters to the editor, such as this impassioned
post by Eric R. on The New York Times comments page under a
column Tom wrote about China (December 1, 2010):
We are nearly complete in our evolution from Lewis and Clark into Elmer
Fudd and Yosemite Sam. We used to embrace challenges, endure privation,
throttle our fear and strike out into the (unknown) wilderness. In this
mode we rallied to span the continent with railroads, construct a
national highway system, defeated monstrous dictators, cured polio and
landed men on the moon. Now we text and put on makeup as we drive, spend
more on video games than books, forswear exercise, demonize hunting, and
are rapidly succumbing to obesity and diabetes. So much for the
pioneering spirit that made its (once) the greatest nation on earth, one
that others looked up to and called "exceptional."
Sometimes the doubts hit its where we least expect them. A few weeks
after returning from China, Tom went to the White House to conduct an
interview. He passed through the Secret Service checkpoint on
Pennsylvania Avenue, and after putting his bags through the X-ray
machine and collecting them, he grabbed the metal door handle to enter
the White House driveway. The handle came off in his hand. "Oh, it does
that sometimes," the Secret Service agent at the door said nonchalantly,
as Tom tried to fit the wobbly handle back into the socket.
And often now we hear those doubts from visitors here-as when a neighbor
in Bethesda mentions that over the years he has hired several young
women from Germany to help with his child care, and they always remark
on two things: how many squirrels there are in Washington, and how
rutted the streets are. They just can't believe that America's capital
would have such potholed streets.
So, do we buy the idea, increasingly popular in some circles, that
Britain owned the nineteenth century, America dominated the twentieth
century, and China will inevitably reign supreme in the twenty-first
century-and that all you have to do is fly from Tianjin or Shanghai to
Washington, D.C., and take the subway to know that?
Excerpted from THAT USED TO BE US: How America Fell Behind in the World
It Invented and How We Can Come Back by Thomas L. Friedman and Michael
Mandelbaum, published in September 2011 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux,
LLC. Copyright © 2011 by Thomas L. Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum.
All rights reserved.
Excerpted from "That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back" by Thomas L. Friedman. Copyright © 0 by Thomas L. Friedman. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.