Michelle Nunn’s Public-Service Message

Correction appended: Sept. 25.

Atlanta, Ga.

We like to be a full-service road trip, sometimes even involving social mediacracy, And so…

Here’s a shout-out to TIME’s terrific economic columnist Rana Faroohar from her old Indiana high school friend Patrick Duncan!

Patrick does what sounds like complicated statistical analysis for the Coca-Cola company, except for today, He spent today putting together meals for the elderly at a very impressive not-for-profit charity called Project Open Hand, alongside several dozen other volunteers from Coke and other Atlanta companies, plus church folks and retirees. His job was to stand over a vat of pale yellow cheese and, using an ice cream scoop, deposit a glop of it on some cut up cauliflower, which was accompanied by something that looked like chili in a plastic, heatable tray that was sealed with clear-wrap down the line.

Along about 11:30 this morning, Patrick looked across the vat of cheese and found himself staring at a wraithlike, academic-looking woman, who also was depositing glops of cheese on cauliflower coming her way down a makeshift assembly line. It was Michelle Nunn, the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate from Georgia. Now you know how this normally works: a politician deposits a glop in a photo-op and, once the picture is taken, moves on to her next event. But that’s not what happened today. Nunn stayed on the line until lunch break, chatting with Patrick Duncan about everything from life at Coke to the situation in Iraq. After it was over, Patrick said he was still undecided about who to vote for, “but the fact that she’s out here, doing this, means something.”

Most Memorable Previous Photo-Op Interlude: Michael Dukakis showed up at a candle-pin bowling alley in New Hampshire in 1988, rolled an elegant ball down the alley as photographers snapped from adjacent alleys, turned around and left, shaking some hands on the way. Four years later, Bill Clinton went to the same bowling alley, went to the locker room and came out wearing a bowling shirt. He bowled a full game, gabbing away with some of the locals. He was awful…but he was getting better as the game went on. “Let’s bowl another!” He said, gathering some more locals to join him. His staff had to drag him out of the place, but he haunted the alleys for the rest of the campaign. So, notice to wannabe politicians: actual enthusiasm counts for a lot, synthetic enthusiasm is easily detected.

Michelle Nunn has actual enthusiasm for public service projects. She’s been running them for 28 years, most recently as the director of George H.W. Bush’s Points of Light Foundation. She has done an interesting thing in her Senate campaign, staging regular service projects around the state–cleaning up playgrounds, restoring basketball courts, delivering meals. This may be something new under the sun: Seth Moulton, the Marine Captain who defeated the Democratic incumbent John Tierney in the Boston suburbs this month, organized volunteers to do service projects, too. There are those who may argue that the whole idea is hokey and just a more elaborate photo op–but public places are actually cleaned up, progress is made and the politician involved has a ready-made answer for the eternal question: What have you done for me lately?

And Also…

The drive from Atlanta to Tuscaloosa this afternoon enabled me to listen to some music and renew the road trip playlist tradition. Here are five songs my thoroughly shuffled iPod played along the way that made an impression:

1. Eva Cassidy–Oh, Had I A Golden Thread: Cassidy had one of the great voices ever, sadly gone now. This puts the instrument on spectacular display, almost knocked me off the road.

2. Lucinda Williams–Big Red Sun: Lucinda’s from Arkansas; I’ll be there next week. This is her country.

3.Bob Dylan–The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll: Bob Dylan’s withering civil rights ballad about a black hotel maid beaten to death by a wealthy customer. This was Hamilton Jordan’s favorite song. He was Jimmy Carter’s chief of staff and a stone outlaw. The fact that he loved this meant I couldn’t help but give him the benefit of the doubt and he almost always earned it. Had lunch with his son, Alex, in Atlanta the other day. Great scion.

4. Del McCoury Band–It’s Just the Night: Appalachia’s best.

5. Blind Faith–Can’t Find My Way Home: Got two weeks to go. We’ll see.


Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly referred to the non-profit as Open Hands. It is called Project Open Hand.


If You Agree With Me on 9 out of 12 Issues

Charlotte, North Carolina

Had to stop in and see Rye Barcott in Charlotte. Rye’s a former Marine Captain I’ve gotten to know the past few years–he and his friend, former combat surgeon, Dr. Dave Calloway are two of the most impressive young veterans I’ve met. Unfortunately, Dr. Dave was off in Jordan, helping to set up medical facilities in refugee camps, which is the sort of thing Dr. Dave does in his spare time–and so I asked Rye if he could put together a group of his friends to talk politics. “The only requirement,” I said, “is that they can’t all agree with each other.”

“No problem,” Rye replied…and he did put together a semi-rowdy group, some of them former military, most of them fledgling entrepreneurs, a couple were traditional liberals, a couple were Libertarians, one was a Republican operative, the rest were mostly searching. We met in Charlotte’s Midwood Smokehouse, the home of excellent barbecue, but not a site conducive to quiet, reflective conversation. So we declaimed our thoughts, some more enthusiastically than others.

The gist of the politics was that they were dissatisfied with baby boomer style politics; there was some talk about an independent third party. I tried to draw them out, find out why they thought everyone was so jaded, what their generation might do differently. No grand ideas emerged, but there was one very smart explanation from a 34-year-old entrepreneur named Justin Cunningham. “People expect to get just exactly what they purchase in this sophisticated consumer society, and usually they do,” he said. “Politicians are marketed like products. They market themselves through ads on TV and radio. And so people expect to get precisely what they think they’re paying for. But that’s impossible. Politicians are humans; there are always going to some things you like and others you don’t like so much about them. It’s a recipe for disappointment.”

It’s also, I believe, a real opening for a mildly courageous–or just clever–politician to lower expectations and raise them at the same time. The prototype is the late Ed Koch, mayor of New York, who once said, “If you agree with me on 9 out of 12 issues, vote for me. If you agree with me on 12 out of 12 issues, see a psychiatrist.”

Inevitably, the veterans present turned the conversation toward the shoddy treatment of their peers and the possibility of more war. “I see us going off again, without a real commitment from the politicians or the rest of society,” said a former Marine Captain. “There are so few of us who actually go off and do the fighting, how do we get the rest of society involved? That’s why I like the idea of a draft, even though our commanders don’t. But we have to find some way for the rest of society to have a stake in our mission.”

A big, persistent question–and an old unpopular answer was blurted from my mouth, unbidden: “What about a war tax? What if we had to pay for the costs of the war, separately from the rest of our taxes, in real time?”

The former sergeant seemed to think it was a good idea. I would have loved to see George W. Bush propose it in 2003, when he took us into Iraq. It would be interesting to see what happened if Barack Obama proposed it now that we’re kind of going back.

A final word on Rye Barcott. He joined the Marines because he was a humanitarian. As an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina, he started a charitable organization that linked the university with an infamous slum–Kibera–in Nairobi, Kenya. He started soccer leagues in the slum and health facilities. You can read all about it in Rye’s book, It Happened on the Way to War.


Smoked Republican Brisket

Joe Klein Road Trip Thom Tillis and Mark Walker
US Senate candidate Thom Tillis, right in blue shirt, greets and speaks to rally attendees at the Guildford County Republican Party headquarters in Greensboro, N.C. on Sept. 20, 2014. Jeremy M. Lange for TIME

Greensboro, North Carolina


Candace DeSantes has just retired as a reinsurance broker in Connecticut. She and her husband have moved to North Carolina. She’s a Republican and she’s noticed something, “Up in Connecticut, we didn’t dwell that much on gay marriage and abortion.” In fact, and here she began to whisper, “I’m pro-choice.” We were standing in the middle of the Guilford County Republican Party Headquarters, a large room filled with state and military flags–and campaign posters for Thom Tillis who is running for Senate and Mark Walker, a local minister who is running for Congress.

The room was filling up fast and I asked Candace why she was a Republican, “Economic issues.” She explained that she was a supply-sider, “I don’t mind paying my fair share. What I do mind is being vilified for having done well. My husband and I have been pretty successful and I don’t like being considered part of the ‘evil rich.’ You can disagree with my point of view, but we shouldn’t vilify people for their views in this country?”

I was curious about how Mrs. DeSantes would react to a heaping helping of Dixified red meat. In a year, say 2010, when the southern GOP was slinging anger and anti-Obama conspiracy silliness, DeSantes might have second thoughts about her party of choice in North Carolina. But what followed was…well, it was different.

“It’s sad,” Thom Tillis said, “that we have to be this disappointed in this President.” And that’s about as rough as it got. He criticized Obama–on health care, on foreign policy. He criticized his Democratic opponent Kay Hagan–for supporting the Affordable Care Act, diplomacy with Iran, the Senate immigration bill–with a call and respond line, “Is that a Senator from North Carolina?” He told his own up-by-his-bootstraps story. (Tillis started on a loading dock and didn’t get his college degree until he turned 36; but he’s been successful in business and is now the Speaker of the state legislature.) “I’m optimistic about our country,” he said, running against the right-wing radio trope that everything is going to hell in a hand basket.

I thought it was pretty effective, more smoked brisket than red meat. But the real shocker was Mark Walker, the Congressional candidate, who mostly talked about missions to help the poor that he’d undertaken via his church. He talked about faith-based social programs, much the way George W. Bush did. “I don’t want to pull the rug out from under people who are suffering,” he said, “but I do want to change the incentives in many of programs that we have. You don’t pull people out of poverty by making them more comfortable.” (Earlier, he’d told me that the thing he was most interested in doing if he won was finding Democrats he could work with to make the social welfare system more effective).

What didn’t the minister mention? Abortion. Homosexuality. Here’s his toughest line about Obama, “his present policies are hurting the country.”

Now, you know exactly how Tillis and Walker will vote if they win. I would be surprised if either of them took a single vote that wasn’t lockstep Republican. (And a local billboard quotes “extremist” Walker saying, “I think Romney was right about the 47%.”) But the style change is striking: The Republicans aren’t yelling this year. At least, not in North Carolina.



‘Are We Going Backwards?’

Raleigh, North Carolina

I love North Carolina. In my mind, the state will always be associated with my friend, the cartoonist and author Doug Marlette, who lived in Hillsborough and dragooned me into rooting for the Tar Heels basketball team. He died in a car crash–driven into a loblolly pine by a UMiss student, a classic southern way to go–a few years ago. Doug was a stone iconoclast, in the driest and most insidious way possible. I miss him every day and especially yesterday. What would Doug have made of this scene:

About 200 people had gathered to talk politics in the auditorium at the Galloway Ridge retirement community. I’ve watched politicians work rooms like this for 45 years, and I’d always seen the seniors as another country, a place I was visiting briefly and wanted to get away from as quickly as possible, with their walkers and oxygen machines and rambly minds. But I’m now age eligible to live in Galloway Ridge, if a bit on the young side–most of the audience had about ten years on me. And I realized this was the first time I’d covered a senior citizen meeting as a senior citizen. (Doug would have had something to say about that.) And there was another thing I had in common with the crowd. None of them were North Carolinians either.

I asked them how many had been born in North Carolina…about a dozen raised their hands. I asked how many were from New York? About 50. Most of the rest were from elsewhere in the north or from nearby states, lured by the pleasant conditions, sophistication–there are more retired PhDs in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area than any other place in the country, according to John Drescher, editor of the Raleigh News and Observer–and history of political and cultural moderation. (Doug might have drawn a cartoon of competing grits and bagel vendors.)

Folks like those I met at Galloway Ridge–snowbirds, they’re called down here–were one historic source of the moderation, but so was a brilliant strain of moderate politicians, mostly Democrats, who placed their bets on education. This has been true for fifty years, since governors like Terry Sanford and Jim Hunt ran things; both men were nationally recognized education experts. They believed that if you built a world-class educational system, especially at the university level, prosperity would follow. They were right–although, as in most other places, elementary and high schools never quite made the grade.

Kay Hagan, the incumbent Democratic Senator, calls education a “sacred priority” in the state, one that was trashed by a new breed of extreme Republicans when they took over the state legislature in 2010. And the first half dozen questions at Calloway Ridge were about education. “I feel we’re going backwards,” said Joan Lipshitz. “In just a few years, the Republicans have trashed 50 years of progress.”

Others agreed. “This used to be the vanguard of enlightened southern politics,” said Mike Zbailey. “That’s why we moved here. Now it’s in danger of becoming Alabama.” (Hey Alabama: I await your response. I’ll be there next week.)

But a real challenge came from a fellow named Tom Houk–hope I’ve spelled that right–who said that school system was busted. “Only 14% of African-American students pass their year-end tests; only 15% of Hispanics do. We need to provide them with better schools. Charter Schools.”

No one questioned the gentleman’s numbers, and I hope Tessa Berenson–this year’s trip wrangler, as Katy Steinmetz has gone on to writing cover stories and being an all-around terrific journalist for Time–will check them out. But Joan Lipsitz fired back that the schools needed more money to succeed. The Republicans were cutting budgets, skimping on teacher pay. “We need to support public education,” she said. (Charter schools are public schools, although some are run by profit-making ventures.)

There is where the conversation usually ends. Liberals want to spend more money. Conservatives want to see more accountability. (As a flaming moderate, I favor both.) And I tried to nudge the conversation forward, without much luck, asking this mostly liberal audience if they could see the point of more accountability. They weren’t giving much ground.

Earlier yesterday, I visited the Raleigh News and Observer, and one of the of the smart young reporters–an endangered species–raised the same question as Joan Lipsitz, “Are we going backwards?” Again, she was referring to the Republican legislature and education spending. But it was larger than that.

It’s a big question, a national question, one I’ll explore over the next few weeks on the road. In North Carolina, it’s the biggest question this year. Indeed, the Democrat Kay Hagan’s omnipresent radio ads focus on Republican Thom Tillis’s record on education spending in the state legislature–of course, it’s better for her to focus on North Carolina, rather than Washington, where the President whose name dare not be mentioned is still in charge.

I wonder what “going backwards” really means. It runs crosswise to the American spirit. Progress is our most important product. But is progress always more? Might it sometimes mean different, more effective, more efficient? Democrats are the conservatives on this issue: they don’t want to change the inspired obsession of Hunt and Sanford. Republicans are both progressive and reactionary–some legitimately believe that the old assembly-line system of public education needs to be customized for the information age and a competitive system of charter schools is the way to do it. Others just don’t want to spend the money (especially on black kids).

Tomorrow I’ll take a closer look at the Republican candidates in North Carolina.

And I’d like to thank Dr. Richard Merwarth for setting up the meeting at Galloway Ridge, one of the largest groups I’ve met with on these road trips.


TIME Foreign Policy

Obama, ISIS and 9/11

The President laid out a measured, prudent approach to handle the ISIS threat last night. A lot was unstated–as it should be–concerning the role of US special ops on the ground and surreptitious alliances with countries like Iran, whose interests now coincide with our own in the region. The McCainiac Republican reaction–more! bigger! now!–is so far beyond foolish that it needn’t be taken seriously. If John McCain had been elected President–and actually governed the way he runs his mouth–we’d have troops stuck in perpetuity in Iraq and Afghanistan, Syria, Libya and quite possibly Iran, not to mention Ukraine and Georgia (if we were lucky enough to avoid a nuclear exchange with Russia). McCain, in his tussle with Jay Carney on CNN last night, said we’d had troops in Korea and Bosnia for many years and nothing awful had happened–true enough–but neither Bosnia nor Korea (nor Germany, or Japan, he might have added) have the history of rampaging western imperialism that the Middle East does.

And that history of imperialism represents the greatest obstacle to success for Obama’s plan. George W Bush’s foolish invasion of Iraq, plus the increasing power of communication among jihadists, unleashed the possibility that the straight line borders and imaginary countries drawn by Europeans in the Middle East 98 years ago might erode (as the border between Syria and Iraq has now vanished). This is the most critical problem with the President’s plan: It assumes that Iraq is a country, that it will be able to organize a plausible, multi-sectarian government and Army–his proposed “boots on the ground” in the war against ISIS. It also assumes that Syria, in its current borders, is a country. But it’s equally possible that Syria splits apart into Sunni and Shia (plus Druse and Maronite) zones, perhaps compromising the future existence of Lebanon and Jordan. And that the Kurds split off from Iraq. And maybe even that the Shi’ites in Saudi Arabia’s eastern province make common cause with their Arab Shi’ite brothers across the “border” in southern Iraq. Or, worst of all, that we’re on the cusp of a regional Sunni-Shia conflagration–which our actions might help precipitate. The possibilities are myriad, and defy anything we now assume.

It is a safe bet that this area will have fractures and bloody amputations, stuggles over new borders and perhaps new countries for the rest of this century. The forces pushing toward a tribal and sectarian rationalizing of borders are far too primal for the U.S and the West to control completely. Does that mean we shouldn’t try? No. We should try–humbly–and with low expectations. We should certainly try to take out as many of ISIS’s assets as possible and proceed–as the President suggested we should–in the same targeted manner we have in Somalia and Yemen. Keeping the terrorists on the defensive is very much in our national interest.

There is constant talk of hard and soft power, but in the 13 years since 9/11, we have learned of a third source: viral power. Terrorism is a constantly metastasizing virus. It can be suppressed but it is too mutable to be swept away. It is difficult to fight with conventional means, under the traditional rules of war. What the President was trying to communicate last night was that this struggle is not going to end with a signing ceremony on the deck of a battleship. As John Kerry said in 2004, it will continue as a low-grade fever for many years, quite possibly for the rest of our children’s lives. It is a chronic condition that will have to be managed, until the real nations in that benighted region are sorted out, built, governed and controlled–not by us, but by the people who live there. Our job between now and then is to be realistic, defend our national security interests and to help, diplomatically and economically, to build a stable peace, if such a thing is possible.

TIME nation

Missed Chance on Immigration

Obama had an opportunity to do something great. Instead, he hid behind the politics

A few weeks ago, I was accosted by a guy who said, contemptuously, “I know why you still have your job.” I asked him why, stupidly. Turned out, he didn’t really want to tell me–although he insisted he knew–because he said I’d just deny it. But in the midst of his splutter, other facts emerged. I was part of the liberal media establishment, working in clandestine fashion with President Obama. Our secret mission was to stage an ethnic revolution by allowing all sorts of immigrants through the border and getting them to vote. “People like me tell the truth,” the man said, “and people like you call us racists.” An interesting rhetorical ploy, since it did appear by all the evidence that he was one, although I didn’t mention that … because he’d just deny it.

I report this decidedly unpleasant incident because it is pure distillate of the latest stage of anti-Obama paranoia. The first was that the President was not an American and was quite probably a secret Muslim. The second was that he was a socialist, trying to have the government take over everything–like health care–so that money could be transferred to the deadbeats. Now he’s trying to undermine American democracy by having all these furriners fake their way into our voting booths. The real news here, I think, is that immigration–not Obamacare–will be the hottest of buttons in the November elections. According to a recent Gallup poll, immigration is now the No. 1 issue for Republicans. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that only 3% of Republicans and 2% of Democrats thought Obamacare was the biggest problem.

For the first 190 years of U.S. history, opposition to immigration was mostly about religion–Catholicism and Judaism. For the past 50 or so, it’s been mostly about race–Mexicans and other Latinos. Nativists have always existed in both parties, and they’ve gotten particularly noisy over this ugly summer, as terrified Central American refugees flowed toward the border–which is really why the President decided to postpone his plans to expand immigration rights until after the November elections. The fate of several moderate Democrats, in states where aversion to illegal immigrants is fierce, will determine whether the Senate goes Republican. Nativists have won temporary victories in the past, but it has become clear that there are no limits to the basic American principle: the things we have in common are more important than the things that divide us. Most academic studies show that immigration is a net plus for the economy (unless there is an illegal deluge, which there hasn’t been, despite the recent refugees). “Give us … your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free” has been at the heart of the American exception, along with democracy and freedom.

The President has eloquently spoken of this basic principle in the past. With a mom from Kansas and a dad from Kenya, he embodies it. But he has abandoned the high ground and seems a bit panicky now, dodging immigration reform even though he believes in it, thereby offending all sides. There are various explanations, none of them very noble, for Obama’s diminishing ability to convince anyone of anything. I think the problem has been there from the start: he is not a natural politician and, consequently, places too much faith in those who are alleged experts in the art. He buys their discombobulated, amoral strategies. He uses their language: he talks about “optics” when he plays golf instead of spending a vacation day in quiet reflection after an American journalist is beheaded. He sounds cynical. He almost never makes a straight-ahead moral argument. That was true on health care, where he never mentioned the fact that the program was a matter of simple fairness: the poor had medical coverage through Medicaid; the working poor and many self-employed were stuck.

On immigration, he announced his prevarication by telling Chuck Todd, “And I’m being honest now, about the politics of it,” while insisting politics had nothing to do with his delayed action. A working politician should never use the words honest and politics in the same sentence. In this case, the President’s disingenuous claim led to a cascade of rhetorical malarkey. Disappointed Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell blasted Obama for not going through with his Executive Order even though he and most Republicans thought it was illegal. Why would he do that? Because he thought unilateral action by Obama on immigration would help Republicans in November.

There has always been politics. Some of us love its primal intricacy and elegance. But politics without moral content becomes an exercise in competing cynicisms, with progress an occasional, almost accidental, consequence. And in such an atmosphere you have to wonder why Barack Obama is playing games with one of the core issues that define who we are as a country.

TO READ JOE’S BLOG POSTS, GO TO time.com/swampland


Join Joe Klein’s 2014 Road Trip

TIME's political columnist plans Southern swing ahead of midterm elections

I’m heading south this year, starting on September 19th–in search of fun, insight and American stuff. As always, if you’d like to meet with me and talk politics, let me know… Also, I’d love to hear about any debates, barbecues, picnics, festivals or rituals coming up in your states. We start 9/19 in North Carolina…9/22 in Georgia, 9/24 in Alabama, 9/26-28 in Tennessee, 9/29-30 Mississippi, 10/1-3 Louisiana, 10/4-5 in Arkansas, 10/6-7 in Kentucky.

The schedule is subject to change, depending on political events…and you. If you’d like to get together, please contact me at Joe_Klein@timemagazine.com…or trip wrangler Tessa.Berenson@Timeinc.com.

I’m looking forward to several weeks of politics from the ground up, good music and great food.



In Praise of Steven Sotloff

I didn’t know Steven Sotloff, even though he did some work for Time. But I can recognize who he was from the photo in the Time.com story announcing his death–Sotloff in kevlar helmet, with ill-fitting body armor and the notebook–always the notebook–out there, up front. He wasn’t as dashing as the late and wildly courageous photo-journalist James Foley; somehow, writers never are. I’ve known many stringers like Steve Sotloff and admired almost all of them. They turn up in war zones or other difficult places, looking for adventure and hoping to make a splash…or just tell a compelling story. Many of the brilliant war correspondents whose words and photos have graced Time’s pages started off as stringers. Other stringers can also be academics, with a language skill or a love for the country in question. (Believe me, it is easy to fall in love with Syria and Syrians, or the Yemenis or, in a different era, the Vietnamese.) Still others are local nationals, who risk everything to work for the American media for a variety of reasons–money, truth, patriotism, professional pride.

But they all have one thing in common: they are lovers of freedom, personal freedom, their right to pursue the news. Often, to a fault. And I cannot forget another thing: their generosity. As a visiting bigfoot in dangerous places, I’d always meet these men and women at the hotel bar–or the military helipad, waiting for a lift–and I would ask them questions, and their enthusiasm, and knowledge, and humanity, were extraordinary. Their sense of the situation on the ground was, more often than not, the basis of the not-very-deathless words I’d later write. I’d buy them drinks; they gave me wisdom.

They are the precise opposite of those who now seek to murder them. They were–they are–quite a tribe, a tribe of humanists; I was proud, from time to time, to be considered an auxiliary member. I sometimes fear that the changing nature of the news business has made it more difficult for this tribe to thrive. The public doesn’t like bad news, unless it is phony news, involving Kim Kardashian or some other shameless cipher. The public can’t stand the truth of blood that isn’t carefully orchestrated by Hollywood–and the public can choose the news it consumes. But still the stringers come and risk their lives, all for the love of it…leading with their notebooks and cameras, out there, up front, as Steven Sotloff, whom I never knew, did before he was massacred by animals.


TIME politics

A Battle of Two Veterans

In an edgy political year, a former Marine tests a longtime Democratic pol for a seat near Boston

I first wrote about former marine captain Seth Moulton three years ago–and he got ticked off at me. The story was about the leadership potential of the post-9/11 generation of veterans. I described Seth, who is 35, as “the” Harvard valedictorian in June 2001. “That’s not right,” he corrected me. “I was a commencement speaker. There were others. You make it sound like I’m bragging.” I wasn’t surprised that he got up in my face, though. When I’d first interviewed him, he said of his generation of veterans, “We hate the divisive politics of the baby-boom generation. They’re running the country into the ground.” Oof, I replied.

Moulton’s commencement speech was notable because he used the occasion to announce that he was joining the Marines. He said it was his civic responsibility to serve his country. If he didn’t, someone else would have had to take his place in Iraq, a war he thought was “crazy.” He served four tours there, the first two as leader of a combat platoon involved in heavy fighting. But Moulton’s real distinction was his ability to put together teams of Iraqis to build things. General David Petraeus heard about this and asked Moulton to assemble a team–architects, engineers, construction workers–to build a fort on the Iran border. He would be competing against an American private contractor, who had won a similar contract on the border. Moulton’s Iraqi team finished the job in one-third the time as the private contractor and at one-fifth the cost.

Three years later, moulton is running for Congress in Massachusetts’ Sixth District, which covers the suburbs north of Boston. He is running as a Democrat against John Tierney, 63, a nine-term Democratic incumbent. The winner of the Sept. 9 primary will face Richard Tisei, a formidable moderate Republican who is gay and who nearly beat Tierney in 2012. I know the district well, having begun my career covering politics in Peabody, Mass., centuries ago. Indeed, I covered Tierney’s uncle: city councillor James “Silver Fox” Tierney, of whom the city purchasing manager once said, “If we’d had the wisdom to send the Silver Fox to the [state legislature], he might have put half the city on the payroll.”

That is what politics is like in Boston, or used to be. John Tierney isn’t as colorful as his uncle. He has been reliable but not particularly inspiring. He has been a lockstep liberal vote. When you ask him about the paralysis in Washington, he will cite several recent cases of bipartisan triumph–the Veterans Affairs reform bill–but ultimately blames it all on the Republicans, with some good reason. He is a strong favorite to win the primary, well organized, well funded and well endorsed, by Senator Elizabeth Warren among others.

But he has two very serious problems. The first is the tinge of corruption, which stems from his wife’s rather sketchy family–two brothers, one on the lam in Antigua, who were indicted for their involvement in illegal gambling activities. Tierney’s wife Patrice pleaded guilty to helping her brother file false tax returns as part of the case. The brothers said the Congressman knew everything. A close friend of Tierney’s described the brothers as “dirtbags” who were getting back at Tierney because he refused to help them. The scandal was the big issue when the Republican Tisei nearly beat Tierney in 2012. It remains semitoxic.

In August, retired general Stanley McChrystal endorsed Moulton–the general’s first venture into partisan politics–and said the race was about “character.” I asked Tierney what he felt about that, and he said, “Well, [Moulton] worked for the guy.” Which was not true: McChrystal noted how painful it was for an Army officer to endorse a Marine.

Tierney’s other problem is that this may just be the year when the public starts to toss out incumbents on general principle. I saw several people approach Moulton during a day of campaigning and tell him that it was time for Tierney to go. Moulton has, sadly, become more prudent about what comes out of his mouth–and he has refused to distinguish himself from Tierney on most issues. He’s running on freshness and dynamism. He’s shown some of that in his campaign, joining his staff and volunteers in public-service projects throughout the district. And with more decisions looming on Iraq, he says, “the veterans on the committees that make those decisions shouldn’t only be Republicans.”

At a lovely Democratic Party reception in Gloucester harbor, the local establishment came together to support Tierney. He gave a relatively rousing stump speech, but his friends seemed worried. Jean Villa, a local activist who ran his first campaign, said, “I’ve been talking issues with him forever. He knows his stuff.” But, she added, “I always have a sense of how a race is breaking. This time, I’m just not sure.”

TIME nation

Beyond a Simple Solution for Ferguson

Why we need to address race relations in a thoughtful, provocative way

At first, it seemed a perfect metaphor for 400 years of oppression: a white police officer shoots an unarmed black teenager multiple times. He is shot with his hands up, it is reported, at least once in the back. The young man is a “gentle giant” with no adult criminal record. He seems guilty of nothing more than walking while black, albeit down the middle of the street. This takes place in a town that appears to have been cryogenically preserved from the 1960s, before the Voting Rights Act was passed. An estimated 67% of its citizens are African American; its government is melanin-deprived. The mayor of Ferguson, Mo., is white; 50 of the 53 police officers are white. Demonstrators come out to protest the atrocity–nobody is calling it an “apparent” atrocity yet–and the police respond in gear that makes a St. Louis suburb look like Kandahar.

But the perfection of the metaphor is soon blurred by facts. The gentle giant, Michael Brown Jr.–nicknamed Bodyguard by his friends–seems pretty intimidating in a surveillance video, in which he is seen taking cigarillos from a convenience store, tossing the diminutive clerk into a snack display as if he were a bag of Doritos. The alleged robbery occurs 10 minutes before the confrontation with the cop. The inevitable Rev. Al Sharpton says the video is an attempt to “smear” the young man. Then more facts emerge, and other eyewitnesses allegedly describe a more aggressive Michael Brown–more like the fellow in the video. An autopsy, requested by Brown’s parents, shows six bullet wounds; the kill shot is into the top of the victim’s head–which raises another possibility, that the officer, Darren Wilson, fired in self-defense. And now we have a metaphor of a different, far more difficult sort: about the uncanny ability of Americans to talk past each other when it comes to race relations, and also about the struggle between facts and metaphoric truths.

Sharpton has made a living off metaphoric truths since the late 1980s, when he promoted a terrified young woman named Tawana Brawley, who claimed that she had been raped by six white men, including the local prosecutor. Her story was later shown in court to be false, but the metaphoric truth was undeniable: black women have been casually violated by white men in America for 400 years. The undercurrent was strong enough that few black leaders rose up to take on Sharpton. The fetishizing of black sexuality by white men (and women) was too close to the bone, an infuriating historic truth.

But we have developed new historic truths over the past 50 years. A great many bodega owners won’t see Michael Brown as a metaphor for anything. They see potentially threatening customers every day. Blacks represent 13% of the population but commit 50% of the murders; 90% of black victims are murdered by other blacks. The facts suggest that history is not enough to explain this social disaster.

You can’t convict a terrified, undertrained cop of murder for trying to defend himself, if that’s what the facts show–but all too often in the past, we’ve exonerated racist thugs who were clearly guilty. We can’t ignore the barbarity that got us here: lynching was a fact, too, not a metaphor. Oddly, the election of Barack Obama–poor guy–has blunted the conversation about race relations, at least on the white side. We elected a black man with a Muslim name to be President. What other country would do that? The conversation has also been blunted, honorably, by the President himself in the face of some of the most tawdry race-baiting since Selma. And it has been blunted by leaders of the black community, who don’t want to harm Obama’s presidency by criticizing him. In a recent New Republic article, Jason Zengerle makes a strong case that hatred of Obama mobilized Alabama conservatives to take over the state legislature in 2010 and strip black officials of the power they had gained since the 1960s.

Race remains an open wound. There is a new generation of black intellectuals who are raising the issue in thoughtful, provocative ways. “The Case for Reparations” by the Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates is compelling, even if the case is not a particularly strong one. We’ve had 50 years of drastically improved political, educational and employment opportunities for blacks, which have produced a burgeoning middle class, but a debilitating culture of poverty persists among the urban underclass. Black crime rates are much higher than they were before the civil rights movement. These problems won’t be solved simply by the recognition of historic grievances. Absent a truly candid conversation about the culture that emerged from slavery and segregation, they won’t be solved at all.

TO READ JOE’S BLOG POSTS, GO TO time.com/swampland

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