TIME In the Arena

The Delta Blues

Saying grace Congregants of the New Hope First Baptist Church in Greenville, Miss., attend a town hall on Sept. 29 Daymon Gardner for TIME

Two town meetings, two very different kinds of despair

Politics in Mississippi is still passionate, as you might expect. And it is still tragic, which shouldn’t be a surprise, either. The passion seems to be running with right-wing Tea Party sorts, who are in full rebellion against the statewide Republican Party. The tragedy is in the black community, which is permeated by a deep sense of failure; the most basic political facts of life–like the value of integration–are being questioned. During the last week of September, I attended symmetrical town meetings in Mississippi: of former Senate challenger Chris McDaniel’s extreme conservatives near Jackson and of black elected officials and educators from the counties surrounding the Delta town of Greenville.

“Men don’t follow titles,” said republican McDaniel. “They follow courage.” He was quoting from the movie Braveheart, he said, citing William Wallace–an ancestor of the largely Scots-Irish crowd of 50 or so–as played in blueface by Mel Gibson. Wallace was McDaniel’s model. He fought against the English elites, just as McDaniel was fighting against the old, pork-loving Bourbon Republican establishment, people like former governor Haley Barbour and Senator Thad Cochran, who would compromise their principles in order to get public-works projects for the state. They had stolen the primary election from him. They had allowed an alleged 40,000 Democrats (a synonym in Mississippi for African Americans) to vote in what was supposed to be a Republican primary. Cochran had won. McDaniel was challenging the result. A lawyer explained the relevant codicils to the group before McDaniel got up to speak. It was reminiscent–to me, at least–of the civil rights attorneys 50 years ago, who educated Southern blacks about their rights under the law. There was a righteous “We shall overcome” attitude in the room.

The effort is probably quixotic. Most people in the room believed that the Bourbons “controlled” the legal system. In fact, many people in the room seemed to believe they were beset by conspiracies at the federal level as well. Their solution was a strict, if slightly muddy, libertarianism–McDaniel describes himself as libertarian–on all but social issues. Laura Van Olderschelde, the president of the Mississippi Tea Party, said she didn’t feel safe to “talk about my Christian faith away from Mississippi. That’s how this country was founded, and I cannot subscribe to people who want to deny that.” This unleashed a torrent of commentary from the audience. A woman named Tricia McNulty linked liberals to “Lucifer, who has wanted the fall of man.” A firefighter named Andy Devine said that liberals were in the midst of a long-term plot to take over the schools and impose socialism. They were sneaking this through because the media diverted the public with “the rutting habits of the Kardashian sisters.”

There wasn’t any debate about any of this; there was absolute conviction. The positions were stated in matter-of-fact fashion, but there was a media-wise quality to it as well. There was no mention of African Americans. The McDaniel supporters had been accused of racism and wanted to leave no trace of that. An accountant named Vince Thornton did mention that “so many people were getting something for free,” but that was about as far as it went. “We are not going away,” said Robert Kenney, who quoted Dietrich Bonhoeffer about silence being a political decision. “We fight this,” he added, meaning the struggle against the state Republicans, “until we win.”

My first day on the job, a white plantation owner killed his wife,” said Andrew Thompson Jr., the first black sheriff of Coahoma County. “I waited until 7 p.m. to arrest him because I wanted him to spend at least one night in jail. But at 10 p.m., they”–the local white business community–“opened the bank so he could post bail.” That was the way it was now: no more lynching, no more violence. The white folks had gotten clever. “It’s been a roller coaster,” Sheriff Thompson continued. “We made some progress in the ’70s and ’80s, a lot of folks got elected, but we’ve lost ground the last 15 or so years, and especially since the Tea Party came along.”

The mood in the basement of New Hope First Baptist Church in Greenville was a roller coaster too. It started with anger and slowly lapsed toward despair. There was none of the lockstep certainty of McDaniel’s supporters. Something had gone very wrong in the Mississippi Delta black community, and there were an array of different explanations for it. Racism was one: Why were the white folks making all the money from the development of the 80%-black blues town of Clarksdale? Even the local Delta Blues festival–said to be the oldest in the country–was being supplanted by a white-led effort, the Mighty Mississippi Music festival, that was being supported by the business community. “If the whites aren’t running it, they don’t want to be part of it,” said Errick Simmons, a Greenville city councilman, who pointed out that the local casinos, which didn’t help out with the Delta festival, had contributed to the Mighty Mississippi, which–by the way–also featured country music.

The stories of subtle, and not so subtle, racism were compelling but insufficient. There was a piece missing, and these thoughtful people were growing uncomfortable with the increasingly obvious vacuum. The discussion really began to get lively when the Rev. Torey Bell, who said that “the system” was set up to keep blacks dependent, went a bit too far. Even the federal money that had come to upgrade the schools was a trick. “They’re putting in laptops and computers for our kids,” he said, “and they got none of that at home. They can’t comprehend that environment. It’s near impossible for them to succeed.” This was disputed by most of the older people in the room. They’d been working to secure that funding for decades. “At a certain point,” said Timaka James Jones, a clerk at the local court, “we’ve got to take some responsibility in our community too.”

I asked what had happened to the community, so famously strong during the civil rights movement. There was reluctance to answer, at first. But then it came in a rush: the rug had been pulled out from under them. They had rushed into integration and left some of their most cherished institutions in the dust. “We used to have black banks, insurance companies, bakeries, newspapers,” said Willie Bailey, a lawyer and state legislator for District 49. Now, Nelson Street–where most local black businesses were housed–was mostly deserted, except for churches, drug dealers and the famed restaurant Doe’s Eat Place. “The black church was the last institution standing, and then the [George W.] Bush Administration came along with that faith-based stuff, offering money to the churches for social programs, but they couldn’t talk politics anymore.” (I don’t know about that: more than a few black, urban pastors took the money and kept their megaphones.)

The segregated schools had been better, said Jessie Williams, who said she was the first black teacher in the newly integrated schools in the 1960s. The whites left and went to private “academies,” and the integrated public schools became sad all-black husks. The thing was, integration had enabled a lot of the best kids–those who would have been teachers and business owners–to go north. There was some resentment that they had never looked back. “Integration has been a problem,” Williams concluded, setting off a buzz in the room. “It’s the worst thing that ever happened to us,” muttered Sheriff Thompson. But he didn’t really mean that.

I’d like to thank Congressman Bennie Thompson for putting together the extraordinary group at New Hope First Baptist Church. The contrast between their candor and self-doubt and Chris McDaniel’s bold, bluefaced conservatives could not have been more striking, or more depressing. It is the difference between simplicity and complexity. The Tea Party folks believe that all they have to do is win their revolution and everything will be better. The blacks won their revolution, and lost their focus, and inherited a chimera of equality. Now they’ve got to do the hardest thing: regroup, develop new strategies and come on strong again.

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

TIME Joe Klein road trip

The Soul of an Old iPod

On the road with blues singer Taj Mahal

Memphis, Tenn

I was driving along from Alabama to Mississippi the other day, with my iPod on shuffle, when these three duets came in succession:

Rodney Crowell and Kris Kristofferson–My Father’s Advice

Carl Perkins and Van Morrison--Sitting on Top of the World (Van’s intensity automatically takes over any duet he attempts)

Emmylou Harris and Beck–Sin City (from the Gram Parsons tribute album Emmylou helped to organize)

Now, I know there are those among you–rational people, mostly–who will dismiss this as coincidence. But three duets in a row? Is it possible that there’s a secret presiding intelligence here, an Apple core, a Steve Jobs frippery that can discern threads of music, or rhythm, or–this gets really weird–lyrics to produce tantalizing segues? It doesn’t always happen, but it does often enough. I mean, what are the odds that in the 3422 songs I’ve loaded on, I’ll get The Rolling Stones’ cover of Love in Vain followed by Robert Johnson’s original. Yesterday, I shuffled from Sufjan Stevens’ anarchically flutey cover of The Beatles What Goes On? to Nelson Riddle’s puckishly flutey arrangement of Witchcraft for Frank Sinatra. Very subtle, that.

This, I realize, can get pretty existential pretty quickly. Do I, as a human, somehow need a ghost within the machine to order the universe for me. Over time, I’ve developed a relationship with the thing, laughing and marveling at its choices, bemoaning my fate when it sinks into a slough of despond and offers a series of the worst songs ever recorded by my favorite artists. (I know I should cull those songs, but can you mess with the received Word?) Sometimes it will forsake me, amble into randomness, Vampire Weekend followed by Sarah Vaughn. On Friday, it started playing songs from Rodney Crowell’s great album, Sex and Gasoline, sensing, no doubt, that I was having dinner with Rodney in Nashville that night. Yesterday, it was in a funk (and not a funky funk, which would have been fine) as we entered Memphis and I prayed for some blues to welcome me into town. But no, the shuffler was in a quiet mood, playing quiet and tame stuff…until we reached Beale Street, when–a miracle!–Lonny Brooks started singing about tumbling dice.

Today, the music turns live: the great Delta blues historian, singer and player Taj Mahal has joined the road trip for a couple of days. We’re headed to down the Delta to Greenville, Ms, for a town meeting with Congressman Bennie Thompson’s supporters. But first, Taj insisted, we have to stop at Lansky’s–“Clothier to the King”–to buy some shirts.

TIME 2014 Election

Shut Down in Tuscaloosa

Tuscaloosa, Alabama

“The first two questions people ask you when you move here,” said Angela Billings, “Where you from? And, you need a church?” Angela’s husband, Andy–the Ronald Reagan Professor of Communications at the University of Alabama–was the auteur of the town meeting and it was a spectacularly confusing group. Almost all were associated with the Communications Department, 3 professors and spouses, plus four students. There was also an accounting professor and a library sciences professor, a librarian, a doctor and two nurses. All of the grownups belonged to churches, except for one wiseguy who described himself as a lapsed unitarian.

Angela had been talking about what it was like to live in Alabama, a conversation that was inevitable when northerners dropped by. She and Andy were from rural Indiana and, she said, “I just love the southern culture. People–your neighbors–are really all over you. Your church is a big deal; it’s the center of your community.”

Jill Grogg, the librarian, said she wasn’t a very religious person, “but I joined because where else do you bring the casserole when you have a tornado?”

The students were more secular. Kalyn Lee, who is black, and Ben Ramos, who second generation Mexican American, were lapsing their childhood faiths. “I’m all churched out,” said Kalyn, who came from Birmingham, where the black church has a storied civil rights history. Alicia Cohen, a Latina who was adopted, has been exploring a Hispanic church. Brielle Appelbaum was proudly Jewish.

They were all very nice. Too nice, at first. We talked about race. The schools were thoroughly segregated, even the integrated ones. Stephanie and Peter Johnson were an interracial couple. They were Mormons and had three children. “It’s not easy for them,” Stephanie said. Ben Ramos affirmed that. “When I got to high school, it was the whites eating with whites and the blacks eating with blacks. There were three others who didn’t fit. Those were my friends.”

There was a passivity in the face of this restrictive atmosphere (which isn’t all that different in the north, in the few integrated schools we have). No one had any proposals to shake things up. So I turned to other issues. Not much action there, either. Two of the students, Kalyn and Brielle, began to talk about the need to have more politicians who looked like them. “It’s important that we see women holding important positions,” Kalyn said.

“Well, we have come a long way,” said Pete Johnson, Stephanie’s black husband, the accounting professor. “You can’t just dismiss the progress of the past 40 years. Not so long, only 10% of accounting students were women. Now it’s 51%”

“It’s not happening fast enough,” said Kalyn, who seemed to be getting upset with the older generation.

Brielle was frustrated, too. I asked if there were issues other than questions of “identity” that interested them. “Immigration? Foreign Policy?”

Brielle shrugged me off. “We’re not just talking about identity questions. There are issues, like abortion, that are totally related.Who gets to control my body is pretty important to me.”

And now, finally the group was engaged. Abortion was the subject. When did life begin? What about those amazing 3-d sonograms? How could you deny the life there? The conversation was mostly civil; the pro-life forces were not shouting murder! The points were nuanced…but the argument didn’t go anywhere. No minds were changed or even dented a little bit.

Finally, Jeremy Butler–the lapsed unitarian and a communications professor specializing in television said, “You know, people are just exhausted from all these crises. And all the things being said about them, and the way people talk about them. I grew up an activist, civil rights in high school, against the war in college and I’ve always kept at it. I used to love battling out the issues, but not anymore. I’m utterly exhausted by politics. Nothing comes of it. So I’ve just shut down.”

Each of the older folks began nodding their heads vehemently in agreement. “Who has time for it?” said Jill, the librarian. “I’m focused on my kids and my work. I’m trying to cook some dinners so we don’t wind up a Chick-fil-A six nights a week.”

“And nothing happens anyway,” said her husband, Jeff Weddle. “Nothing seems to get accomplished.”

This is an essential truth, ramifying and growing deeper across America. The economic and social revolutions that made it necessary and desirable for women to work, and made it hard for a male factory worker to support a family have blistered our democracy. The choices people make are, in the end, rational: sports with the kids, church on Sunday was a respite, a time to talk with friends–but it was much easier to talk about ‘Bama football, because at least you had an up or down result each week. (Almost always up, in ‘Bama’s case). It was a shame what was happening in the country politically. But what could anyone do about it? I don’t doubt that the vast majority of people feel like this; it was fairly surprisingly to find it in academia, that den of intellectual iniquity, though.

Today’s playlist:

The South was tugging hard at my iPod as I moved on from Alabama to Mississippi:

1. Master Sold my Baby –by Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears

2. I’m A Nothin’ Man–R.L. Burnside

3. Mahalia–Carolina Chocolate Drops

4. Southern Gurl–by Erykah Badu

5. Back to Tupelo–an Elvis song by Mark Knopfler

TIME Midterms

A Virtual Cycle

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

Nobody wins when voters only experience politics second hand

Peter Tennis is an endangered species. He’s 72, lives in Marietta, Ga., and still works in commercial real estate. He’s a devout Episcopalian who insists we begin our breakfast at the OK Cafe with a prayer. He reads the newspaper every day and clips out the stories he finds interesting. A few years ago, he saw an article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about a 15-year-old black kid who had been sent to adult prison for participating in an armed robbery. He started corresponding with the young man, then visited him in prison and led a group to pray for him at St. David’s Episcopal Church. He found this work so rewarding that he began contacting other prisoners he read about, visiting them in prison, helping them where he could; he corresponds regularly with “three prisoners at a time” in Georgia. There isn’t a dramatic climax to Pete’s prison work. He just does it. His wife Margot is similarly involved, teaching English to Latino adults. “I once knew a guy named Railroad Bob, pretty down and out,” Pete says. “But he said something I’ll never forget: ‘We teach best what we desperately need to learn.'”

I mention Peter and Margot Tennis because they reached out to me when they heard I was going on another of my annual road trips–this time through the South. Pete offered to organize a meeting of his friends and co-workers to talk politics with me in Marietta. That’s how these road trips work; TIME readers provide the itinerary. But a certain sort of TIME reader: Dr. Richard Merwarth, 76, in Pittsboro, N.C.–who organized a meeting for me with 200 or so senior citizens at the Galloway Ridge retirement community–is another. What Pete and Dick have in common is that they are active citizens–not activists, just people who think part of their job as Americans is to be involved in stuff. It’s probably not an accident that they’re both in their 70s: they are among a dwindling but vital minority in the country. They grew up believing that public life, including politics, was a group activity, something you share with your neighbors. That isn’t true anymore. Politics is now a virtual activity. It happens, mostly via ads, on television and the radio. That makes it a lot easier for most people: nothing is expected of them but a vote. “We just don’t do many events anymore,” a campaign manager in Georgia told me. The candidates’ time is better spent dialing for dollars. That’s nothing new, but gradually politics–and political reporting–has become an arid exercise, the tabulation of money raised and ads promulgated (and invisible phone banks microtargeting voters, which is something journalists can’t quantify). It’s hard to imagine that the Founding Fathers–who staged raucous rallies complete with beer, barbecue and juicy speeches–would recognize the process.

A politically eclectic group gathered in a bland room at the East Cobb, Ga., county offices, 25 people, mostly friends and real estate colleagues of Peter Tennis. They were mostly conservative, though not angry Tea Party sorts. There were a handful of moderate liberals, too, who weren’t as forceful as the conservatives. “Politicians just want to throw money at things,” said Jeff Marshall, 54, a recent Connecticut transplant. “I’m just not convinced that government can do all that very effectively.”

This is not an uncommon sentiment, of course. But a small-business owner named Charles Bonds, 41, put some flesh on it, regaling the group with the troubles his company, with 51 employees, was having with the Affordable Care Act. He wanted to provide health coverage and was required to under the law. But his private insurer had raised premiums 57.8%, and while the rates in the local Obamacare exchange were better for his employees individually, the law said that companies with more than 50 employees had to provide the insurance. The obvious answer was to fire two people, hire some temps and subsidize his employees to get their insurance through Obamacare. “And even if we did that, the feds require us to report which of our employees haven’t gotten health coverage–which is sort of like snitching on them.”

Eric Flamm, 58, a computer consultant, said he thought the whole idea of mandated health care was “flagrantly unconstitutional,” and he was “pessimistic about ever getting the federal government to shrink.”

The other big issue was a surprising amalgam of immigration and terrorism. Bob Wood, 72, said he was worried that the southern border was porous, that ISIS terrorists were crossing over, that the country was riddled with sleeper cells. “They’re all over the place,” he said. Several others said they were fearful of ISIS and immigrants–no accident, it turned out, since the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, a businessman named David Perdue, had just launched an ad accusing his opponent, Michelle Nunn, of supporting “amnesty” and an immigration bill that wouldn’t seal the southern border and might allow ISIS terrorists in. (The bill, which was passed with the support of 14 Republican Senators, provides “legal status” but not citizenship for undocumented workers and also would spend an additional $38 billion on increased border security.)

The Perdue ad is almost hilariously despicable. It also accuses Nunn–the daughter of former Senator Sam Nunn–of “funding organizations linked to terrorists.” This allegedly occurred while she was the president of George H.W. Bush’s Points of Light Foundation. The real story is TCFP: too complicated for politics. Users of eBay were offered a list of charities to support via Points of Light. In the end, they chose to give $13,500 to a federally approved organization called Islamic Relief USA, which has “ties” to an international organization of the same name, which allegedly has “ties” to Hamas. Said Neil Bush, the chairman of Points of Light: “To attack an organization founded by my father … to smear our organization for political gains, is in my opinion shameful.” (Bush the Elder has endorsed Perdue.)

In North Carolina, a few days earlier, I attended an actual political rally. It was staged by Republicans in Greensboro and featured their U.S. Senate candidate, Thom Tillis, who wasn’t carrying a pitchfork; and neither did Mark Walker, a local minister running for Congress. “It’s sad,” Tillis said, “that we have to be this disappointed in this President.” 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 the country is in the midst of an Old Testament slide toward damnation.

It sounded to me, at first, like the Republicans had wised up in 2014. They were serving up smoked brisket, not red meat. There was a rationale for this: white women are likely to be the swing group in the North Carolina and Georgia elections. Women tend not to respond to rhetorical violence. Walker, the minister running for Congress, mentioned neither gay rights nor abortion. It was, I thought, grounds for optimism about the growing climate threat of political overheating. But after I saw the Perdue ad in Georgia, I realized that I–like the lovely folks who set up my road-trip meetings–was living in a community-oriented past, where speeches and rallies meant something. Nowadays, a candidate can be all smiles and more-in-sadness-than-in-anger on the stump, and run ads that are sicker than swamp gas on television, where it really counts.

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


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

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