What is Tom Friedman, the renowned foreign affairs columnist for The New York Times, doing writing a book about this country?

“America—its fate, future, vigor and vitality—[is] now the biggest foreign policy issue in the world,” Friedman says. “America is really the tent pole that holds up the world—and if that tent pole splinters or buckles, your kids will not just grow up in a different America, they will grow up in a different world.”

Friedman’s new book, That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, September 2011), takes its title from a comment President Barack Obama made after the midterm elections. Comparing advances in China and Singapore to those in America, Obama remarked, “That used to be us.”

Friedman—three-time Pulitzer Prize-winner and author of five best-selling books, including From Beirut to Jerusalem (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1989) and The World Is Flat (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005)—co-wrote That Used to Be Us with Michael Mandelbaum, director of the American Foreign Policy program at The John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. Mandelbaum, named one of the “Top 100 Global Thinkers” in 2010 by Foreign Policy magazine and the author of 10 books, lives within a mile of Friedman on the opposite side of Bradley Boulevard in Bethesda. The two have known each other for 20 years.

“We talk almost every day,” Friedman says, and in the last few years they “would start talking about foreign policy and end up talking about America.”

Just back from a trip to Greece, followed by a speech to the National Governors Association in Salt Lake City, Friedman, 58, sat down with us at his office, just a few blocks from the White House.


Can you talk about how this book starts? 

The book begins in Bethesda. I had gone to China to attend a conference in Tianjin at an amazing conference center that had been built in a little over eight months. I came home and I was telling Michael about this amazing convention center. Michael’s wife, Anne, got on the phone and said, “Have you been to our metro stop lately?” I actually talked to the crew, and they told us [that the work] was going to take six months. The contrast of building a world-class convention center in eight months and taking six months to fix two escalators with 21 steps each kind of drove home the point.

Critics might say that you take a pessimistic approach in the book.

We describe ourselves in the book as optimists, but we are frustrated optimists. We see China getting 90 percent out of what is an inferior political system, but we see America getting 50 percent out of a superior political system. That is the problem. 

What do you hope this book will achieve?

The book is a “how to” book for America and for Americans to thrive in the 21st century. It is a book that basically says that our country is in the worst kind of decline, a slow decline, [and it goes into] how we got into this downward spiral, why we can get out of it, how we [can] get out of it. 

How do we get out of it?

We get out of it by falling back on the great traditions that actually held us for 235 years, emphasizing education, infrastructure, immigration, the right rules and regulations for risk taking, and government funding research. All of that used to be us and can be again.

In the book you say that as a country we need to refocus our values. Is our political system properly equipped to respond to that and the other challenges addressed in the book?

We have gone from sustainable values of the Greatest Generation, always behaving in a way that sustains, to situational values of the baby boomer generation, just do whatever the situation allows. And we have to get back to sustainable values if we want to thrive as a country.

The whole book is really about the challenge to the political system and why we need a third party. These two parties can no longer produce the answers that we need as a country to remain a great country

You write in one chapter that “average” is over. What do you mean by that?

When I wrote The World Is Flat, Facebook did not exist, Twitter was a sound, the Cloud was in the sky, 4G was a parking space, applications were what you sent to college, LinkedIn was a prison, and for most people, Skype was a typo. So think how much flatter the world has gotten. The world has gone from connected to hyper-connected. We call it Flat World 2.0. 

If I am an employer, I now have access to above-average talent, above-average software, above-average automation, above-average robots. At Grinnell College [in Grinnell, Iowa] in the Class of 2015, 10 percent of its applications came from China, and half of those applicants had 800 on their SATs. So your kid at [Walt] Whitman High School is competing for a place at Grinnell College directly with a student at PS 21 in Shanghai. That is why we say average is officially over. Woody Allen’s line that “90 percent of life is just showing up” is no longer applicable. You cannot just show up now.

I originally inherited esteemed New York Times columnist James Reston’s office. I imagine that Reston woke up every day and said, “I wonder what my seven competitors are going to write.” I wake up and I say, “I wonder what my 70 million competitors are going to write today.”

I am pretty much a low-tech person. I talk the talk of globalization, but I do not walk the walk. I have a BlackBerry, but I do not do Facebook or Twitter. I have to be careful what I say.

What advice do you give your daughters, who are in their 20s, and young people coming up in this world?

The biggest thing I stress is getting your fundamentals right. People are successful because they do not take shortcuts. The shortest way is the long way.

And in your own career?

I really wanted to be a columnist for a long time, but at this newspaper you have to pay your dues. I was a reporter in Jerusalem, at the State Department, at the White House, the Treasury Department before they would even think about giving me this position. It took 14 years. You have got to be patient. You have to stick with it.

How did you end up wanting to be a journalist?

My life changed when I was 15 because I had an amazing journalism teacher, Hattie Steinberg, who I have written a column about and endowed a scholarship at the University of Minnesota.  Her class is the only journalism class that I have taken because she was such a great teacher.

During Christmas vacation that year, my parents took us to Israel, Greece and Italy. That changed my life. It was the first time I had been out of the state except for camp, and it was the first time that I was on an airplane. So I’ve made up for it since.

What’s it like traveling so much for your job?

I have the best job. Someone has to have it. I get to be a tourist with an attitude. I get to go wherever I want, whenever I want, and to write about whatever I want. It is great. And only The New York Times would have that job. 

The New York Times believes that its foreign affairs columnist should actually travel around the world and not sit in Bethesda and opine about it. So they are ready to invest in that. I can say I want to go to Greece and see what [the economic challenge] looks like from there because they are the Off-Broadway version of what we are going through. And I go to Greece and I write whatever I want to write.

In January I went to Singapore to look at the school system, and then to Davos [Switzerland] for the World Economic Forum. I was there when the Egyptian uprising began, and my wife called me and said, “Honey, they are playing your song. You have my permission not to come home.”

I went from Davos to Israel, Jordan and then Egypt, and I was at Tahrir Square the day [President Hosni] Mubarak fell. I was actually working on the book in the morning, and then I would go cover the Arab Spring in Cairo from noon until the rest of the day. I was juggling both at the same time. Between work and speaking, I travel 50 percent of the time. I like to stay busy.

You lost your father when you were a sophomore in college. That must have had a profound effect on you.

I was very close with my dad. We used to play golf together. What losing your father does is it is a Black Swan moment, and your life can be turned upside down at any time. In my case, it made me a super-focused person. You know you have to make your own way in the world. It is that simple.

You’re still passionate about golf, aren’t you?

I always dreamt of being a golfer, though I was nowhere near good enough. I grew up always playing with my dad. I play regularly at Bethesda Country Club. It is a big part of what I do for relaxation. Some mornings before I come into work I play nine holes. I do that as often as I can. It sounds like a cliché, but I get a lot of ideas when I am out in the fresh air.

My handicap is around a 6 these days. My game has suffered this year. …I have played with President Clinton and Obama. I caddied for Chi Chi Rodriguez [at the 1970 U.S. Open in Minnesota].

You’ve become a celebrity journalist. What’s that like?

People stop you at restaurants or on the streets. Ninety-nine percent of the time they say something nice, they ask you questions. But most of the time it is to say, “Keep writing what you are writing.”

You’ve frequently been criticized by pro-Israel groups. How do you respond?

I am not writing for the “Bethesda Jewish Gazette.” I am not writing for the “Bethesda Arab Clarity.” I am writing for The New York Times, and my views have been quite consistent from the very beginning. I believe in a two-state solution. I am not running a popularity contest. Being a columnist is not a friend growth industry. I write what I write, and it is based upon a lot of reporting.

You live in one of the nicest areas of Bethesda. Do you think that can make you lose touch with reality?

You always have to be asking yourself that question. But you tell me what part of reality I am out of touch with? Is it education? My wife is a teacher. Is it the economy? I am traveling all over the world. I have the small-town perspective. I am still a reporter. I am still trying to figure it out, to get it right. You can miss a lot of things at the low end and at the high end. 

What motivates you?

A big part of what makes me tick is that I grew up in Minnesota at a time when politics worked. The year I graduated high school, the governor was on the cover of Time magazine holding some fish that he caught under the headline, “The Good Life in Minnesota.” So I grew up in a time and a place where politics really worked. And that bred in me a certain innate optimism that politics really works and can be made to work.

If someone were to psychoanalyze my writing, I am always trying to get back to Minnesota. When I am in Beirut, I am looking for why can’t we all get along. Now, focusing on America, it is why can’t politics work like it used to when I grew up. That used to be us. In fact, it used to be my neighborhood. 

Potomac writer Carin Dessauer, a former executive with CNN and CNN.com, is a regular contributor to Bethesda Magazine.