Journalist Thomas Friedman

The three-time Pulitzer Prize winner and author of That Used to Be Us discusses the president’s veto of Palestine’s U.N. statehood bid and shares his thoughts on the president’s jobs bill.

Thomas Friedman is foreign-affairs Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times, a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner and a best-selling author—his From Beirut to Jerusalem is used as a textbook on the Middle East in many high schools and universities. He joined the paper in '81 and has been economic correspondent in its Washington bureau, chief diplomatic correspondent and Beirut and Israel bureau chief. In his new book, That Used to Be Us, co-written with foreign policy expert Michael Mandelbaum, Friedman offers a way out of the trap into which the U.S. has fallen.


Tavis: Always pleased to have Thomas Friedman on this program. The widely read and influential “New York Times” columnist is also, of course, a best-selling author. His latest text, along with Michael Mandelbaum, is called, “That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back.” He joins us tonight from New York. Thom, good to have you back on the program, sir.

Thomas Friedman: Great to be here, Tavis. Thank you.

Tavis: Before I get to the text, some questions, if I might, about news of the day, which won’t surprise you, of course.

Friedman: Please.

Tavis: You were in New York, where President Obama was recently, to give a speech and talked, of course, about this Middle East crisis. The president now clearly on record himself being opposed to the Palestinian Authority’s bid for statehood. Your thoughts about his position on the issue?

Friedman: Well, I’m sorry we’re in this situation, having to basically be forced to either veto the Palestinian effort to be recognized by the U.N. for statehood or basically vote for it and know that it isn’t going to go anywhere. I think we’re in this situation in large part because of the parties themselves, who live next door to each other, basically, haven’t been able to resolve the situation.

This Israeli government has pretty consistently refused to really take the initiative and put any peace plan on the table. I think the Palestinians unfortunately have been divided between Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank, but I think the West Bank Palestinian Authority has done a good job over the recent years, Israelis would acknowledge, of really building up their security mechanisms, their governance.

Tavis, I’ve been covering this issue so long that I try to avoid calling balls and strikes every week, because every week it’s usually one ball or one strike. My feeling is it’s really time for us to be telling the both parties to be using our leverage with Israel and with the Palestinians to really get on with it. This is really getting long in the tooth. It’s not serving anyone, certainly not us. We shouldn’t be in the middle of this.

This Israeli government should be putting a peace plan on the table. Palestinians should be doing the same. It’s really time to finish this thing.

Tavis: For those who have not followed this as closely as you have over these decades and have become the expert that you are on these issues, but yet hear all the time in the news media that this thing will only be resolved with a two-state solution, again, for those who, to use your baseball metaphor, don’t understand the plays being called here, why would the president of the United States go to the U.N. oppose one side being allowed statehood if they keep reading and hearing that the solution must involve a two-state solution?

Friedman: Well, it’s a perfectly good question, Tavis, and there’s a diplomatic answer and there’s a political answer. The diplomatic answer is, of course, that there can only be on the ground a Palestinian state next to an Israeli state if an agreement is reached between the two sides so Israel withdraws from the West Bank, which would be where the Palestinian state would emerge, and part of Arab East Jerusalem – on paper, at least.

That can only happen if there’s an agreement on the ground. The reason the president is doing what he’s doing has a good deal to do with the fact that we’re a little more than a year away from our next election. The president is very worried about his standing within the Jewish community in America and Jewish votes. Therefore, he wasn’t going to do anything that was going to anger this Israeli government, even though this Israeli government has been a source of great frustration to this administration and has not been as forthcoming as we hoped it would be. We think it’s in its interest to be, let alone ours.

Let’s remember we’re not asking Israel to commit suicide or withdraw, frankly, from anywhere. We’re asking Israel really to negotiate, to take the initiative, to see it at its time of Arab awakenings all over the region. It’s in its interest to conclude a deal with the Palestinians.

That was and needs to be our message. I’m sorry it’s gotten all bollixed up with politics.

Tavis: To your second point, which was basically political calculation – imagine that in an election season.

Friedman: I know. I know you’re shocked and your viewers are shocked. (Laughter)

Tavis: I digress on that point. One other quick question before I get to the text of your new book, “That Used to Be Us.” Your most recent column was entitled “Are We Going to Roll Up Our Sleeves or Limp On?”

You made the case in that piece, of course, that we can either have a hard decade or a hard century. For those who didn’t read the column, which a lot of folk are still talking about, the point you were trying to make was what?

Friedman: Well, the point I’m trying to make, Tavis, is that we – and this is a good segue to the book, it really draws from the book.

Tavis: Exactly.

Friedman: We didn’t get into the crisis we’re in right now just in 2008 or last year. We argue that this is a 20-year-long crisis. It goes back to the end of the Cold War. We’ve been kind of digging this hole, living on credit and getting away from our formula for success, which was always education, infrastructure, immigration, the right rules for investing and preventing recklessness, and government-funded research.

We’ve gotten away from that, and as a result unless we now go through the process of digging out of this 20-year hole, which is going to require some spending cuts, because we’ve made promises, Tavis, to our kids we can’t possibly keep. It’s going to require tax increases, because we cannot just shred our safety nets.

I’m a capitalist. I believe in capitalism. But capitalism only works if you have safety nets to deal with people who are naturally left behind and brutalized by it.

Lastly, we need investment. We need spending, not just in the short run to give a little more stimulus to the economy so we don’t go back into a recession, but to invest in things like schools and roads that not only give us a stimulus today but stimulation in the future.

That’s why I said basically we either do that, we either roll up our sleeves and do that and have what will be maybe a hard decade, or we’re going to have a bad century. I really hope it’s the former, not the latter.

Tavis: You just laid out now what the book really gets into, these five pillars of prosperity – education, infrastructure, R&D, economic regulation, et cetera. You just kind of laid that out now so I’ll move past that for the sake of the time that I have here.

Friedman: Please.

Tavis: But I could have started this conversation, and I’ll jump back to this now, by asking whether or not the subtitle of the text is a bit much – “How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented.” I raise that only because even with all that we are enduring right now, there is this enduring notion of American exceptionalism.

I know you obviously aren’t advancing that notion in the text, but what about this notion that we are still all that and then some. You get a book that has a subtitle that says, “The World That We Invented,” unpack that for me, Thom.

Friedman: Sure. Well, what we’re really talking about is the world of the 21st century, a world of globalization, IT, the world that we kind of think of today as the modern world was so much invented here.

President Obama was ragged on a lot by Sarah Palin and others for not saying loudly enough and often enough how exceptional we are. Our view in the book is exceptionalism, American exceptionalism, is not an entitlement. It’s not like Social Security that you get no matter what we do, or an honorary degree.

American exceptionalism has to be earned and re-earned by every generation, and that’s what really the book is about – how we do that with a particular focus on education.

This really is a book about jobs and education, where the jobs are today and what kind of education, moms and dads and kids going to school now, really need to secure those jobs, because that’s the fundamental basis of our prosperity.

Tavis: Is the president’s jobs bill enough to get it done?

Friedman: Well, the jobs bill I see, Tavis, as part of a very necessary both stimulus we need to prevent us lapsing back into another recession, which would be terrible if we started that at 9.2 percent unemployment, and it’s also part of I think the long-term investment in new industries and in stimulating the economy more broadly in schools and the like.

But what we really need, Tavis, is something that really money can’t buy. We need to roll up our sleeves; we need better teachers, to be sure. We need better parents – parents who take an interest in their kids’ education every single day.

We need better neighbors, neighbors that care about the schools in their neighborhood whether they have kids in them or not, because they know that the health and vitality of that neighborhood depends on it.

We need better politicians, those that make our kids understand that they’re not competing with the school down the street or in the next town; they’re not competing with P.S. 21 in Shanghai.

Lastly, Tavis, we need better students. Students who come to school ready to learn, not to text, because they understand if you don’t get a high school degree today, and basically if you don’t get a high school degree that allows you to get through college without much remediation there is no decent job for you out there that will give you a middle class living.

You’ve got to get a higher education of some kind or another, whether it’s technical or four-year university or two-year. Unemployment now for people with college degrees is nowhere near what it is for those without them.

Tavis: I’m going to move past the education comments you’ve just made, because one, in the tradition of the Black church I would say, “Amen.”

Friedman: Thank you.

Tavis: There’s nothing you’ve just said that I disagree with. This Sunday, as a matter of fact – a quick programming note – this Sunday I’ll be on “Meet the Press” along with former education secretary Bill Bennett and others.

Friedman: Terrific.

Tavis: This Sunday. Most of “Meet the Press,” the entire show, I think, all about education. So I’ll get my say this Sunday in that debate about education on “Meet the Press.”

Having said that, Thom, the one thing in your book that I, again, agree with, but I’m going to be honest, I don’t see how we get there from here, and that is this notion of fixing regulations that govern our economy.

Friedman: Right.

Tavis: With the way the lobbyist industry works in Washington, with the Obama White House kowtowing, quite frankly, to Wall Street, you’re right about this, but I don’t see how that gets done. What is the path forward on that particular issue, because so much of this is tied to that? How do we get that done inside the body politic that we have now?

Friedman: Tavis, your reason for sobriety and doubt on that, we would share. When you look at what we just went through and then you look at the opposition by Wall Street and the financial community to what was fairly mild regulation and demands for transparency, when people are opposing giving consumers more information on mortgages and you want to water that down? Who does that serve? How does that serve the bank that gives mortgages who are ignorant about them and ultimately can’t pay? Certainly how does it serve those consumers?

So that’s been, I think, one of the most disappointing things. We’ve still got these huge banks that are too big to fail, Bank of America being one that looks more and more frail every day.

I would also add that with Europe and Europe’s banks now threatening to I don’t want to say keel over, but they’re in serious trouble. We have no idea, Tavis, today what happens if one of those European banks go down, and what it means for your money market and mine.

Tavis: Just scratching the surface here tonight on the new text by Thomas Friedman. Of course, everything he writes is must-read copy, including this new text, along with Michael Mandelbaum. The book is called “That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back.” Thomas Friedman, always an honor to have you on the program. Thanks for your insights, sir.

Friedman: Thanks, Tavis, great to be with you.

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Last modified: October 3, 2011 at 1:52 pm