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The Republic of Grief

The Berkshire Eagle, April 25, 2020
My wife and I just lost an old friend to the coronavirus. She sounded fine from the hospital. A few days later she was gone, leaving a big hole in our lives.


You may have one of those holes too. Or soon will. This epidemic has so far caused 200,000 deaths, nearly a third of them Americans. That's more than we lost to combat in World War I, as well as the Vietnam, Korean and Revolutionary wars.


In a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, 40% of respondents said they knew someone who had contracted the virus. A Morning Connect survey found that nearly one American in ten had a friend or family member who died of it. Both polls were conducted three weeks ago. The numbers are no doubt higher now.


There will be a memorial service for our friend when things get safer. Until then, we'll just have to grieve together, online­—where we do pretty much everything these days.


It was online that I found a small measure of solace. Wouldn't you know, there's a website called It is run by followers of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, the Swiss-American psychiatrist who came up with the now famous five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, sadness, acceptance.


I always thought those sounded a little glib, imprecise. Not anymore. I've realized that these stages rather neatly describe the emotions that have swept us all in these anxious times. We've become a republic of grief—united in mourning, not just for vanished loved ones, but also for lost incomes, disrupted lives, curtailed freedoms and a shattered sense of security.


As we struggle to cope, we seem to be following the Kübler-Ross script:


  Denial. Hey, this virus thing is no big deal, China is far away, a vaccine will be ready soon, and we've got the best healthcare system in the world.  

  Anger. We're deeply annoyed that we can't go to work, to school, to get a haircut. The parks are closed. The Olympics are iffy. Major League Baseball is on a ventilator.

  Bargaining. OK, if we agree to stay home a couple weeks, wash our hands for two "Happy Birthdays" and combine our trips to the supermarket, things will be fine, right?

  Sadness. This is getting serious. Businesses are disappearing, and the bodies are piling up. Unemployment is soaring, the GDP is sinking. We've lost the world we knew. Life will never be the same.

  Acceptance. Maybe it's time we can start thinking about what comes next—what mix of testing, tracing, masking and social distancing will let us reopen the economy, rebuild our lives.


Kübler-Ross died in 2004, but not before designating grief expert David Kessler as her successor in their grim but necessary mission. Helpfully, Kessler has added a sixth stage to the list:

  Meaning. We can take inspiration from those we've lost, he says, build memorials to them in our hearts and our communities. We can move forward in ways that will honor our loved ones.


So let me make a stab at honoring the life of Ellen O'Keefe, who died April 19 in Boston. She leaves a legacy of professional achievement, personal fulfillment, culinary excellence, exceptional kids and adorable grandkids.


Also irresistible optimism, infectious kindness and more friends than anyone I ever knew. It is an honor and an inspiration to have been among them.

French Identity after Charlie Hebdo

The New Republic, January 8, 2015
Donald Morrison

Visitors to Paris—and there are plenty in this, the world’s most beautiful city (I’m biased; I’ve lived here a decade)—sometimes stumble across the neighborhood where Charlie Hebdo’s offices are located. It’s an agreeable part of town, not far from the Place de la Bastille, with a Brooklyn-y mix of workers and hipsters, traditional shops and trendy bistros. Like the rest of central Paris, it is mostly white and prosperous.

It's also vastly unlike what you might call the real Paris, the tourist-free area where 80 percent of Parisians live: that doughnut of banlieues, on the other side of the Périphérique ring road. The word banlieue ("suburb") now connotes a no-go zone of high-rise slums, drug-fueled crime, failing schools and poor, largely Muslim immigrants and their angry offspring. The banlieues erupted in 1981 and in 2005, when rioters burned hundreds of cars and President Nicolas Sarkozy threatened to clean out the area with a high-pressure hose. He did not mention that the vast majority of its residents are French citizens, speak perfect French and, unlike his father, were born in France.

It is there, and in the banlieues that blight other French cities, that attention is likely to focus once the shock of this week’s attack subsides. Early reports have pointed to two men as suspects-at-large: brothers Chérif Kouachi, 32, and Said Kouachi, 34. That they were born in Paris will spare them no scorn. The incident comes as France is tearing itself apart over questions of immigration and identity. The United States and much of Europe are having similar debates; in France, the fight is intensified by a toxic mix of politics and history, idealism and ideology.

American media have already cast this crime as a clash between religious extremism and free speech, but most Americans don't grasp how intensely these forces are felt among the French.

The Enlightenment ideas of justice and secularism on which modern France (and, not coincidentally, the United States) was founded have led the country down some curious paths. In the 19th and 20th centuries they turned France into a magnet for generations of political, religious, and artistic refugees. The resulting influx greatly enriched French culture and cuisine, at the price of creating a country where the disaffected of all sorts fight their battles. In the past half-century, France has been rocked by dozens of terrorist incidents, involving extreme rightists, extreme leftists, Algerians, Palestinians, Corsicans, Bretons and, lately, Muslim extremists.

That last group has become France’s Public Enemy No. 1. An admirable 1972 law affirming equality of all French begat a sharp increase in the number of immigrants from France’s former colonies in north Africa and the Middle East. But because of its principled obsession with secularism, the French government does not count population statistics by race or religion. Nobody really knows how many immigrants are in the country (estimates range up to 10 percent of the population) or how many of them are Muslim, let alone extremists.

The far-right National Front party, which has abandoned its traditional anti-Semitism to focus on this nebulous threat of a Muslim tide, is enjoying unprecedented popularity. Oddly, the party—and anti-immigrant sentiment generally—is strong in localities with relatively few immigrants. If elections were held today, the National Front would likely edge out President François Hollande’s ruling Socialists and give former President Sarkozy’s center-right coalition a tough race. French best-seller lists were dominated last year by TV provocateur Eric Zemmour’s Le Suicide Français, a meditation on, among other rightist nightmares, the notion that immigration is destroying French identity. Michel Houellebecq, the bad boy of French fiction whose visage graced last week’s edition of Charlie Hebdo, has followed with Submission, a novel imagining the horrors of a Muslim-dominated France.

Ludicrous as such jeremiads might seem, French security services have expressed alarm at the number of young French who have left the banlieues to fight alongside jihadists in Syria and Iraq—and the prospect that some might return home to perpetrate attacks like the one on Charlie Hebdo. Non-white French are also worried—not just at the prospect of being tarred by the Islamicist brush, but at being further discriminated against in their daily lives. Despite those founding ideals, France has arguably done a worse job than the United States, its Enlightenment-spawned twin, in integrating minorities into national life. French police conduct identity checks (a kind of stop-and-frisk indignity) disproportionately on dark-skinned citizens. Job applicants with Muslim-sounding names are far less likely to be hired—or allowed to rent in a nice neighborhood—than others with the same qualifications. Only about two percent of members of the National Assembly are non-white.

France remains a country that, more than most, conducts itself as if principles matter and, more to the point, as if France matters. Politicians, intellectuals and journalists are obsessed with France’s image abroad, as I learned when I wrote a book critical of the country’s cultural policy. France’s recent military interventions in Tunisia, Libya, Mali and the Central African Republic were motivated less by a thirst for territory or resources than by a desire to be helpful and important. It is time for France, in this difficult hour, to focus those same impulses closer to home. The blessings of liberty, equality and fraternity should no longer be lavished only on the lucky few who happen to live in the right neighborhoods. Alas, given the state of French politics and opinion—already rubbed raw by the debate over immigration—that moment will not come anytime soon.

Take My Wife, Seriously

The Berkshire Eagle, April 6, 2017

Years from now, historians will concur that the president's most catastrophic mistake was to anger my wife. I could have warned him. Normally, my wife is the soul of mildness and gentility. But when provoked well, let's just say that many men have been brought low by getting on the wrong side of women like her.

The first hint of a behavioral transformation came a couple of months ago, when she went off to our local version of the 600-city Women's March. It was her first demonstration since the Vietnam War. She and millions of other people turned out, in part, because they feared the newly inaugurated president would not be good for women.

Since then, Trump has worked hard to prove them right. One of his first acts was to revive the Reagan-era ban on funding for international aid agencies that provide — or even tell women about — abortions. To let the world know who is making decisions for women now, he signed that order in a room full of men.

After that, the president pushed an Obamacare replacement bill, since withdrawn but still under consideration, that could well have ended coverage for maternity care. He followed with a budget plan that would pretty much kill enforcement of the Violence Against Women Act. A weeks later, Congress fulfilled his request to defund Planned Parenthood.

The president has assembled a 24-member Cabinet that includes only four women, the fewest since George W. Bush's first term. One of those women, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, refused to support federal guidelines for reducing rape on college campuses. Her male colleague,Tom Price, the Health Secretary, expressed hostility to federal subsidies for birth control and, as a congressman, voted against a law barring employers from firing women who use it.

The administration's apparent hostility toward women can be seen in more subtle ways as well. Vice President Mike Pence will not have an unchaperoned working meal with a woman (solo men don't seem to bother him). Trump's press secretary, Sean Spicer, publicly berated a female reporter not long ago for shaking her head.

In fairness, the president has come a long way from his crotch-grabbing days. He now says nice things in public about women. He hired one, who happens to be his daughter Ivanka, as a special assistant. She favors an expanded tax credit for child care. It'll probably never get through our Republican Congress, but it is an admirable gesture.

Trump himself made one of those last month. At an event marking Women's History Month he praised icons like Abigail Adams, Harriet Tubman and Susan B. Anthony. Alas, he then spoiled the mood by asking his largely female audience, "Have you heard of Susan B. Anthony?"

Oh yes, they have. And if Trump follows through on his discovery of this late-19th century suffragette, he will learn why she is important: for enabling American women to become a political force. Currently the president seems to side with Anthony's modern-day opponents, the anxious white males of his "base" who want to make America patriarchal again.

These guys have reason to be anxious. To judge from numerous academic and journalistic enquiries, they are suffering a loss of self-worth as women rise in the workplace and traditionally male jobs in manufacturing and other trades decline. In panic and despair, many white males fled last November toward the reassuring vision of the Trump campaign. But if such men think they are going to take America back to the 19th century, they haven't met my wife.

Some of them, however, soon might. Women seem to have taken the lead in efforts to confront, protest and otherwise thwart the Trump administration's agenda. A recent poll by Daily Action, a website that helps people engage with politicians, found that 86 percent of its users are women. Also that 77 percent of those women are "likely to publicly protest an administration policy in the future."

One of them will be my wife. Nowadays, she spends much of her time going to town halls, phoning elected officials and even showing up at their offices. If the men who are making this administration's policy toward women wait long enough, they will find her, along with millions like her — in their face. I could have warned them.

Interview: Donald Morrison on French Culture

Laurel Zuckerman talks to the author on his controversial book, "The Death of French Culture."

Throw Grandpa from the Train

The Berkshire Eagle, April 2, 2020

We slaved, we saved. We put the kids through college and sent them out into the world. Now they want to get rid of us.


I'm not talking about my kids, who prefer that I stick around for a while. But some people – young and not so young – seem to be taking the coronavirus epidemic as an excuse to send us pesky older folks to their graves.


Among these geezer-bashers are some ofour more prominent politicians. They have been slow to impose measures to contain the spread of Covid-19 – which, as you know, hits older folks especially hard. And now some of these geniuses want to loosen what protections we have.


Only after protests from his own health experts did the president agree to a 19-day postponement of his plan to re-open the economy by Easter. He still thinks it's important to send healthy young people back to work quickly. Said he: "The cure cannot be worse than the problem."


Several governors, nearly all of them Republicans, have been reluctant to impose state-wide shutdowns or otherwise scramble the jets. "Folks are going to do whatever the hell they want," explained one holdout, Florida's Ron DeSantis, who relented only the other day.


Dan Patrick, the lieutenant governor of recalcitrant Texas, even suggested that old folks "take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren."  


That's crazy talk. First, health experts say lifting restrictions while new cases are still mounting would overwhelm our under-equipped hospitals and guarantee more deaths. Covid-19 carriers don't show symptoms for up to a week or more, so many of those returned workers would infect colleagues and customers, who would infect others, and so on.


Second, nearly half of coronavirus victims are under 44, so ending social controls wouldn't really help young folks all that much.


Third, killing people of any age for a few more points on third-quarter GDP is, to put it bluntly, sick. All lives matter, even old ones.


Especially to the economy. Almost a quarter of the U.S. workforce is over 55. And even retirees are vastly productive: manning charities and town boards, as well as babysitting so our kids can work two or three jobs. When coronavirus-beleaguered New York put out a call for volunteers, 76,000 responded, -- many, perhaps most of them retired health workers.


Seniors are healthier, wealthier, spending more and living longer. We also have wisdom and experience, which must be worth something.


The sad fact, however, is that older Americans today are being dissed, damned and devalued. It's not just the snide "OK, Boomer" ripostes from young snots who wouldn't know a manual transmission from Immanuel Kant. It's also the benighted complaints that we're taking up space, sucking up resources and driving too slowly. And then there's the outright discrimination.


About 60% of workers over 55 say they've received demeaning comments from younger colleagues and bosses. That 55-plus group accounts for nearly a quarter of all workplace discrimination suits, and barely 1% receive any redress. A third of older workers have no pensions, no 401k plans and virtually no retirement savings.


Thank heavens for Social Security and Medicare. Yet conservatives have been trying to gut them since their inception. Also trying to convince young people that the programs are some kind of generational rip-off.


As it is, a third of retirees depend on Social Security for nearly all their income, and a third would fall below the poverty line without the payments. Those average $1,500 a month, barely enough to cover a two-bedroom rental in the U.S.


Same with Medicare, which not only keeps its beneficiaries alive but, like Social Security, helps children who might be crushed by elderly parents' bills. Indeed, most kids enjoy parental financing of their own medical costs for years and would not, in fact, have been born without said parents.


It will take enormous tact and generosity from our political betters to avoid a generational war – over federal spending for the elderly, as well as the notion that codgers are expendable. I'm not especially hopeful.


Our president is more adept at dividing people than uniting them. True, he recently tweeted that "seniors will be watched over protectively & lovingly." I don't find that promise reassuring, given his record of selective amnesia and his eagerness to goose the economy before the November elections.


So I'm making other plans. If I die from official efforts to reopen the economy prematurely, I want my ashes scattered in the parking lot of Target. Then I'll know that, as my kids do their part to help the economy, they'll visit me every week.

Comment Obama a perdu l'amérique (How Obama Lost America)

Editions Denoel, 2012
Barrack Obama restored the world’s faith in America. But at home his popularity plunged, his agenda languished and his re-election hopes faded. How did Obama win the world but lose his country? In a lively, highly personal examination of the Obama paradox, veteran journalist Morrison traces the President’s troubles to character, tactical mistakes and a fundamental transformation of American politics and society.

The Death of French Culture

Editions Denoel, 2008
Polity Press, 2010
For centuries, France led the world in art, music, literature, cinema. But today, few people outside France pay attention to its cultural output. In this controversial and closely argued polemic, Morrison tells how countries acquire cultural greatness -- and how France's misguided efforts to preserve its leadership have led to disaster.

Turn on, Log in, Wise up

Smithsonian, April 2011
If the Internet is dumbing us down, how come I've never felt smarter?

Serving TIME

PORT Magazine, Summer 2015.

It was the best of Time, it was the worst of Time. It was the summer of 1967 and my first day of work at what was then the world’s most influential magazine. I strode into the Time & Life Building in midtown Manhattan and, demonstrating the reportorial skills that would soon make my reputation, promptly got lost.

A parvenu from the provinces, I had never seen a building so vast, so elegant, so quietly intimidating: 48 sleek stories of granite and glass, 32 stainless-steel-clad elevators, swarms of snug-shouldered men and pencil-skirted women. A scene straight out of television’s ad-biz nostalgia series Mad Men -- much of which is today filmed on the 37th floor.

After two wrong elevators and three incorrect floors, I located the Time editorial department. It was 8:15 a.m. I prayed that my fifteen minutes of tardiness would pass unnoticed.

It did. For another two hours. An arriving receptionist eventually informed me that, at Time, nobody got to the office much before 10:30 and didn’t do any real work until late afternoon, when the bosses staggered back from their three-martini lunches. Welcome to the golden age of magazines.

Over several decades in the Time empire, I savored the first martini of print’s golden lunch hour as well as its last. I traveled the world at the magazine’s expense, dined with princes and policemen, interviewed presidents and something else beginning with P that I can’t remember (Time’s energetic writing style favored alliteration, among other quirks). It was a wonderful life, financially secure and intellectually challenging. I was especially pleased to work for the most politically powerful, most professionally polished player in print publishing (sorry, it’s a hard habit to break). Newsmakers hastened to return my calls when they learnt I was from Time. Nabobs lobbied to get their face on the magazine’s red-bordered cover.

From 1923, when Yale classmates Henry Luce and Briton Hadden, both 24, launched Time as an innovative news digest for “the busy man,” the company grew to embrace dozens of now-famous titles (Life, Fortune, Sports Illustrated), a book division, film and broadcasting operations, all under the Time Inc. umbrella. Time-Life Buildings dotted the globe -- the one in London’s New Bond Street still bears the name, under different ownership -- and Time Inc. bureau chiefs outranked U.S. ambassadors in the pecking orders of many foreign capitals. Haddon died young, but the company under Luce exercised an outsize influence on 20th century America. His magazines could launch or sink careers in politics, business and entertainment. They could start wars (or at least sustain them, in the notorious case of Vietnam) and shape the global conversation. Luce’s widely read 1941 essay “The American Century,” a term he borrowed from H.G. Wells, defined the country’s exalted self-image and set the course of its interventionist foreign policy for decades.

If you have been reading the business pages lately, you may gather that Time’s time has passed. The newsweekly and its corporate siblings, which include the 100 or so magazines of Britain’s IPC, are losing readers and advertisers to the Internet. At Time itself, worldwide circulation has dropped from more than 6 million when I was there to less than 4 million today. The parent company, now called Time-Warner, is essentially in the television and movie business. The publishing division, still known as Time Inc., accounts for only 12 per cent of overall revenues, and profits are declining.

Of course, nearly all magazines are limping these days. Newsweek, for decades Time’s chief rival, closed its print edition in December. But when the malaise hits Time Inc., the world’s largest magazine publisher, it is big news. Time-Warner recently announced that it is getting rid of all its magazines by spinning them off to shareholders as a stand-alone operation. The new company is expected to be saddled with a share of Time-Warner’s prodigious debt. (By contrast, Rupert Murdoch is spinning off his print holdings debt-free.) Prospects for survival are thus highly uncertain. Luce, who died in 1967, would have wept.

As do I, especially for the rising digital generation that will never know the glory that was Time. Noses to their social-networked devices, they will remain clueless about the excitement, the romance, the glamour of a glossy-paged industry that once held millions in thrall -- a near-mythical realm where style and quality mattered. Luce and his successors did not invent magazines, but they knew how to do them right. And they treated the help like family.

A few days after my arrival, I was invited to join the Time softball team in the New York publishing league for a decisive after-work game. Opponent: Newsweek. I had just arrived at the Central Park playing field when, in the distance, I saw an enormous black limousine bounding over the lawn, pursued by angry mounted policemen. A Time secretary emerged from the limo with a lavish spread of shrimp, salmon and chilled white wine, along with supporting napery, cutlery and glassware (no styrofoam, she had instructed the caterer), as well as a silver tea service. The police and their horses were stunned, as were the poor Newsweek players, who had only a few cans of beer to sustain them. We won the game. The limo driver received a summons, which the magazine paid along with the catering bill.

Keeping the talent well-fed was a Time tradition. On closing nights, as we scrambled to put the magazine to bed, there was an evening-long buffet on the main editorial floor. And a feast it was -- typically jumbo shrimp (the writers loved that oxymoron), Caesar salad, roast beef carved to order, cheese and dessert. A drinks cart, laden with wine and spirits of all colors, would rattle up and down the corridors. This bounty, I was told, had been introduced to deter us from repairing to the neighborhood’s many watering holes, from which some employees would return drunk or not at all.

Drink was an occupational disease at Time. I developed stomach trouble until I began boycotting the drinks cart. Colleagues lapsed into alcoholism -- some never to return, others rescued by the company’s generous health care plan, which covered rehabilitation. I helped coax two friends into rehab; both returned a few months later, sober and sheepish, and went on to successful careers. Eventually, the magazine sobered up. The week I became a senior editor, I learnt that among my duties was to preside over a locked drinks cabinet, doling out spirits to my small staff prudently. We were entitled to one bottle a week. I felt as if I were an officer in the British Navy, dispensing rum rations.

The other office hazard was sex. Time for many years maintained a curious gender apartheid: men got to be writers, while women were fact-checkers (or researchers, as they were officially called). The magazine paired a writer with a researcher on every story, and the two would work closely throughout the week. Inevitably, affairs blossomed and marriages wilted. One morning, after a particularly difficult close, I arrived to find a telegram addressed to the staff, signed jointly by a writer and a researcher I had last seen arguing over their story on Richard Nixon. The telegram announced that, sometime in the wee hours, they had slipped out of the building, hopped a plane to Florida and gotten married. The researcher, as was the custom, resigned her job; the writer stayed.

Time’s generosity with expense accounts was legendary, though it took me months to work up the nerve to take a source to lunch. I favored cheap restaurants and, when traveling, flew economy even though first-class was permitted. Eventually, a kind superior told me I was giving the magazine a bad name. In his graceful 1997 autobiography, One Man’s America, my longtime boss Henry Anatole Grunwald recalled: “In one case the question arose whether the cost of moving the mistress and the horse of one reassigned correspondent could be charged to the office. Granted. Another reporter put on his expense account the single and unelaborated statement ‘trip down the Nile, $25,000.’ Granted, but correspondent subsequently fired. Items like ‘orchids and caviar for Maria Callas, as well as paté for her poodle’ raised no accountant’s eyebrow.”

Nor were brows lifted when Time Inc. executives commandeered the company’s many jets and helicopters, not always to cover stories. Inspecting a new Time Inc. subsidiary, an editor was suddenly called back to Manhattan, only an hour’s drive away. “Get me a helicopter,” he barked at the closest secretary. My ex-colleague Christopher Byron, in his aptly titled 1986 memoir The Fanciest Dive, recounted the secretary’s reaction: “I didn’t know what he was talking about. I thought maybe it was some new Galleria delicacy, some triple-scoop dessert with a propeller on it.”

Still, we earned our perks. I was in the office until dawn at least once a week for several decades. Mercifully, limos were available after 8 p.m. to carry home the weary, even to distant weekend homes. Moreover, we labored under a system guaranteed to cause heart attacks (which felled a shocking number of my colleagues). Luce and Hadden, perhaps influenced by the time-and-motion studies of Frederick Winslow Taylor, had divided the journalistic process into its constituent parts. Correspondents around the world would send in raw dispatches which, along with library information dug up by researchers, were woven into a coherent story by writers in New York. The result was then heavily mauled by senior editors, most of them promoted writers, to comply with the magazine’s rhetorical style and their own inner demons. Correspondents had to wait until the magazine was published to see what happened to their reporting, which was sometimes distorted beyond recognition. Time allowed no bylines, so none of us could claim any real credit for our work.

It was a classic case of Marxist alienation, the separation of a worker from his product. We literally seethed with alienation, salved partly by a sense of solidarity in our shared abuse -- and by the idea that our output was actually pretty good: well-written, thoroughly researched, never dull. For me it was a subsidised education: I learned more about structure, narrative and concision in my first months on the job than I could have in a graduate writing program. My colleagues and I may have been slaving in a gilded cage, but we were proud of our eggs.

Well into my years at Time things began to change. Bylines were introduced. Women became writers and even senior editors. Correspondents in the field got to see stories before publication and could demand changes. Writers were encouraged to express themselves. A better Time indeed, but trouble was coming. Luce fell into a swoon, the garden died; God took the Internet out of His side. The Web and its associated disruptions posed a challenge that Time has never quite met. The magazine remains lively, but print revenues are dwindling far faster than digital revenues can compensate. When I left my final post in London a decade ago, I said goodbye to a local Time team of 32 professionals; now there are barely enough to fill a black cab. News bureaus from Paris to Los Angeles have been closed. Benefits and frills have been squeezed. No more first-class travel. Gone are the limos after eight.

Gone too, it appears, may soon be my dear old Time & Life Building. The company is said to be studying a move to cheaper quarters, which could mean chiseling that storied name off the facade. I pass the building on my visits to New York, reminded of all those rosy-fingered dawns into which I staggered after a long night of doing decent work.

That is the wondrous thing about print. Unlike the Internet -- with its slapdash blogs and elliptical Tweets, all in formats that soon become obsolete -- print is physical. It endures. As a result, writers for the printed page seem to put greater care and craft into their prose than they would for the glowing, evanescent screen. And so, long after I have vanished, many of the uncounted thousands of words I crafted in the House of Luce may still be read, on glossy paper. To me, that is the best of Time.

What Makes Donald Run?

Le Monde, November 16, 2016

I know Donald Trump. We were classmates at the University of Pennsylvania years ago, and we both went off to New York within days of each other to make our fortunes – he in real estate, I in media. For decades, we walked the same streets, attended the same social events and even shared a few friends.

In all that time, I never spoke to him and, in truth, never actually laid eyes on him. (Hey, Philadelphia and New York are big cities.) Yet I believe I know him as well as anyone does.

Certainly better than anyone in Europe, where he has spent little time. Here, Trump is known chiefly as a racist, misogynist, isolationist, Muslim-hating, dictator-loving blowhard. His election as the next President of the United States has, not surprisingly, provoked an orgy of fear on this side of the Atlantic.

He has, after all, suggested that the U.S. might not meet its NATO obligations to defend a member state under attack, and he has expressed admiration for the man most likely to launch such an attack, Vladimir Putin. He has suggested that the U.S. might default on its debts, withdraw from the Paris climate accord, tear up the Iran nuclear deal, ignite trade wars, expel foreigners, and fight terrorism by reintroducing torture. Not the kind of U.S. president Europeans normally prefer.

But would he really by like that? Based on my intimate knowledge of the man, I can perhaps offer some reassurance.

First, there is no such thing as intimate knowledge of Donald Trump. When we were at university, he had few friends and little interest in making any. Since then, he has accumulated plenty of acquaintances, but almost no real friends. During his presidential campaign, he often disregarded advice from his staff and even his children. He is what Americans call a “loner,” a man who prefers his own company and heeds his own voices.

Second, Donald Trump often forgets what those voices have said. After years of being a conventional Democrat who even invited Bill and Hillary Clinton to his latest wedding, he rather abruptly attached himself to the Republican Party’s extreme right wing. He has never fully explained that conversion, but I suspect it had less to do with true belief than with a resentment that had been festering since our university days.

Despite his wealth and celebrity, Trump has always been something of a pariah, a rough-edged, bling-obsessed, real estate buccaneer shunned by the social and intellectual elites of the northeastern U.S. He spent years trying to gain their respect, but he couldn’t get himself invited to join the boards of leading New York charitable organizations (the true test of insider status in that city). He couldn’t even get admitted to a prestigious local golf club (he finally bought his own). I am no psychiatrist, but Trump’s lurch to the right may well be a petulant response to his failure to be accepted by left-leaning elites.

Third, Trump’s inner voices may not be telling him much these days. Though he made dozens of controversial proposals during the presidential campaign, he has softened and even repudiated many of them. Even his famous Mexican border wall seems to be fading into a cloud of qualifications. The American TV chain NBC calculated that Trump has changed his position 141 times on 23 campaign proposals. That is perhaps why speculation this week about a Trump presidency focuses as much on the composition of his Cabinet than on what he will really do. He has repudiated so many policies that nobody knows which ones stands by.

Fourth, Trump’s past may contain seeds of hope for worried Europeans. I suspect that Trump really does want to “make America great,” but that he cares less about minutiae than about being a “great” president. By avoiding specificity, and especially by contradicting himself so often, he has given himself wide latitude for action.
He has also revealed what really motivates him: a craving for respect among the people he respects. That is the one thing his money has been unable to buy -- but is now in his grasp. He could realize his dream by being a president who heals the divisions he helped widen during the campaign, shows magnanimity to those he demonized, and maintains America’s commitment to global leadership, human rights and all of the Enlightenment values that link Europe and the U.S.

Donald Trump may not be able to make America great again, but he could well make Donald Trump great. If he misses that opportunity, he will end up as just another “loner” nobody really wants to know.