Rockin' in the Flat World
He dazzles crowds. He brews conventional wisdom. He charms CEOs. And he drives some people crazy. Meet Tom Friedman, the oracle of the Global Century.
(FORTUNE Magazine) – With all the famous people clogging the sidewalks and mountain trails of Aspen, you might think that no one there would make a fuss over a newspaper columnist. Try making the rounds of the Colorado resort town with Thomas Friedman. Everywhere you go, people stop him to gush. They tell him they loved his Aug. 10 performance at Aspen's Benedict Music Tent, where he wowed a crowd of 1,700 (ticket prices: $50 and $75) with his tales of the ever-troubled Middle East and the ever-changing global economy. They bring up one of his twice-weekly columns in the New York Times, or one of his four books, or one of his appearances on Charlie Rose. They just want to shake his hand. For a reporter in Friedman's wake, the celebrity moments just keep coming: Cosmetics magnate Leonard Lauder presents a detailed analysis of Friedman's writing style; venture capitalist John Doerr tells of his annual New Year's Day cross-country ski outings with the writer; Queen Noor of Jordan offers up some of her French fries.
Aspen isn't the only place it happens. At the National Governors Association summer meeting in July in Des Moines, Friedman also outshone the stars. "The one thing about governors is, they have short attention spans, especially when they have to listen rather than talk," says Virginia's governor, Mark Warner, who invited Friedman to speak at the event. "Yet people were riveted." At an August breakfast in New York City to unveil September's Playboy interview--a conversation with Friedman, of course--it was more of the same. Fox News czar Roger Ailes was among the bigwigs who listened raptly while Friedman told tales of terrorism, Iraq, and Indian call centers. Finally Steven Silverstein, CEO of shopping-mall stalwart Spencer Gifts, blurted out what must have been on the minds of several around the table: "I understand from what you've said today that you are running for President. You have my vote."
Friedman, well-raised product of the Midwest that he is, invariably responds to such talk with a thank-you, a dip of his head, and a slightly sheepish smile. He has no plans to run for President or anything else, and why should he? He has been the nation's most influential pundit ever since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, propelled to that status by his knowledge of the Middle East and his skill at taking the complexities of world affairs and recasting them as catchy slogans, homey anecdotes, and simple choices. Now, with his book The World Is Flat,published in April and still near the top of bestseller lists, Friedman, 52, has conquered a whole new swath of intellectual bandwidth. He has jumped into the middle of a great national debate--over outsourcing jobs abroad, over trade policy, over the very economic future of the nation and the world--and redefined it on his terms. He has become, more than ever, the composer of the nation's talking points, the brewer of its conventional wisdom.
The last newspaper columnist of comparable ambition and influence was Walter Lippmann, who from World War I through Vietnam guided Americans through their nation's transformation from isolationist island to global superpower. Friedman is less of an intellectual and more of a reporter than Lippmann, and has yet to build anything like Lippmann's 50-year track record of shaping the national agenda. But there is one interesting parallel: Lippmann was the voice of what came to be known as the American Century; Friedman aspires to a similar role in what you might call the Global Century.
The basic argument of The World Is Flat is this: The fall of the Berlin Wall, the rise of the Internet, and the ever more interoperable nature of software have created a newly "flat" global political, economic, and cultural landscape that allows people previously cut off from the centers of power and of affluence to join right in on the moneymaking and opinion forming--as long as they have the skills and the gumption and the broadband connections. This is a development "as revolutionary as Gutenberg and the printing press," Friedman argues, and how it plays out will be the central global drama of the early 21st century. In the Friedman worldview, revolutions are mostly good things, so The World Is Flat is imbued with a winning optimism. It doesn't deny the roadblocks to a seamlessly interconnected world or the dangers inherent in it. But its essential message is that "flattening" is progress, and that while it certainly poses a threat to U.S. prosperity and power, the proper American response is not to fight it but to get up to speed--with better schools, better broadband connections, and more globally aware government policies in general.
The book is on pace to sell more than a million hardcover copies. More important than the raw numbers is who is buying it: Governors and Congresspeople are. Universities are assigning it to administrators and incoming students. It has also become absolutely required reading among the business class.
Friedman already had a smattering of influential CEO admirers before the book. "When I really look for advice on the Middle East, I talk to two key people--I talk to King Abdullah of Jordan and Thomas Friedman," says Cisco's John Chambers, who has known the columnist for a decade. "When I talk about economic trends and political trends, Thomas Friedman is one of the key people that I go to." Since April, though, ever more top executives have flocked to the Friedman fan club. "What I like about Friedman, not just in his books but also what he writes for the Times, is he does a great job of connecting the dots," says GE chief Jeff Immelt, who invited the writer to speak to the Business Council in Washington, D.C., in May.
Friedman has also been a featured speaker this year at events put on by the Conference Board, Cisco, and UPS. He gave a talk at Google one Friday in February, sharing the bill with comedian Robin Williams. Friedman did not make it to Microsoft's CEO summit in May, but Bill Gates effectively gave his speech for him, recommending the book and outlining most of its major arguments. Gates' endorsement was something of a tipping point. "Within 24 hours it became this powerful meme," says Microsoft summit attendee Vivek Paul, then CEO of Indian IT services firm Wipro and now a partner with the Texas Pacific Group. "Everybody was talking about the flat world."
It's possible, of course, that CEOs are talking so much about Friedman's flat world because they enjoy talking about themselves. "I can understand why CEOs love him," says Ronald Steel, a professor of international relations at the University of Southern California and author of the definitive biography of Walter Lippmann. "He's made them in his narrative the central operators of the post-Cold War world. But one has to ask, Are they?" Friedman responds that his switch from a narrative dominated by terrorism and war to one starring John Chambers and Vivek Paul was driven simply by what he observed. Besides, he was pretty fed up with the former subject matter. "I get so tired of spending time with people who hate each other," he says, "who tell you they hate you, who tell you why you should hate other people."
He found his escape hatch on a trip to the Indian IT mecca of Bangalore in February 2004. Friedman was hosting a series of documentaries for Discovery Times Channel, a joint venture of the Discovery Channel and the Times. After taping installments on the roots of 9/11 and Israel's new West Bank wall, Friedman thought it might be clever to talk to overseas call-center workers, whose job it is to sound like Americans on the phone, and ask them what they think of us. Then presidential candidate John Kerry started railing against "Benedict Arnold" CEOs who send jobs overseas, CNN anchor Lou Dobbs launched his crusade against outsourcing, and the call-center workers became a story in their own right.
It was not a story entirely new to Friedman. After Timespostings in Beirut and Jerusalem in the 1980s, then stints covering the State Department and the White House, he had taken on globalization as a beat in 1994. Officially he was covering the Treasury Department, but under the tutelage of economist and Treasury official Larry Summers (now president of Harvard, where he, political theorist Michael Sandel, and Friedman co-taught a course on globalization this spring), he began writing regularly about the economic and financial forces reshaping the world. After publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. picked him to be the Times' Foreign Affairs columnist in 1995, Friedman continued to make this his major theme. In his 1999 book, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, he announced that globalization had replaced the Cold War as the world's defining system, meaning that just about everything on earth could be explained as either part of the trend toward increasing intertwinement or a reaction against it. As he traipsed around Bangalore in February 2004 interviewing call-center workers, software engineers, and CEOs, Friedman says he realized that while he'd been off talking to people stuck in the Middle Ages, the rest of the world had accelerated its race into the future.
As Friedman tells it, he came up with his book proposal on the final day of the trip, when he visited the headquarters campus of software services firm Infosys. "Tom, the playing field is being leveled," Infosys CEO Nandan Nilekani told him. On the car ride back to his hotel, Friedman, as he is wont to do, began chewing over the phrase. "What Nandan was saying, I thought, is that the playing field is being flattened," he writes in the book. "Flattened? Flattened? My God, he's telling me the world is flat!"
At a dinner party at Nilekani's house that night, Friedman began excitedly mapping out the book, chapter by chapter. "He's an intellectual entrepreneur," says Nilekani. "Entrepreneurship in the business world is about a guy who has the best idea and acts very quickly to get his product to market. He's the equivalent of that."
Friedman enlisted Nilekani and Vivek Paul as his chief guides in figuring out just what had happened to make the world so flat. He also consulted old friends like Cisco's Chambers, venture capitalist Doerr, and E*Trade CEO Mitchell Caplan. Among the business leaders Friedman sought out for the first time were Michael Eskew of UPS and Michael Dell, who helped him explain the evolution of the global supply chain. Yet others sought Friedman out: In July 2004 he presented a back-of-the-envelope version of the book's argument at the Allen & Co. media-mogul summit in Sun Valley, Idaho. Microsoft chairman Bill Gates and chief technical officer Craig Mundie came up to him separately afterward and told him that he had the story mostly but not entirely right (Friedman was very enthusiastic about open-source software) and offered to help straighten him out.
The standard Friedman mode of operation in talking to these people is to plunk down his Dell laptop (which is itself a character in the book, as Friedman gets Dell to trace its provenance for him), then speed-type his way through the interview. He often tries out his ideas on his interviewees, so TheWorld Is Flat has passages in which he quotes others quoting his unique phraseology back to him.
The end result--reported and written in nine months--is a 488-page tour of the changed world as guided by its leading business executives, with a few scholars, childhood friends, and family members thrown in. It is by turns breathless and impenetrably techie. It exaggerates, it glibly dismisses, it quotes people--and Wikipedia, the open-source online encyclopedia--at absurd length. And yet, and yet ... it is the best, most readable account available of this remarkable moment, when the two most populous nations on earth are jumping into the capitalist pool and hundreds of millions of other people around the world are finding--or having forced upon them--new and previously unimaginable ways of making a living and making their voices heard.
Friedman has of course had great success at making himself heard, and at making a living. His combined income--from book royalties (he earns about $4 per World Is Flathardcover sold), speeches (about a dozen a year to universities, community groups, and such, at a fee that just went up from $45,000 to $55,000 a pop; Timesrules bar him from charging for talks to business groups), and his Times job--is creeping up into CEO range. He also married into a business dynasty: His father-in-law is chairman and his brother-in-law CEO of General Growth Properties, a big shopping-mall REIT. He has vacationed in Aspen for decades. He drives a brand-new Lexus SUV with a hybrid engine. He lives in a big house in the affluent Washington, D.C., suburb of Bethesda, Md.
But this portrait of a full-fledged member of the global elite is, while not inaccurate, incomplete. When he's not recounting meetings with CEOs and world leaders, Friedman takes pains to present himself in his writings as a regular guy. Faithful readers will know that his wife is a schoolteacher named Ann and that his daughters Orly (now a junior at Yale) and Natalie (a high school senior) went to public school. They will also be aware that Friedman likes to golf and that he grew up in St. Louis Park, a middle-of-the-middle-class suburb of Minneapolis. And even nonreaders are familiar with the goofy mustache, which has the look of an almost deliberate bid for unfashionability.
It would all be insufferable--and some do find it insufferable (more on that later)--except that it's genuine. A couple of years back Friedman shaved off the mustache, which he's had since he was 19, but his family rebelled. Daughter Natalie screamed when she saw him; wife Ann says his face "lacked definition" without it. He really does discuss world events with Orly and Natalie. He relies on Ann to edit his work (the Times subjects its op-ed columnists' writings only to a once-over by a copy editor), and to sometimes reject it. He is in constant contact with friends from his childhood in St. Louis Park. And he truly is obsessed with golf (he's a five handicap).
His next book might even be about the sport. In 1970, Friedman caddied for Juan "Chi Chi" Rodriguez at the U.S. Open. Back then the United States Golf Association did not allow pros competing in the Open to bring along their own caddies, which is how the 16-year-old Friedman ended up carrying the Puerto Rican star's clubs around the Hazeltine National course near Minneapolis. Seven months ago Friedman got a call from Rodriguez ("Tommy, it's Chi Chi," the golfer said when Friedman picked up the phone, as if it had not been 35 years since they last spoke), who asked him to collaborate on his autobiography. Friedman says he's seriously considering it.
All this--the golf, the family values, the resolutely middlebrow taste evident in both his writing and his appearance--constitutes what Friedman calls "Minnesota Tom." The hobnobber with the elite is "Silicon Valley Tom." And then there is what Friedman alternately labels "Beirut Tom" or "Beka'a Valley Tom," the most intriguing of the personas and the hardest one for even Friedman's harshest critics to dismiss. Beirut Tom began his emergence during the 1968--69 Christmas break. Friedman's oldest sister (he's the youngest of three kids) was spending her junior year of college abroad at Tel Aviv University, and his parents took young Tommy--whose only previous exposure to the world outside Minnesota had been summer camp in Wisconsin--to Israel to visit her.
The 15-year-old Friedman was enchanted, initially just with Israel--he returned each of the next three summers to work on a kibbutz--but soon with the Arab nations that surrounded it as well. This enchantment transformed him from academic mediocrity to star student. After graduating from Brandeis with a degree in Middle Eastern studies, he won a Marshall Scholarship to continue his education at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and then at Oxford University. That led to a posting in Beirut with United Press International, which then led to a job with the Times. After a year as a business reporter in New York City (mostly covering OPEC), Friedman moved back to Beirut for the Times in April 1982. Six weeks later Israeli troops invaded Lebanon and transformed the country's long-running civil war into the biggest story on earth.
It was an opportunity to shine, and shine Friedman did. "The thing that made him most different from the rest of the reporters was his seriousness," recalls David Zucchino, who was the Philadelphia Inquirer's bureau chief and Friedman's upstairs neighbor in Beirut and now writes for the Los Angeles Times. Another distinguishing characteristic was Friedman's willingness to give his own assessment of where things stood. "A lot of his stories had an element of conclusion," Zucchino says.
Friedman won a Pulitzer Prize for his work that first year back in Beirut, and another in 1988, when he was the Times' Jerusalem bureau chief (he won a third in 2002). Then he wrote From Beirut to Jerusalem, which won a National Book Award in 1989. The book, even 16 years on, is a remarkable work, rich in flavor and detail yet mercilessly clear in laying out the reasons for the region's endless strife. It also features Friedman's first use of the techniques of an advertising copywriter or political sloganeer to insinuate his ideas into readers' heads. Hama Rules was the best-known phrase from the book--it referred to a Syrian city partially leveled by President Hafez Assad in 1982, and served as shorthand for the Middle East's tribal, revenge-oriented ways.
It was with his column and The Lexus and the Olive Tree that Friedman's catch-phrase manufacturing switched into high gear: Among those one encounters in the book are Electronic Herds, Golden Straitjackets, Super-Empowered Angry Men, and the Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention (see box for definitions). Readers who pressed beyond the slogans usually found thoughtful, well-reported analysis--and caveats. But Friedman was well aware that it was his oversimplified catch phrases that would capture the most mind share. "The way you get attention for an argument, to get people to focus on it, is to put it in stark terms," he says.
This Madison Avenue approach has spawned a media mini-genre of Friedman mockery. McSweeney's and the New York Observer have run multiple-choice guides to writing a Friedman column (The Observer: "1. Choose your title to intrigue the reader through its internal conflict: a. 'War and Peas'; b. 'Osama, Boulevardier'; c. 'Big Problems, Little Women'"). There are collections of anti-Friedman poetry on the web. ("My name is Friedmandias, king of the IPO: Look on my prose, ye Mighty, and despair!") Most notably, there was Matt Taibbi's viciously funny takedown of The World Is Flat in the New York Press: "By the end--and I'm not joking here," Taibbi wrote, "we are meant to understand that the flat world is a giant ice-cream sundae that is more beef than sizzle, in which everyone can fit his hose into his fire hydrant, and in which most but not all of us are covered with a mostly good special sauce." The New York Press is a local free weekly with a 100,000 circulation. But in this wired world that doesn't matter. Type "thomas friedman the world is flat" into Google, and Taibbi's article comes up seventh among 503,000 entries (or at least did in late August). See, the world is flat! The world is flat! Still, bring up the criticism around Ann Friedman, and her voice turns suddenly sharp. "Why do people repeat Tom's metaphors? Because they make sense," she says. "How can my book club understand him? Because they make sense."
It is not just Friedman's choice of metaphors that is controversial. His writings on the Middle East have long attracted criticism from partisans on both sides. Since the late 1990s, though, the loudest denunciations of Friedman's work have come from the left--a curious development for a man who sees himself as a Minnesota progressive in the tradition of Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale, and who all but endorsed John Kerry in the 2004 election.
Many of the complaints stem from Friedman's willingness to endorse the use of American military force. In the weeks after the 9/11 attacks and through the invasion of Afghanistan, Friedman's attitude reflected--and may have helped shape--a broad national consensus. That consensus has been harder to maintain since the Iraq invasion, which Friedman supported.
But it is his economic journalism that has generated by far the most criticism, mainly along the lines that he just likes capitalists too much. "I can only compare the sensation of reading The Lexus and the Olive Tree to the first time I heard Newt Gingrich speak publicly, and it began to dawn on me that this is what the ruling class calls thinking," polemicist Thomas Frank wrote in Harper's in 1999. In a recent issue of The New York Review of Books, British philosopher John Gray declared that Friedman had expropriated Karl Marx's faith in the inexorable forces of historical change and applied it to a paradisiacal vision of global capitalism. "The utopian mind has migrated from left to right," Gray declared apropos of The World Is Flat, "and from the academy to the airport bookshop."
Friedman read every word of Gray's review and was fascinated by it. In his book he even explores the Marx connection, quoting a passage from The Communist Manifestothat sounds a lot like his own flat-world arguments. The possibility that he is a loopy utopian--corrupted by the good life, gullibly accepting what his CEO pals tell him--is not one he can dismiss. "I understand the criticism," he says. "There's no avoiding it."
But this is Tom Friedman, a man far too confident in his own opinions to give in that easily. We are talking in the restaurant at Aspen's Little Nell hotel. Lunch was long ago cleared away. The place is mostly empty, although Queen Noor, her French fries, and her lunch companion Zoe Baird (the almost attorney general) are two tables away. Friedman, getting animated, begins reeling off his greatest hits. "Hama Rules lasted," he says. "The Golden Straitjacket lasted--because it turned out there was something to it. If there were nothing true about the McDonald's argument [the Golden Arches theory], it would have disappeared long ago." He doesn't mention his warnings of the threat posed by Super-Empowered Angry Men, such as Osama bin Laden in the years and months leading up to 9/11, but he could.
Then there's The World Is Flat. "If my basic argument, that this flattening phenomenon is the most important phenomenon of our time, is right, this book will be remembered as one of the few that called this turn," he says. "If it turns out it's wrong, this book is going to die, and it's going to die an ugly death." That, Friedman argues, is the way it should be: "It's got to be about what I write. Don't criticize me for who I talk to. Don't talk to me about what metaphors I use. There's only one question: Am I right?"