December 2012: The year past

A tip of the hat to the legendary New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon for borrowing his signature phrase: nobody asked me, but…

It proved to be a strange year. The incumbent President of the United States won reelection despite elevated unemployment levels and high gasoline prices. The last day of 2012 found Democrats and Republicans in Congress fumbling toward agreement (perhaps?) on averting the so-called “fiscal cliff” as the country watched in dismay.

A devastating superstorm, Hurricane Sandy, hit New York and New Jersey in October. Mass murders in Colorado and in Newtown, NY by deranged killers armed with semiautomatic weapons caused a long overdue reconsideration of anemic gun laws.

Some good things happened as well. The London Olympics entertained us. The country saw progress on marriage rights for gay Americans. Charitable giving continued to grow. Tom Wolfe published a novel (Back to Blood). The Giants won another Super Bowl over the Patriots. And, best of all, the world didn’t come to an end on December 21 as (supposedly) predicted by the Mayans.

Stories in the American Grain: Café Carolina and Other Stories

The trade paperback and ebook versions of Café Carolina and Other Stories by Jefferson Flanders are now available on and other online booksellers.

Written over a span of three decades, these twelve short stories by Jefferson Flanders explore themes of memory, family, faith, and love against a distinctly American landscape.

Café Carolina and Other Stories introduces the reader to the varied worlds of its memorable characters.

A waitress in a small-town restaurant invents a romantic backstory for the secretive couple in the last booth. A burnt-out relief worker returns from Africa to find himself drawn to the New England landscape of his childhood. A retired military aviator clashes over Cold War politics with the guests at a Princeton dinner party. A preacher’s son visits Jerusalem on a pilgrimage that his father hopes will revive his faith.

With humor and compassion these stories address the simple joys and complex challenges of life at century’s turn.

Read an interview with the author.


Download the story “Café Carolina” in PDF format.


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Changes for Neither Red nor Blue in 2013

Neither Red Nor Blue began its existence in February 2006. Starting next year, in 2013, I will post here on an occasional basis only and will discontinue the monthly “Nobody Asked Me But” monthly columns.

My essays and reviews will appear on with some reposted to Neither Red Nor Blue.

This will allow me more time to finish the novel THE NORTH BUILDING, due to be published mid-year 2013.

Copyright © 2012 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

November 2012: Romney’s 47% Problem

A tip of the hat to the legendary New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon for borrowing his signature phrase: nobody asked me, but…

Whatever chances former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney had of winning the Presidency died on May 17, 2012 when he addressed a group of wealthy GOP donors in Boca Raton, Florida and talked candidly about the “entitled” 47% of Americans he believed would never vote for him. “I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives,” he claimed.

Romney’s dismissive comments were secretly recorded and they surfaced in the left-of-center magazine Mother Jones in September.

“There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it—that that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what. … These are people who pay no income tax. … [M]y job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”

Romney’s remarks were particularly damaging because they re-enforced the narrative that he was a plutocrat who didn’t care for the common man, one cultivated through the spring and summer by the Obama campaign. In fact, President Obama’s chief campaign strategist David Axelrod couldn’t have scripted it better as a way to alienate working-class voters.

The Obama campaign fashioned a television commercial from Romney’s off-the-cuff speech and played it repetitively in Ohio, New Hampshire, and other swing states. The strength of the commercial was its simplicity—the video of Romney in “his own words.”

How much did Romney’s comments help to determine the final outcome of the election?

There are multiple theories floating around that look to explain President Obama’s victory and Romney’s loss. The Obama campaign’s ability to bank early votes and to systematically deliver targeted Democratic voters to the polls has to be seen as one of the most important factors in the 2012 Presidental election. Obama’s total vote total dropped, but the turnout by Hispanics, young voters, and African-Americans proved critical in states like Florida, Colorado, Virginia, and Ohio.

There’s no doubt that Hurricane Sandy interrupted whatever momentum the Romney team had in the last week of the campaign, and praise of the President by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg for his performance during the crisis helped his cause.

Yet it’s also true that Romney’s comments about the 47% made it easier for the Democrats to characterize him as the candidate of Big Business, Wall Street, and the very wealthy. It’s a key reason Romney couldn’t ever close the gap in Ohio, a state Republican candidates need to win if they hope to capture the White House.

Romney lost the key swing states by thin margins in the popular vote (Florida by 1 percent, Ohio by 2, Virginia by 3, and Colorado by 4). If he had not been type-cast as an insensitive “vulture capitalist,” could Romney have won enough working class votes to change the outcome? We’ll never know. What we do know is that Romney won’t be able to shake the 47% meme—it was, ironically, also his national popular vote total.

Copyright © 2012 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

Purchase the new Cold War thriller by Jefferson Flanders, Herald Square, at

Read an interview with the author.

October 2012: Five campaign questions about to be answered

A tip of the hat to the legendary New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon for borrowing his signature phrase: nobody asked me, but…

Here are five questions that will be answered next Tuesday as America elects a President:

  1. How closely will actual vote totals align with the wildly volatile public opinion polls of the last several months? Conservative commentator David Burge summed up the current state of the polls quite well on Twitter: “Political polls accurately reflect the opinions of the bizarre 9% who agree to participate in political polls.”

    Most polls in the key swing states show President Obama with a small lead over Mitt Romney. Many of the national polls, including Gallup and Rasmussen, show Romney with the lead by two to three points. The professionals aren’t quite sure what to make of this divergence.

    It may be that we are witnessing the effective discrediting of political polling as it becomes harder and harder to draw a representative sample of voters. In fact, flipping a coin will probably turn out to be just as effective a predictor as the 2012 polls.
  2. Will the first presidential debate in Denver, where Romney outperformed Obama, be seen as the pivotal moment where the Republican challenger won the election? Or will an Obama victory suggest that the President recovered with stronger showings in the next two debates?

    One thing is certain: it is highly unlikely that in future debates any Presidential candidate will ever show as little energy as President Obama did in Denver. Those advisors prepping the candidates next time around will emphasize the importance of projecting vitality and confidence—qualities that clearly impress voters.
  3. Will the Obama campaign’s strategy of targeting Romney with negative commercials in Ohio and other swing states pay off on Election Day? The Plouffe-Axelrod team decided to borrow George W. Bush’s 2004 playbook—where the incumbent highlighted the challenger’s faults with attack ads rather than promoting his accomplishments.

    If Obama wins a very close election (and overcomes the burden of a lackluster economy), then the scorched-earth tactics will be validated in narrow political terms. But it could prove to be a Pyrrhic victory, however, guaranteeing second-term gridlock as Congressional Republicans hold a grudge over the no-holds-barred approach.
  4. Will newspaper endorsements matter in the swing states? Some eleven newspapers that endorsed Obama in 2008 have shifted their editorial support to Romney. The most interesting, and perhaps most significant, was the nod to the former Massachusetts governor by the Des Moines Register-Tribune in Iowa, a paper that had backed Obama in the prior presidential election.

    If Iowa and New Hampshire voters favor Romney, will the endorsements have played a part? It’s doubtful that the exit pollsters will ask this question, so we may never know. (Not that the exit polls are particularly accurate…)
  5. Who will partisans on either side blame if their candidate loses? Will they see the causes of defeat as internal (and self-inflicted) or external? Will they chalk up the loss to a failed message or a failed candidate?

    Democrats are likely to blame the President’s debate performance, their belief that Romney and Ryan lied about their true positions on the issues (masking their radical conservative agenda), and the difficulties any incumbent faces in defending a soft economy.

    Republicans will blame the alleged “demonization” of their ticket by the Democrats, what they see as clear bias by the mainstream media (not pressing Obama on the Fast and Furious scandal and the Administration’s responsibility in the death of Americans in the attack on Benghazi), and the Romney campaign’s inability to make the election a referendum on Obama’s performance in creating jobs.

    What’s sure is that this time around there will be lots of sore losers. It’s been that kind of election.

I suspect most Americans are quite happy that this political season will end next week. The 2012 campaign has been a rancorous and bitterly-contested affair. With a closely-divided electorate, it’s unlikely that the winning candidate—or his party—will be able to claim a mandate on Tuesday. With that being the case, you can expect a divided government where whoever wins will find forging compromises on the significant issues of the day—entitlements, the debt, immigration, healthcare—will continue to be a difficult task.

That’s not a particularly appetizing outcome for the country but to borrow the words of that eminent philosopher Bill Parcells: “It is what it is.”

Copyright © 2012 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

Purchase the new Cold War thriller by Jefferson Flanders, Herald Square, at

Read an interview with the author.

September 2012: The inexact art of political polling

A tip of the hat to the legendary New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon for borrowing his signature phrase: nobody asked me, but…

What should we make of the controversy over the presidential election polls? Some conservative pundits are claiming that mainstream media pollsters are overestimating the potential vote for President Obama. Is there a calculated overweighting of Democrats in these polls? Can we rely on any of these polls?

The truth is that polling is a very inexact art (not a science). All public opinion polls should be taken with a mountain (not a grain) of salt.

What very few in the polling business want to admit: a number of subjective decisions (size of sample, weighting methodology, response rate, question phrasing, question order, etc.) that determine what a given poll’s results will look like.

The furor over the presidential polls showing Obama opening up a lead over Governor Romney in several swing states, and well as nationally, does reflect, in part, decisions made by pollsters. But I doubt that there’s any special liberal “home-cooking” going on.

Current political polls are already deeply flawed.

Here are five reasons why the polls should be regarded with great skepticism:

  • Pollsters are reaching fewer and fewer Americans, making it harder to assemble a truly representative random sample. The Pew Research Center admits it gets less than 10 percent of those they contact answering their questions, down from 36 percent in 1997. The other major pollsters have the same problem, and heavy cell phone usage makes it even harder to find the correct demographic mix.
  • Respondents may not be revealing their true views. The “Shy Tory Effect”—where conservatives are less likely to tell pollsters what they really believe&,dash;acts to inflate projected vote totals for more liberal candidates and causes.
  • Questionable survey design&mdeash;where the wording of questions or the ordering of the questions influence response—can skew results.
  • In close political races, the margin of error—which is often one or two percentage points— often makes predicting a winner impossible. A coin toss will have the same level of reliability.
  • In the presidential race, the difficulty in figuring out who will actually vote in November introduces significant subjectivity. It accounts for some polls showing Obama winning a state and others showing Romney winning the same state. If the pollster believes turnout will be like the presidential election of 2008, when minorities and younger voters surged to the polls, an Obama victory is likely. If a pollster believes turnout will be like 2004, with more GOP partisans showing up, then a Romney victory is likely.

In the end, the only poll that matters is the one on Tuesday, November 6th. That’s the one that counts. Debating the validity of public opinion surveys before then may energize partisans, but for the rest of us, it appears to be quite a waste of time. And don’t expect the exit polls to be any better—the flaws in the way they are conducted make them unreliable, to say the least.

In any event, we’ll know the actual winners soon enough.

Copyright © 2012 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

Purchase the new Cold War thriller by Jefferson Flanders, Herald Square, at

Read an interview with the author.

August 2012: Plagiarism and other literary crimes and misdemeanors

A tip of the hat to the legendary New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon for borrowing his signature phrase: nobody asked me, but…

No writer ever wants the word “plagiarism” in a sentence that includes his or her name. And if they write nonfiction, they also don’t want to see themselves linked to phrases like “fabricated quotes” or “fabricated facts.”

Some prominent authors and journalists have been in the news recently for some of these “literary crimes and misdemeanors.” Jonah Lehrer of the New Yorker admitted creating Bob Dylan quotes in his bestseller Imagine: How Creativity Works. He resigned from the New Yorker and his publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, recalled his book. (Somewhat surprisingly, Wired magazine decided to keep Lehrer as a contributor).

A clear case of plagiarism by commentator Fareed Zakaria in a Time magazine column caused that magazine (and CNN) to temporarily suspend him. To his credit, Zakaria made no excuses and apologized. After a brief investigation which found the plagiarism was an isolated incident, Zakaria was reinstated by Time and CNN.

There’s no question that Google has made it child’s play to surface instances of plagiarism—especially word-for-word copying—and fabrication. Just cut-and-paste a few passages from Article #1 into Google Search and see if there are multiple hits for the words and phrases.

(If you try this technique with the preceding paragraph, or with this blog post, you should find the words and phrases are attributed to Jefferson Flanders.)

You would think that anyone who writes for public consumption would recognize this new reality. If you copy or fabricate, you will likely be found out. The more famous or well-known you become, the more likely it is that someone will Google check you and expose your borrowing.

A persistent problem

So why do high profile writers still get caught plagiarizing and fabricating?

I think there are several plausible reasons for this persistent problem:

  • Some writers employ a work process—employing interns to do research or create drafts or copying directly from digital sources—that invites trouble. If you look at the details of the Fareed Zakaria plagiarism, it looks like the author (Zakaria? an intern?) line-edited material on gun control from the Harvard historian Jill Lepore’s New Yorker article on the topic. The structure of Lepore’s paragraph on the historical adoption of gun control by state governments was retained with some only slight rearranging of words and rephrasing. Was this a case of someone rushing to complete a column on deadline? It certainly looks that way. Worse, all Zakaria needed to do was openly credit Lepore or quote her.
  • Some writers can’t resist the temptation to strengthen their work by tweaking quotes or, in the worst case, the facts. Whenever there’s a quotation that fits seamlessly into an article, or an anonymous source says something that elegantly validates an author’s thesis, I become suspicious.
    My guess is that this sort of fabrication begins when a writer decides to make slight “improvements” to the quotes he or she has elicited. This “shaping of quotes” can dramatically improve the narrative quality of a piece of writing and over time, it seems, some writers find themselves taking greater and greater liberties (or even inventing interviewees). Lehrer only got caught because he didn’t actually have access to Dylan—had he interviewed the reclusive singer he might very well have been able to pass off as genuine any made-up quote that he wanted to (as long as the fabrication put Dylan in a favorable light and didn’t cause the singer to challenge it publicly).
  • Some writers are prepared to beg, borrow, and steal to advance their careers. This was the case with Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair, who both fashioned journalism that—upon closer scrutiny—turned out to be too good to be true. In the short run both Glass and Blair became “stars.” In the long run they were exposed and questions were raised about their emotional health—since it was just a matter of time before they were caught and they had to know that.
  • The pace of today’s literary and journalistic world encourages short cuts. The Internet has placed a premium on the quantity and frequency of what writers can blog, tweet, post, and aggregate. Publishing houses are, it is reported, pressuring authors to produce books on an accelerated schedule. Some percentage of those “content-creators” will succumb to the temptation of rehashing existing content—and depending on how careful they are in giving credit or in avoiding word-by-word lifting they will get away with it. For a while. Then, inevitably, they will borrow a little too much and get caught.

I’ve always thought that having a distinctive voice or style makes it less likely that a writer will plagiarize, either consciously or unconsciously. I try to read aloud whatever I have written during the writing process and if it doesn’t sound natural—something I would say—then I take the red pencil to it. Writers who revise extensively are also more likely to avoid missteps. Finally, writers who cut-and-paste digital material from the Web and are careless about citing sources are playing literary Russian Roulette.

And that’s a game that usually ends badly.

Copyright © 2012 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

Purchase the new Cold War thriller by Jefferson Flanders, Herald Square, at

Read an interview with the author.