Yes, I believe it’s now time to talk about a turning point

Home again in Washington, DC after two weeks in the Nordic countries, Sweden, Denmark and Iceland, primarily to participate in the publication on September 20 of my book “Amerika – drömmarnas land” (America – country of dreams) in Stockholm.

Nice book release party at the Dance Museum in Stockholm with many old friends, a book discussion at the ABF educational association with journalist colleague Stig Fredrikson, a lengthy interview on the Knowledge Channel about the book. The American election campaign is the center of attention in the Swedish newspapers and on radio and television. The coverage is amazingly extensive.

On the way back home, a short visit with good friends in Reykjavik and a lunch seminar at the Icelandic Foreign Ministry about my book and the U.S. elections. Lively and fun!

The return home came just in time for today’s big event, the first of three televised debates between President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney. But before that, I will also head to the ballpark to cheer on my Washington Nationals on the last day of the regular season for winning the National League Eastern Division and for taking the local baseball team to the playoffs for the first time since 1933!

Tonight then, in Denver, Colorado? I remember the first TV debate ever, in the autumn of 1960, between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, shortly after I arrived in the U.S. for the first time. JFK won the debate and he won the election, albeit with the slimmest of margins. Ever since then, the importance of these debates has been discussed. The conclusion? Not unanimous. Sometimes, as in 1980 when Ronald Reagan faced Jimmy Carter, Reagan came out on top and then won the election. Sometimes, as in 2004, John Kerry won dthe debate but George W. Bush the election. And last time, in 2008, the debate winner, Barack Obama, also won the election.

The Washington Post summarizes the situation ahead of tonight’s debate.

A few weeks ago, I wrote on this blog that something had happened after the two party conventions but that I did not want to call it a turning point in the campaign. Since then, the situation for Mitt Romney through a series of mistakes, especially his talk about America’s “47 percent,” has steadily weakened. And now the conclusion is inescapable: we have reached a turning point. Obama has strengthened his position on a wide front and time is running out for Romney.

To reverse this trend, Romney tonight needs not just to have a major breakthrough, but he also needs a major mistake, a major gaffe, by Obama. That is unlikely to happen.

Oh, how I wish I had gone to The Last Book Sale

I was thinking of going, but, somehow, it didn’t work out, and now, reading Larry McMurtry’s own account in the New York Review of Books of The Last Book Sale at his store Booked Up Inc. in his home town Archer City, Texas, out there northwest of Dallas/Fort Worth and south of Wichita Falls, I realize how much I would have loved to have gone.

300,000 out of McMurtry’s 400,000 books were on sale on that hot recent August weekend. The 200 bidders came from the all over the country, from Oregon, Wisconsin, Tampa, San Francisco, Natchez, Austin, and Magnolia, Arkansas. Most of the books sold, except the fiction, McMurtry, eminent author but also eminent book dealer, writes.

Readers of this blog know how much I like the old book stores, and that I have found many wonderful such stores all around America. But I have never been to Booked Up in Archer City, Texas, and this was the time to go. Or maybe there is a next time?

Mitt Romney’s “disastrous” foreign trip: son like father?

Mitt Romney is back from his foreign trip to London, Israel, and Poland, a trip that is generally considered to have been a “disaster.”

Romney managed the impossible, writes veteran Michael Hirsh in National Journal, who cannot think of anything like it since the father, George Romney, came home from Vietnam and said that the U.S. military there had “brainwashed” him. That spelled the end of George Romney’s presidential candidacy.

The question now is whether Mitt Romney’s candidacy is heading towards the same fate as his father’s did. His “gaffes,” described in detail by John Cassidy on his blog in The New Yorker, will likely not have the same impact. But it is clear that Romney’s foreign trip has not strengthened his presidential candidacy, and it will be interesting to see if and how this is reflected in the next polls.

Already before the trip, the latest figures today from Quinnipiac University/New York Times/CBS News show that Obama has strengthened his position in key states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Florida. Obama’s lead in Pennsylvania is very large, 11 percent, while the lead in the other two is 6 percent.

“Cooking Like a Viking”

Great headline in my New York Times this morning, but, for some reason, the article is called “A Return to Nordic Roots” on the paper’s website.

In any case, good Swedish food is not easy to find in America — and, believe me, it’s a lot more than meatballs and pancakes — so the new wave of Swedish restaurants in the Twin Cities in Minnesota, where almost ten percent of the population has Swedish ancestry — is exciting. Got to go and try them out!

An architectural treasure in smalltown Indiana

On our way recently by car to Chicago, through West Virginia and Kentucky, our destination was the little town of Columbus in southern Indiana, on the flat farmland between Indianapolis and Louisville, Kentucky.

Now, I usually stay away from the word “unique.” It is overused and few things are really unique. But the town of Columbus, Indiana is unique. With only 44,000 inhabitants it has become an architectural treasure. Six of Columbus’ modernist buildings have been declared National Historic Landmarks and little Columbus ranks sixth in America after the big cities of Chicago, New York City, San Francisco, Boston, and Washington DC as a premier architectural destination.

It all started when the Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen’s First Christian Church opened during World War II. A bank and the stunning North Christian Church by his son Eero Saarinen followed, by then thanks to local engine maker Cummins Inc. and the vision of its CEO J. Irwin Miller and his new Cummins Foundation. Miller, born and raised in Columbus, clearly valued good architecture and good art and saw its importance to the quality of life of his home town, for his Foundation offered to pay the architects’ fees, first for the schools and then for any new public building in town.

Many a leading architect heard the call: I.M. Pei, Gunnar Birkerts, Robert Venturi, Harry Weese, Cesar Pelli, Kevin Roche, Richard Meier, Robert Stern. Their work, office buildings, schools, fire stations, can be found all over town.

The Commons, designed in 2011 by Koetter Kim & Associates, with its gigantic climbing tree, is what must be one of the great indoor children’s playgrounds in any downtown.

The global headquarters of Cummins Inc. was designed by Kevin Roche and houses an engine museum with a stunning garden, created by landscape architect Jack Curtis. J. Irwin Miller lived until he died in in 2004 in a home designed by Eero Saarinen in 1957, with Alexander Girard’s interior design and Dan Kiley as landscape architect — all legends in American architecture.

Columbus is also the scene of great public art. Outside Pei’s library stands Henry Moore’s “Large Arch,” in front of The Commons is Bernar Venet’s red “2 Arcs de 212.5°,” in front of the splendid modern offices of the local newspaper The Republic, designed by Myron Goldsmith is “Birds of Fire” by Ted Sitting Crow Garner, and Dale Chihuly’s magnificent “Yellow Neon Chandelier and Persians” hangs in the Visitor Center.

It just goes on and on. Go there! There is nothing like it in all America.

The importance of a real bookstore close by…

The other evening, I was reminded of how important it is to have a real bookstore close by, as I visited “Politics & Prose” in Washington, DC to listen to Richard Ford, one of my favorite American authors, talk about and read from his new book “Canada.” What a treat!

Ford, author of the Frank Bascombe trilogy and of short stories like “Rock Springs,” was on book tour around America, to some of the best bookstores the country has to offer: “Barnes & Noble” at Union Square in New York, “Books Inc.” in Palo Alto, California , “Powell’s” in Portland, Oregon, “Elliott Bay Book Company” in Seattle, Washington; “Square Books,” in Oxford, Mississippi, “Parnassus Books” in Nashville, Tennessee, “Tattered Cover Book Store” in Denver, Colorado, etc.

All of them are like little oases out there in America, and I always try to make time to visit them in my travels. To enter the mighty Powell’s in Portland or to stroll around on the many floors of Union Square’s “Barnes & Noble” or grab a cup of hot chocolate at “Politics & Prose,” and then listen to Richard Ford is just a great adventure.

Here in Washington, in this time of crisis for our bookstores, we are fortunate still to have “Politics & Prose,” and every time I visit San Francisco I am glad that the “City Lights Books” from the 50’s in the city’s North Beach is still open, or that small used bookstores like “Bookends” in the little Florence, Massachusetts, or “City Books” in Pittsburgh, have survived. Too many have already perished, like our “Borders” in downtown Silver Spring, MD, or the “Hungry Mind” in St. Paul, Minnesota, or Cody’s, the legendary bookstore in Berkeley, California, and like so many more, which Amazon can never replace.

A museum adds to the magic of Golden Gate Park

October is a good month in California, I was reminded recently, as I returned there for a week to that gorgeous California autumn weather, from San Francisco in the north to Los Angeles in the south. As always, it was exciting and full of new experiences, and, as always, the East Coast felt far away.

When I lived in San Francisco some time ago, on the top floor of a small house overlooking the Golden Gate Park, I could observe the new de Young Museum in the park being built, slowly raising itself above the eucalyptus trees. Today it is finished, a magnificent building clad in copper with a 45 meter high twisted tower, from which, on the ninth floor, visitors have maybe the best of views out over San Francisco and its hills, parks, and houses, down to the Pacific Ocean in the west, up to the Golden Gate Bridge’s red towers in the north, Twin Peaks to the south, and downtown with its Transamerica pyramid to the east.

The architects, Swiss Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, and the local firm Fong & Chan, had no easy task in the earthquake-prone city. But the result is grand and the location is without comparison. The copper exterior is expected over time to oxidize and turn greener in tone, thus blending in with the park’s vast greenery.

The Golden Gate Park is the most beautiful of America’s urban parks, full of that special smell from its eucalyptus trees and the winds from the Pacific. The de Young Museum changes nothing of that. In fact, it adds to its wonders and magic.

Away…to fine music and good food

Washington is warmest in the entire country, 100 degrees today, and over 100 degrees in the days to come.

We go outdoors only if we absolutely have to. Indoors, the air conditioning is humming, thank goodness, and I fear for all those who do not have air conditioning and I wonder how everyone coped in the old days, before air conditioning was invented.

On days like these you just want to get away, like the other day when we headed west to the wondrous landscape of Rappahannock County, Virginia, towards the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoah National Park.

We headed to the village of Castleton and the Castleton Festival, a relatively new place of pilgrimage for lovers of classical music in the American capital, where conductor Lorin Maazel, from the New York Philharmonic and the Opera in Valencia, Spain, bought a lot of land a few years ago and now makes music every summer. This year is the festival’s third year. Several hundred young musicians from over twenty countries spend the summer here, treating festival visitors to works by Puccini, Kurt Weill, Ravel, Stravinsky, Bizet, Gershwin, etc. in the former chicken coop that has become a nice little concert hall or in the large festival tent.

Castleton is located about 60 miles from Washington and if you want to spend the night, there are many small inns in the area. The most famous is The Inn at Little Washington. It was opened in 1978 by Patrick O’Connell, who still runs what has now become one of America’s best restaurants. The dinner after the concert is excellent and we are full of contentment during the return to Washington and no one is homesick.

Out to the sea, again and again…

When the temperature recently reached 100 degrees and Washington became hot, humid and unbearable, I slipped out of town and headed east, out over the four-mile-long bridge over the Chesapeake Bay, across the flat Eastern Shore of Maryland and out to Delaware and the sea…

The waves rolled in from the Atlantic, a salty breeze blew cool and the sandy beaches stretched north and south as far as the eye could see. To arrive and sit down in the sand brought great pleasure, not least because the journey there is not always easy.

The drive is a little over two hours but often more if you choose, or are forced to choose, to leave Washington in rush hour on Friday afternoon. Awaiting are the beautiful, mile-long, sandy beaches along the Atlantic Ocean between the small coastal towns of Lewes, Rehoboth, Dewey and Bethany, all in Delaware, where the first Swedish immigrants arrived in 1638 on the ship Kalmar Nyckel – “The Tall Ship of Delaware” – and founded the colony New Sweden. A replica of the Kalmar Key was completed in 1997 in connection with 350th anniversary of New Sweden, and she now sails with tourists in the waters around Delaware and sometimes docks at the ferry terminal in Lewes, where boats run to Cape May in New Jersey across the Delaware Bay.

The old fishing town of Lewes from the early 1600s is especially charming today with its small historic district full of Victorian homes and nice shops and good restaurants. And it is close to Cape Henlopen State Park with its untouched nature and beautiful beaches. It’s precisely the Delaware park system and the fact that the beaches are part of the Delaware Seashore State Park, which makes them so attractive. They are peaceful destinations, away from America’s traffic, commercialism, advertising signs, parking lots and shopping centers.

No wonder the Delaware beaches have become so popular not only for Washington’s millions but also for those who live in surrounding cities like Baltimore, Wilmington and Philadelphia. That’s the negative side of the Delaware beaches – their popularity. But if you can avoid Fourth of July, and the traffic on Friday afternoons and Sunday evenings, or simply come and visit in late spring and early summer, or in September and October, then you cannot avoid being charmed, and return, again and again…

The joy of public radio through Georgia

Just like President Eisenhower’s proposal in the 50’s to build the interstate freeway system crisscrossing the country revolutionized car travel for all Americans, the start, in 1970, of commercial-free, public radio — National Public Radio (NPR) – has revolutionized how Americans listened to radio.

The radio is an invaluable companion, particularly in the car, as I noticed recently during my trip in the South. But that was not always so.

I remember the time when it was little else but commercials, music, new commercials, and with the occasional news report. There is still of lot of radio like that and, in addition, there are now two types of stations that have grown rapidly in influence in recent times: religious stations and conservative talk shows with Rush Limbaugh, Laura Ingraham, Glenn Beck and others.

Rush is the biggest. He is on 600 stations around the country and strong in the South — he can be heard on 22 stations only in Georgia. I tried and tried to listen to him in the car, between noon and 3 pm every day, not the least to try to understand his enormous popularity, but in the end his demagogic ramblings became too much.

Thankfully, I managed everywhere, even where it is often difficult to get hold of a good newspaper or even a good cup of coffee, to find a public radio station, often near a college or university. And with that came all the wonderful programs, “Morning Edition”; “All Things Considered”, “Fresh Air with Terry Gross” from Philadelphia, and “A Prairie Home Companion” with Garrison Keillor from St. Paul, Minnesota. Or news from the BBC, “Market Place” from Los Angeles with economic news, “Car Talk” with everything about cars, and lots of classical music.

There are now 920 public radio stations in America with almost 27 million listeners every week. NPR has become America’s second largest radio network and an invaluable element in the American political, cultural and social debate. I find it difficult today to imagine, like probably millions of Americans, an America without NPR, shielded from serious information and debate, shut out from the big world out there.

Many on the right hate NPR, calling it leftist and elitist, and in budget cutting times, it is often a target, although the savings would be miniscule. So far, those attempts have failed and I am happy for that in my car through Georgia.