Articles > People & Politics
Thomas Friedman is On Top of the World
Thomas Friedman is the great explainer—big issues like why we’re at war and jobs are moving overseas. He also loves hitting a little white ball in Bethesda.
For a group of neighborhood teens growing up outside Minneapolis in the 1960s, there was a lot of broomball—come winter, the gang would take to the ice with brooms and bat around a soccer ball in a hockeylike game without the skates. Bundled up in winter gear, they would race up and down, battling for the ball and trying to score on the opposing goalie. One of the leading scorers was the youngest child of the Friedman family on West 23rd Street in St. Louis Park. It took his teammates a few games to figure out why: Little Tom would plant himself near the opposing goalie so when the ball got close, he could sweep it right in.
“He had a wicked stroke,” childhood friend Ken Greer explains. “He has a unique ability to sense where to be before everyone else. He was always ahead of the curve.”
Forty years later, Thomas Friedman is arguably the world’s most influential and popular foreign-policy thinker. And he’s still able, most of his colleagues agree, to see several plays ahead in the game. His most recent book, The World Is Flat, jump-started a national debate over American competitiveness that was picked up in President Bush’s State of the Union address. The book itself has spent more than 60 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.
The path from his blue, middle-class house in Minnesota to the op-ed page of the Times began with a trip to an Israeli kibbutz and wended its way through war-torn Beirut, the birthplace of modern Islamist terrorism, to the high-tech corridor outside Bangalore. Along the way, it’s included a Marshall Scholarship, three Pulitzer Prizes, and marriage to the heiress of a real-estate fortune.
He’s still not sure he’s got it right.
Thomas Loren Friedman was born July 20, 1953, the first son of Harold and Margaret Friedman. His family was solid 1950s middle class; his childhood home was bought through the GI Bill after his mother served as an ensign in the Navy during World War II. His father, funny and well liked, was an executive at a ball-bearing company, and his mother, a very good bridge player, was well educated, well read, and an excellent cook. When the neighborhood gang tried to figure out where to eat, Tom’s house was the likely pick—at least when his mom wasn’t touring on the bridge-tournament circuit.
Friedman lived much of his early life in the shadow of his two older sisters. Their parents had high expectations for the children, and Tom wasn’t considered the brightest in the family—that mantle belonged to the oldest child, Shelley. Shelley, who became devoutly religious in college, now lives in Miami and works for a Lubavitch Jewish day school, where her husband also teaches. Even so, his intellectual curiosity was unusual among his friends. “His interests were pretty sophisticated for whatever age,” says his childhood neighbor Mark Greene. “He watched the Today show before we knew what the Today show was.”
Friedman played a lot of sports, becoming serious about tennis and golf. He caddied at a local country club; in 1970 he caddied for the legendary Chi Chi Rodriguez when the US Open came to town.
He had a tight-knit group of friends. In third grade, Greene and Friedman were so rowdy that their teacher promised they’d never be in the same class again. On Saturdays, the two often would take the bus into downtown Minneapolis to eat at a cafeteria and go to a movie, generally a Western or a horror show. The horror films fascinated Friedman. He loved to assemble and paint things like Frankenstein’s monster and the Creature.
Emulating their fathers, the gang played poker in junior high, dubbing themselves the Tenth Avenue Poker Club and betting pennies a hand. “Every day for years, we probably pushed the same three dollars in pennies between us,” Greene laughs.
The gang from St. Louis Park has remained close—they still gather in Minnesota and periodically reconvene the poker club for raucous weekends in Las Vegas. Friedman even accompanied Ken Greer and his bride, Jill, on their honeymoon across Europe in the 1970s. Friedman dedicated The World Is Flat to his childhood friend Ron Soskin, who died this year after a long illness.
“They are the people I trust the most, and they knew me when,” Friedman says. “When you go along in life and develop whatever notoriety you do, people begin to relate to you differently, and I’m just always most comfortable with the people I grew up with.”
The neighborhood had a sizable Jewish population, and religion was an important part of his childhood. After school Friedman would take the bus to Hebrew school; in the summer, he would go to the Jewish Herzl camp in northern Wisconsin. “I’ve always enjoyed the communal side of Jewish life,” he says.
His sophomore year at St. Louis Park High, Friedman signed up for Hattie Steinberg’s Introduction to Journalism class. It was, he says, the only journalism class he’s ever taken. In a 2001 column commemorating her death, he wrote, “Hattie was a woman who believed … in getting the fundamentals right. And boy, she pounded the fundamentals of journalism into her students—not simply how to write a lead or accurately transcribe a quote, but, more important, how to comport yourself in a professional way and to always do quality work.”
After he took the class, he tried out for the school paper, the Echo. The first year he was deemed not good enough to write, so he was made business manager. His friend Ken Greer, editor of the school’s literary magazine, told him he had no future in journalism. By senior year Friedman was allowed to write for the paper and went on to do two big projects—a three-part series on the John F. Kennedy assassination, written after he became obsessed with the conspiracy theories, and “Love in the Halls,” an exposÃ© on an “epidemic” of students kissing in the school hallways. The latter can be taken as a clue that Friedman didn’t date much. He was rarely seen at the Sadie Hawkins dances and proms that marked the passage of adolescence.
It was in tenth grade that Friedman became fascinated with the larger world. Steinberg encouraged her students to start each day reading the New York Times and columnists like Anthony Lewis and James Reston. Friedman discovered Israel at age 15 during a summer trip with his parents to visit one of his sisters at Tel Aviv University. For the next three summers he returned to work on a kibbutz; the contacts he made there helped lay the groundwork for his Middle East reporting. “In fact, high school for me, I am now embarrassed to say, was one big celebration of Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War,” he once wrote.
After high school, Friedman went to the University of Minnesota, where he began studying Arabic, an odd choice at the time. Later he spent a semester at Hebrew University and then to Brandeis in Boston, where he studied Arabic and Hebrew intensely. He graduated summa cum laude in 1975 with a degree in Mediterranean studies. While Vietnam raged in the background, the defining moment of his college career came his sophomore year when his father died during a round of golf.
His father’s premature death focused the young Friedman; as family friends rallied to pay his tuition at Brandeis, he redoubled his efforts. “There’s nothing like living a little close to the edge that gets you motivated to ensure that you get the credentials you need to succeed,” he says.
At 19 Friedman grew a mustache in an attempt to look older. Now it is something of a trademark. When he shaved it off a few years ago, his family objected.
After Brandeis he was off to England on a Marshall Scholarship—he studied at Oxford’s St. Antony’s College, earning a master’s degree in Middle East studies.
“He stood out from the first as unusually confident, ambitious, and directed—even among Marshall scholars, who are not exactly shrinking violets,” recalls fellow Marshall scholar Amy Wax, now a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “He seemed to know exactly what he wanted and where he was going. I admired him for that.”
In England, he met Ann Bucksbaum, a Phi Beta Kappa Stanford graduate studying at the London School of Economics. She came from a wealthy Iowa real-estate family. They courted and married in 1978 during a small ceremony in London’s Hyde Park Synagogue.
Walking on a London street with Ann in 1976, he was struck by a newspaper headline about Jimmy Carter’s promise, if elected, to fire Henry Kissinger. Friedman sat down and wrote an op-ed, which Ann helped get published in the Des Moines Register. The editor paid him $50, and Friedman’s career was born.
By the time he graduated from Oxford, he had a dozen op-eds under his belt, and he persuaded United Press International to hire him in its London bureau. He was so nervous during his first weeks—he says he had never so much as covered a fire—that he kept getting bloody noses and was hospitalized, which became something of a joke among the UPI reporters.
But Friedman rose to the occasion. When the wire was looking for someone to cover oil at the start of the Iranian revolution, he took the initiative to be tutored by a policy expert in the same building as the UPI bureau and then found himself on the way to Beirut as a foreign correspondent in 1979. The neophyte journalist boarded a plane, his new wife in tow, with little idea about what he was stepping into—except for the knowledge that his predecessor in Beirut had quit after being nicked by a bullet.
Friedman threw himself into reporting and after two years was hired by the New York Times. After 11 months in Manhattan learning the Times way of doing things, he was back in Beirut just as the ongoing civil war was exploding. In his 26 months in Beirut, beginning in April 1982, Friedman grew into a skilled reporter, filing dispatch after dispatch from a country descending into hell.
Lebanon, once a vibrant, multicultural society, was now the site of a no-holds-barred war involving the region and the world’s great powers—from the United States to Israel. “To be that young and to have Lebanon as your beat was to have the world,” says J. Michael Kennedy, who covered Beirut for the Los Angeles Times . “You were on the front pages every day.”
While not specifically targeted, journalists faced the same dangers as civilians, except that the stories they covered inevitably took them into harm’s way. There were bullets from snipers, bombings, and a daily gauntlet of checkpoints thrown up by various groups.
“You’d wake up every day and there was no question that something bad would happen,” recalls Kennedy. “The question was what and to what degree.”
Reporters often worked in pairs as a precaution, but much of the enterprise work was done solo—reporters putting their lives in the hands of trusted drivers who served as translators and fixers. The Times’s driver, Mohammed Kasrawi, was considered the best in the business.
Western reporters regularly gathered at the Commodore Hotel, where the liquor and gossip flowed. “Even though the airport was shut most of the time, the Lebanese figured out how to get goods,” recalls David Zucchino, now with the Los Angeles Times but then the Philadelphia Inquirer’s correspondent. “There was plenty of liquor and good food. It was a very convivial time despite the fact that there was a war raging.”
Zucchino and his wife lived upstairs from the Friedmans in an apartment building in northwest Beirut overlooking the Minara lighthouse. During the frequent shelling, Ann and Tom would join the Zucchinos in their apartment, sheltering in the laundry room. It was a long way from Minneapolis.
The Beirut assignment was in many ways the culmination of years of preparation by Friedman—beginning with his high-school fascination with Israel and his Arabic studies through college. “Tom thrived,” says Kennedy.
“It was very clear that this was a guy who first of all knew so much more than I did; he’d made this his life’s work. He also had this wonderful mind. He could take things and turn them this way and that. He could see things that others couldn’t.”
Colleagues recall Friedman, clipboard in hand, dashing around Beirut.
“Tom was better prepared than most of us,” Zucchino says. “He worked very hard to build sources, use sources, and go back to the sources.”
The assassination of the president of the American University of Beirut cast a pall over the foreign community. Many spouses and children departed as journalists became targets. Ann moved back to the States, taking a job in New York as a copyeditor at Institutional Investor magazine.
The Israeli massacre at the Palestinian refugee camps in Sabra and Shatila was a big story, and Friedman’s ability to speak Hebrew and Arabic gave him unusual access. Kennedy says Friedman disappeared from the reporters’ ranks soon after the story broke. “He reemerges four or five days later and comes to the only working telex. He walks back into the Commodore with a mountain of paper, and that was his story. That was his first Pulitzer.”
Friedman was listening to the 1 pm BBC news broadcast on April 18, 1983, when an explosion knocked the radio over. Seeing a cloud spiraling above the US Embassy, he ran the mile or so to the scene. A truck bomb driven by a suicide bomber had exploded at the embassy. Everyone was stunned. Friedman recalls, “That seemed like the absolutely most crazy thing I’d ever heard—he blew himself up? In a truck laden with explosives? It seemed unthinkable. How could you get someone to do that? Little did I know that was the beginning of a new form of terrorism that really is shaping so much of our world.”
The following October, another suicide bomber blew up the Marine barracks in Beirut, killing 241 Marines, soldiers, and airmen and prompting the withdrawal of American troops from Lebanon.
Friedman’s experience in Beirut and his subsequent four years in Jerusalem as the Times’s first Jewish correspondent in Israel—which landed him another Pulitzer in 1988 for international reporting—led to a Guggenehim Fellowship and his 1989 book, From Beirut to Jerusalem, a National Book Award winner and still one of the best primers on the Middle East.
But the dangerous assignments took a toll on his psyche. “He was very shaken when he came back from Lebanon,” Greene says. Among the more traumatic moments were when his driver’s wife and children were killed while sheltering in Friedman’s apartment and he was away. “By the end of that summer in 1982, I was emotionally very battered,” Friedman says. “Beirut and the civil war was like you got to see what human beings were really capable of.”
Friedman was made chief diplomatic correspondent for the Times in 1989. In that role he covered the first Gulf War and followed Secretary of State James Baker 500,000 miles around the world. He was named chief White House correspondent in 1992, served as international-economics correspondent in 1994, and became foreign-affairs columnist in 1995.
Through the next decade, he pontificated on world events and international economies, developing a tone rich in pop analogies and personal anecdotes and cultivating a worldwide network of sources. His 1999 book on globalization, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, eventually translated into 27 languages, cast the issue as the struggle between globalizing forces and materialism, represented by the Lexus, and nationalism, history, and culture—the olive tree.
After 9/11, Friedman turned again to the Middle East and the conflict between Western society and Islam’s struggle with modernity. His columns on the subject resulted in another book, Longitudes and Attitudes, and his third Pulitzer, for distinguished commentary.
The run-up to the Iraq war is perhaps the most controversial chapter of Friedman’s career. Generally liberal, Friedman became a strong proponent of the war—and after the invasion, a strong critic of the administration’s handling of the occupation.
“I checked my politics at the door when I decided to support the war, but I resent that Bush and his people didn’t check theirs,” he said last year. Friedman has argued that the Iraq invasion was the right decision not because of Saddam Hussein or WMDs but because of “PMDs,” people of mass destruction—that is, to combat the toxic culture that gave rise to extremism and Osama bin Laden and to unlock a nascent democracy movement across the region. “This was a 52–49 call to me—and I say 52–49 because there was a level of irrationality to it,” he says.
He’s been to Iraq five times since the invasion. His first column from there, printed on the day the statue of Saddam Hussein fell, was titled “Hold Your Applause.” Three years later, he still believes that.
Ken Greer refers to his childhood friend as a “20-year overnight sensation… . Tom has become really smart,” he says. “I don’t know that he started out really smart. Now he has a gift because he’s worked hard for 20 years.”
Friedman, who admits he’s not “SAT bright,” has always worked hard to master the subjects he covers, steeping himself in history and trends to understand the larger contexts. “I get such a buzz out of learning,” he says. He does lots of research before interviews and is constantly saving up “acorns” that might prove useful down the road.
Among his greatest assets is the network of friends and sources he has developed.
“One of the things about Tom is that once you become his friend, it’s a lifelong friendship,” says Greer. “Busy as he is, he’ll call from anywhere in the world just to see how I’m doing. He’s a friend who would have many excuses not to call.”
Because many of his sources are friends and many of his friends are sources—Greer’s Minneapolis marketing agency features prominently in The World Is Flat —Friedman’s interview style is unlike that of most journalists. He’ll call someone whose opinion he wants and read him a draft of a column or section of a book and ask his thoughts.
Joel Cawley, IBM’s vice president of corporate strategy, who worked with Friedman on developing the theory behind the “flat world,” says Friedman often would call to run through an idea or read Cawley the latest draft of a section. “You could see him ping-ponging around all these different people and ideas. But it was always Tom’s words,” Cawley says. “He’s listened to a lot of sources, people, and ideas, but at the end of the day it’s his voice coming through.”
Says Stanford professor Paul Romer, who met Friedman at a meeting set up by a Silicon Valley venture capitalist to road-test some of Friedman’s book: “We’d get on the phone, and I’d make my claim, and he’d push and probe… . He’ll run through it—he’s reading from his PC—here’s the name, the metaphor, or the analogy. He’ll run through the whole thing and then he’ll look for reaction… . He spends a lot of time visiting people and talking with people and absorbing their thoughts through a conversational style.”
“Being one of my sources is exhausting,” Friedman admits. “It’s not one interview and you’re done. I keep going back until I feel like I understand everything.”
Friedman says his religion has contributed to his success. “I’ve always found being Jewish an advantage in Beirut. The emotional biorhythms of the story flowed through me, not around me,” he explains. “At a tribal level, I was part of the story.” Traveling in the Middle East, Friedman, who is a forceful advocate for a two-state solution in Israel, has found that people on all sides of the issue often spend more time with him because he’s Jewish—they know he cares about the outcome.
Friedman’s focus changed in 2004 as he began to get fed up with the situation in Iraq and the lack of progress toward Middle East peace. While making a documentary about India for the Discovery Channel, he realized that while he’d been concentrating on the Middle East he had missed an even more important story: the impact that globalization and the Internet were having. His phrase “the world is flat” came out of a conversation with an Indian business executive who told him that digital connectivity was leveling the playing field.
“While our heads were in the sand, other countries caught up,” he says. Now, he posits, “flatism” is as much a generational challenge as communism was half a century ago. Business and political leaders need to band together to create programs and policies that address American competitiveness, he argues, or the United States will find itself struggling for economic dominance with India and China.
Friedman’s attention came just as the globalization debate was exploding. John Kerry was complaining about “Benedict Arnold CEOs” who were moving jobs overseas; on CNN Lou Dobbs was railing about offshoring and immigration. The World Is Flat connected with a desire among the public and business leaders to talk and think rationally about the implications of an increasingly connected world. Friedman was able to define the debate in his terms—a Nexis search for “the world is flat” maxes out at more than 1,000 hits in the last year, and Google cites more than 1.2 million Web pages referencing the phrase and Friedman.
“The globalization discussion suffers from radicalization and polarization, and that’s unhealthy all the way around,” says IBM’s Joel Cawley. “Tom’s voice was much more rational and thoughtful; it wasn’t necessarily comforting but much more sober.”
Says Harvard foreign-policy expert Graham Allison: “It wasn’t that he caused globalization. It wasn’t that a lot of people hadn’t thought about it. But for Congressman Joe or assistant secretary Moe or a Washington lawyer or an influential, he encapsulated and vivified that argument in a way that made a lot of people go, ‘Whoa.’ ”
The World Is Flat provided a framework for debate and jump-started countless panels around the country. In his 2006 State of the Union address, President Bush used American competitiveness as one of his themes. Friedman travels almost weekly, delivering his message to dozens of group and business leaders, often wearing his trademark black turtleneck and khakis.
His approach is not without detractors. Criticized at one point or another by Jews, Palestinians, and Arabs, Friedman, a self-described “do-gooder,” is now often criticized for stressing success stories rather than the larger picture, and some critics say his optimistic view of globalization ignores a lot of the downsides.
“Participation in the new world requires resources, computers, education, and access to those is very unequally distributed,” says Nobel Prize–winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, author of the 2002 bestseller Globalization and Its Discontents. “He has this high level of optimism that means that anyone can do it if they just have wills… . He hasn’t emphasized as much that in effect some of the forces of inequality make the world less flat. Globalization inherently increases the inequalities in developing countries.”
Stanford’s Romer argues that Friedman understands the drawbacks. “There’s this conscious process to be upbeat about the opportunities presented to us—but it all stems from a desire to do the right thing,” he says. “He’s certainly no Pollyanna—he writes at length about the negative consequences of globalization.”
Beyond his ideas, some detractors dislike Friedman’s conversational writing style. The literary magazine McSweeney’s once published a Mad Libs version of a Friedman column.
After the 488-page The World Is Flat was published last year—the newly reissued and updated version is 100 pages longer— Friedman’s writing was also the target of a 2,200-word screed by Matt Taibbi in the independent paper the New York Press. After attacking the title, Taibbi writes, “Friedman spends the rest of his huge book piling one insane image on top of the other, so that by the end—and I’m not joking here—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.”
But his ability to boil subjects down to metaphors has made Friedman a celebrity on the world stage. “He views his job as translating the complicated mumbo jumbo and diplomacy talk down to something that a grandmother and mother can understand,” Cawley says.
Friedman has built a comfortable life, even leaving aside his wife’s family fortune. His speaking fee recently passed $50,000; with his Times salary, syndication rights, and royalties from his bestselling books, his annual income easily reaches seven figures. When he’s not on the road, he is a regular fixture in Aspen where his in-laws have a house, and at his country clubs. Locally he belongs to Bethesda Country Club and Caves Valley near Baltimore.
In 2003, the Friedmans built a palatial 11,400-square-foot house, now valued at $9.3 million, on a 7Â½-acre parcel just blocks from I-495 and Bethesda Country Club.
His friends say that Friedman has never been motivated by money—for him, work is about the accumulation of credentials and intellectual capital. And he’s certainly got that down: In addition to the three Pulitzers and National Book Award, he has been awarded the 2004 Overseas Press Club Award for lifetime achievement, received seven honorary degrees, been given the honorary title of Order of the British Empire (OBE) by Queen Elizabeth II, and even scored that ultimate pop-culture credential: Last September he was the subject of a Playboy interview.
One irony is that Friedman married into one of the 100 richest families in the country a quarter century ago and now is far more famous than it is. The Bucksbaums, widely recognized as benevolent leaders in the real-estate industry and pioneers in the development of shopping malls, are worth about $2.7 billion. Friedman says his father-in-law, patriarch Matthew Bucksbaum, is his best friend.
Sitting in his large corner office at the New York Times bureau in Washington, just a block from the White House, Friedman is an audio version of his own writing—accessible and filled with personality. Even as he shies away from talking about his family, he relates his personal feelings through analogies, and as in his books and columns, every item in a story has a brand. In one anecdote, he’s writing on a Tandy computer in an InterContinental hotel; in another he’s talking about his Delta frequent-flyer miles.
The dark and tidy office, which belonged to William Safire before his retirement, is an oasis in the cramped bureau—it says CEO more than ink-stained wretch. The bookshelves are neatly lined with books on globalization and trinkets from his career, from a brown UPS hat to a pirated edition of The World Is Flat that a friend bought on an Indian street corner.
Friedman is on the road about a quarter of the time—his sisters and the rest of his family do all of their traveling off his frequent-flyer miles. He’s recognized on the street in cities round the world. Such contacts, he says, are a source of insight on how people feel in the places to which he travels.
Times editorial-page editor Gail Collins once said that traveling with Friedman in the Middle East was like going to the mall with Britney Spears.
Golf remains an important part of his life. He’s down to about a five handicap, which means he shoots in the mid-to-high 70s. His new house has a synthetic putting green out back, and he’s on the masthead at Golf Digest, for which he writes often.
In 2000, he interviewed Bill Clinton for an article on the President’s love of golf, and next year the US Golf Association is publishing a historical photo book, for which Friedman is penning the introduction.
After 9/11, one message he tried to get across in his columns and talks was that people should get back to their regular lives: “I’m going golfing, folks, and leaving the cave dwelling to bin Laden,” he wrote. He often writes his columns early in the morning and then heads to the golf course.
His daughters, Orly, 21, and Natalie, 18, are described as bright, and both are engaged with his work—one daughter is returning this summer to research in India. His wife, Ann, who declined to be interviewed, teaches first-grade reading at Burning Tree Elementary School in Montgomery County and edits nearly all of her husband’s columns as well as serves on a number of boards, including that of the National Symphony Orchestra.
Friedman has “reached a point where he has the credentials, the fame, the fortune, the notoriety—everything that one would want,” Ken Greer says. “Now what he’s so focused on is respecting the position he has. The most important thing in his life is getting it right… . He has to get it right; it drives him crazy. When he gives a speech, it’s not the $50,000 that makes him happy, it’s the nodding heads.”
It’s this fear of failing that keeps Friedman going. Every conversation about his influence and reach inevitably turns to Walter Lippman, the titanic columnist of the mid-20th century who popularized the phrase “Cold War.” Lippman, despite criticism at the time, was an early opponent of the Vietnam War. Friedman, too, wants to be remembered for getting it right when it counts—he says he wakes up every morning a column is published worried that he’s screwed it up. “I spend most of my time agonizing about whether I got it right.”
He says that in his years as a reporter he rarely landed big scoops, explaining, “I rarely knew something to my satisfaction that I was willing to take a chance on it on the front page of the New York Times. ” Nodding back to the education he got from Hattie Steinberg in St. Louis Park, he says, “I come from a generation where to get something wrong in the New York Times is an unforgivable sin.”
For now, he’s enjoying the ride. As he says, “I don’t know whether I’m successful or not—depends on your metric—but I’m sure having fun. Never had a bad day. Shame on me if I did.”Editor-at-large Garrett M. Graff edits Capital Comment and covers politics and media. He is writing a book, The First Campaign: Democrats and the Digital Age, to be published in fall 2007 by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, which also publishes Thomas Friedman’s books.