When September 11 drastically reshifted America's focus and priorities, Thomas L. Friedman was the author readers turned to as a guide to the dynamics of the Middle East. In a mediascape crowded with pundits, the New York Times foreign affairs columnist and author has emerged as the preeminent commentator in his field, informed by his 20-plus years as a journalist covering the rapidly shifting politics in the region.
The title of his first book, From Beirut to Jerusalem, describes his trajectory as New York Times bureau chief in both cities in the '80s. He interrupted his journalism career in 1988 when the Guggenheim Foundation awarded him a fellowship to write a book about his experiences. The result was a personal narrative that described not only his harrowing experiences in Lebanon and Israel but also contained exposition about the roots of his interest in the Middle East, a visit to Israel that burgeoned into a full-blown obsession. Friedman himself put it best, in the book's prelude: "It is a strange, funny, sometimes violent, and always unpredictable road, this road from Beirut to Jerusalem, and in many ways, I have been traveling it all my adult life." From Beirut to Jerusalem won the National Book Award and spent a year on the Times bestseller list.
This road analogy is one of several Friedman will make over the course of a column or book. He reduces the intimidation factor of complex subjects by offering ample (but not copious) background, plain but intelligent language, and occasional humor. On Iraq's history before Saddam: "Romper Room it was not." On globalization: "If [it] were a sport, it would be the 100-meter dash, over and over and over. And no matter how many times you win, you have to race again the next day."
Friedman again offered complex concepts in appealingly dramatic terms in 1989's The Lexus and the Olive Tree, his distillation of the new global economy. He sets up the contrast between the old, Cold War system ("sumo wrestling") and the new globalization system (the 100-meter dash). Another part of why Friedman can be so readable is that he sometimes makes it seem as if his life is one big kaffeeklatsch with the scholars and decision makers of the world. In a chapter from The Lexus and the Olive Tree, he mentions a comment made by a friend who is also "the leading political columnist in Jordan." The day after seeing this friend, Friedman writes, "I happen to go to Israel and meet with Jacob Frenkel, then governor of Israel's Central Bank and a University of Chicago-trained economist." Thus another illustrative point is made. Friedman frames the world not just as he sees it, but also includes the perspective of the many citizens he has made it a point to include in the dialogue.
In 2002, Friedman won a third Pulitzer for his writing in the New York Times, and the demand for his perspicacity post-September 11 makes the release of Longitudes and Attitudes: Exploring the World After September 11 almost a foregone conclusion. Breaking the book into before, during, and after, Friedman presents what he calls a "word album" of America's response to the tragedy. It is undeniably a changed world, and Friedman is undeniably the man to help readers make sense of it.
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Friedman lives with his wife Ann and daughters Orly and Natalie in Bethesda, Maryland, a suburb of Washington.
In high school, Friedman became "insufferable" in his obsession with Israel, he says. He wrote in From Beirut to Jersualem: "When the Syrians arrested thirteen Jews in Damascus, I wore a button for weeks that said Free the Damascus 13, which most of my high-school classmates thought referred to an underground offshoot of the Chicago 7. I recall my mother saying to me gently, 'Is that really necessary?' when I put the button on one Sunday morning to wear to our country-club brunch."
As the chief diplomatic correspondent for the New York Times from 1989 to 1992, Friedman logged some 500,000 miles following Secretary of State James Baker and chronicling the end of the Cold War.
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