Fallows On The News: N.Y. Mosque And More

President Obama declared his support last night for the Muslim community's right to build a mosque near the site of the Sept. 11 attacks in New York City. Host Guy Raz talks with our regular news analyst, James Fallows of The Atlantic, about that and other big stories in the news this week.

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GUY RAZ, host:

We're back with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

President BARACK OBAMA: I believe that Muslims have the right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country.

RAZ: President Obama speaking last night at a White House dinner celebrating the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. He strongly defended a plan to build a Muslim community center near the site of Ground Zero in Manhattan.

Joining me, as he often does on Saturdays, is The Atlantic's James Fallows.

Hi, Jim.

Mr. JAMES FALLOWS (News Analyst, The Atlantic): Hello, Guy. Nice to talk to you.

RAZ: The president has been pretty silent on this issue up till now. The construction of this Muslim community center has actually become a campaign issue for many Republican candidates across the country. And, Jim, as you know, many New Yorkers still see it as a local issue, but I wonder whether the president had no choice but to get involved.

Mr. FALLOWS: I think that is basically so, even though, no doubt, this is going to cost him more political headaches than benefits, at least in the short-term. The reason that I personally was glad to see the president say this is both a domestic and an international aspect of what he was saying.

Domestically, he was reinforcing the point that Mayor Bloomberg of New York had made a week ago or so in welcoming the decision to go ahead with this Islamic center and saying that the United States was based on the idea of freedom of religious worship, that we are strong by showing our tolerance on diversity, et cetera, et cetera. So he made that point.

Internationally, however, he made a point less appropriate for a mayor or a governor or senator in saying that the United States not simply recognizes Islam as one of the faiths of our own people, but recognizes around the world the vitality and the importance of the Islamic faith to a billion of the world's people.

And here, he was following the lead of President George W. Bush who, in the weeks and months after the 9/11 attacks, so strikingly and notably went out of his way to include Muslims, spiritual leaders in the observations of public ceremonies after the attacks and emphasized that the United States was not, in any way, at war with Islam, the faith, or Islamic people, the people, but rather only with violent extremism.

RAZ: Jim, as we speak, President Obama and his family are in Florida for a much-publicized vacation, a political vacation, is it blatantly obvious?

Mr. FALLOWS: Sure, it is. But anything a president and his family does is, by definition, a political vacation. And there simply is no coming out ahead on this. If a president takes too much time off as George W. Bush was seen as doing, he's criticized.

If he takes too (unintelligible) time as Jimmy Carter was seen as doing, he's criticized for that. If he has some kind of family compound as the Kennedys did and the first George Bush did, it's elitist. If he does hunting, it would seem nakedly political like this, then it's nakedly political. Even George W. Bush with his Crawford, Texas vacations, that was political in retrospect. You don't see George and Laura Bush spending that much time in Crawford anymore now. They don't have to.

RAZ: No, you don't. Not much a brush clearing these days.

Mr. FALLOWS: No, it's true. And I think the man who set the example here was Harry Truman who would go down to Key West and play poker with his pals.

RAZ: Jim, turning a corner completely. I know you're a data guy, a numbers guy. You love these kinds of stories, the story about the Alzheimer's breakthrough that broke this week. Doctors can detect Alzheimer's 10 to 15 years before it actually occurs. But this breakthrough apparently was the result of simply combining a lot of different data sources.

Mr. FALLOWS: That's what I thought was so interesting about it entirely apart from this disease and all the ways we'll be coping as a society and as families for decades to come. When we think about the implications of the big data era over the last decade where information about everything is available in unprecedented quantities, so far it's mainly been for targeting advertising more and more precisely or for the surveillance state, for governmental or private use.

And this is an example of a positive step, of a step that certainly would not have been possible if researchers around the world had not been able so quickly to pull their observations, so I thought this was, although a painful subject, a positive bit of news about the modern data era.

RAZ: That's James Fallows. He's the national correspondent for The Atlantic. You can read his blog at jamesfallows.theatlantic.com.

Jim, thank you so much.

Mr. FALLOWS: Thank you, Guy. My pleasure.

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