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FAREED ZAKARIA GPS

Is Obama a Polarizing President?; Interview With Author Malcolm Gladwell

Aired April 26, 2009 - 13:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


FAREED ZAKARIA, HOST: This is GPS, the GLOBAL PUBLIC SQUARE. Welcome to all of you in the United States and around the world. I'm Fareed Zakaria.

President Obama stormed into office with a big election victory, support from both Democrats and Republicans, and assurances that his would be a real bipartisan presidency. But according to one survey, at this point, the man with a mandate has the most polarized support of any president in the past four decades. The numbers come from the Pew Research Center.

You see, the Democrats really like the president. But the more remarkable fact is just how much Republicans dislike the president. So, Obama's support is more polarized than George W. Bush's, than Jimmy Carter's, than Richard Nixon's, at least at this point in their presidency.

But the really amazing fact from Pew, which was underreported, is how few Americans identify themselves as Republicans. For the last 18 months, that number has hovered around 24 percent -- the lowest in about three decades. So, we have a shrinking Republican Party, a hardcore base, that is united in its opposition to Obama.

Now, some of you might think this is good. Let the Democrats lead, get things done. Fine. But in the long run it's not so good. This is a two-party system. It is the model of a modern democracy. Many other nations have tried to replicate it.

Right now what we have is a one-and-a-half party system. And with his first 100 days behind him, Obama has captured completely the vital center of the country.

He is extremely popular. At least that's my view.

Now, today on GPS, you'll hear what other people think. We have a terrific panel of historians: Jon Meacham, Walter Isaacson and Peggy Noonan. Then we'll check in with Niall Ferguson on whether the bright spots in the economy are here to stay. And the fascinating best- selling author, Malcolm Gladwell, on how greatness is achieved.

Stay with us.

(BREAK)

ZAKARIA: As I was thinking about the smartest people I could gather to talk about the first stage of Barack Obama's presidency, I thought of that wonderful quotation from Oscar Wilde. "Any fool can make history, but it takes a genius to write it."

So today, I'll be talking with a panel of geniuses. Each of them has books and accomplishments too numerous to mention. I'll talk about a few. The others will be on the screen.

This week, Jon Meacham won the Pulitzer Prize for biography for his latest book, the best-selling, "American Lion: Andrew Jackson" in the White House.

Congratulations, Jon.

JON MEACHAM, EDITOR "NEWSWEEK"; AUTHOR, "AMERICAN LION": Thank you, sir.

ZAKARIA: He moonlights as the editor of Newsweek magazine.

Walter Isaacson has written fascinating best-selling biographies of Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin and Henry Kissinger.

What do they have in common? He is the president and CEO of the Aspen Institute, a nonpartisan policy studies group. He used to run this network. He served as chairman and CEO of CNN.

And Peggy Noonan has authored some of the greatest presidential speeches of our generation, including my favorite, the speech Ronald Reagan gave on the 40th anniversary of D-Day, "the Boys of Point du Hoc," which you can listen to on our Web site.

Among her books is a great one about her years with President Reagan, called "What I Saw at the Revolution."

Welcome to all of you.

Jon Meacham, fresh from the Pulitzer Prize, do you feel that you have any special insights into the first 100 days of Barack Obama?

MEACHAM: I spend most of my time carrying Walter's sedan chair.

(LAUGHTER)

So, that's -- I've got to get shoulder pads for that.

I think the first 100 days have been a mirror of what we saw in the campaign in many ways. I think you have a calm, arguably sometimes too cool a customer as president.

I think that, given the enormity of the times, given the tumult, given how the populist rage at various points and the unease about the economy could have flared, I think he's done something not unlike what Franklin Roosevelt did in 1933, which is, he lowered the temperature.

WALTER ISAACSON, PRESIDENT, ASPEN INSTITUTE; AUTHOR, "THE WISE MEN": I think he's changed the entire tone, especially in our foreign policy, as you know, just that trip to Trinidad where you're reaching out to the Cubans.

I was just at the Iranian mission to the United Nations, and they are thinking, well, we can really try to change the whole nature of Iranian-U.S. relations.

This may or may not work, but that ability to open up to the world, I think, is a major shift from the way we've been conducting our foreign policy.

And secondly, as the Pulitzer Prize-winning Mr. Meacham has just said...

(LAUGHTER)

... that calm persistence is what the nation needs right now as we get out of this economic mess.

I think -- I mean, maybe I'm just too optimistic -- but I think there's been a steadiness, in terms of whether it's, you know, Larry Summers and Tim Geithner figuring out how to do the economy in a way that looks like it's starting to move us out of this mess, to reopening our foreign policy. It's incredibly impressive.

We're going to look back at these first 100 days and compare him to Roosevelt's.

ZAKARIA: Peggy, I'm guessing you have a slightly more dyspeptic view of all of this.

PEGGY NOONAN, FORMER REAGAN SPEECHWRITER; CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, "WALL STREET JOURNAL": A slightly different view. I think, in terms of foreign affairs, the president has come forward with a very welcome moderation, a sensitivity to how the world has experienced perhaps the -- and had reservations about -- the past eight years.

On domestic affairs I see more drama, greater flurry, huge spending.

I think he has two great jobs. They are foreign affairs/terrorism and the economy. And I don't see him focusing on the economy so much as part on the economy and part 15 other things -- education, health care, duh-ta-duh-ta-duh.

ZAKARIA: But let me be clear.

NOONAN: Operationally and in an executive way is it possible to do all this stuff?

ZAKARIA: But let me be clear.

NOONAN: So I have reservations about that end.

ZAKARIA: Would you want him to do all of it? In other words, is the problem that he's taking on too much reform? Or is the problem that you think a lot of this isn't actually reform, and we shouldn't be doing any of the stuff on energy or health care in the first place? NOONAN: Well, one can almost hardly know. When can hardly focus on the energy part when one is dragged into the education part. One can hardly understand the education when one starts to get to the health care part.

His big job is the economy. And there are parts of that are going -- are so labor-intensive, take so much time, really demand the president's attention.

If you take TARP alone, troubled assets program, if you take the banks alone, that is a full day's work. Do you know what I mean?

ZAKARIA: So, what to do?

NOONAN: Untying all of that mess and making the deals you need, so that troubled assets get sold.

ZAKARIA: Is he doing too much?

ISAACSON: No. I mean, I think it's really great to take the stimulus package and to say, let's invest in the future, and to use it to reform K through 12 education in America. Because we are going to get out of this financial crisis at some point, and when we do, we need a good economy. And to have a good real economy and a knowledge- based 21st century, we need great education.

So, what he...

ZAKARIA: But is that real reform? Because it doesn't seem to me there's...

ISAACSON: There's real reform.

He is sitting there. He's going to push national standards. He is going to push choice in charter schools. Arne Duncan is a great reformer, a CEO from Chicago school systems who's done well.

So, I think they can do each one of these things. I think we need health care, so people feel less vulnerable in such a crisis.

And to respond to Peggy's good points, he hasn't kept every campaign promise, and he should be praised for that.

NOONAN: Understandably, but...

ISAACSON: He didn't reopen NAFTA, for example. And there are times when he said, I've got to scale back from some of these campaign promises.

NOONAN: Absolutely.

ISAACSON: I can't stop free trade.

And that makes him what I think you would want him to be, more pragmatic. ZAKARIA: But, Jon, does this...

NOONAN: Pragmatic is good, but pragmatic is not what I'm seeing. I'm seeing a frenzied flurry that is not deciding. It's almost a decision not to decide where he's going to put his concentration, his resources, the national spotlight -- too much.

MEACHAM: It seems to me, you always want someone who is ambitious, who is trying to do, I would argue, as much as possible, because we all know two or three things stick, ultimately.

So, whether you agree or disagree, what happened in 1933, what happened 1965-'66, what happened in 1981 -- 1981 was not a lackadaisical, hey, let's go to the ranch for six months a year.

NOONAN: I'm not saying be lackadaisical. I'm saying, presidents must decide. It is a lucky man who is your president, who gets to do one or two big things in a first term.

ZAKARIA: But, Peggy, what would you have him do?

NOONAN: Ronald Reagan is precisely my...

ZAKARIA: What would you have him do?

NOONAN: ... my example, because he had to focus on the economy to turn it around. It took huge focus, and he had to focus on the Soviets, on foreign affairs.

He wasn't all over the place.

ZAKARIA: So, what would you...

NOONAN: You can't be.

ZAKARIA: What would you have Obama do? Because he has...

NOONAN: Well, the first thing, I think...

ZAKARIA: ... focused on the economy. He's passed a massive stimulus plan. A lot of economists on both sides of the aisle say, with interest rates at zero and the consumer maxed out, only the government can spend, only the government can create demand. So there's -- and you can talk about how much and what the spending is. So he's doing that, no?

NOONAN: I would say, focus on the banks, and focus on them really hard. It seems to me, that alone is going to take profound concentration. And these other things, while all important, are of a second degree of magnitude.

ZAKARIA: Are we out of the woods on populism and raw anger and emotion?

MEACHAM: It's so funny. You know, things burn so brightly and so quickly now. We talk about this all the time in our other, our day jobs, about the shelf life of stories, of news stories.

Can anybody remember -- does anybody remember what AIG did? It feels like the battle...

NOONAN: Something bad.

MEACHAM: It feels like the Peloponnesian War, and it was four weeks ago.

I wouldn't be surprised to see a couple of populist shoes drop. But one of the things that I find so interesting is, the people, in their wisdom, have, I think, given Obama a lot of room to run here.

One of the issues, it seems to me, for conservatism as a historical matter, is there has not been a particularly articulate counter-case made except, "Don't do that."

NOONAN: Eight months into this big crisis, I don't think the Republican Party has been able to get its head around a central question, which is, what would you do? They haven't come forward with an answer to that question.

However, it is also true that we are talking about budget deficits in the trillions. And these are budget deficits in which somebody else is buying up our debt. It is foreign powers. It is China. That causes huge complications.

The debt itself has foreign policy implications when another country owns so much of you. So, that is something that I think brings spending out of the narrow, small, oh, I hate spending, into something with big implication.

ZAKARIA: And we will talk about all that, and the Republicans and their fate, when we come back.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NOONAN: The old glue that held things together was no longer there. I think Karl Rove thought he was building a party of the future. I think it almost killed the Republican Party.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAKARIA: And we are back with our panel of historians, Walter Isaacson, Peggy Noonan and Jon Meacham.

Jon, looking at the Republicans, you wrote a cover story in which you said, you called it the decline of Christian America. It might have been, as we all like to do, a slight exaggeration, but...

MEACHAM: I don't think so.

ZAKARIA: ... but...

MEACHAM: It's the decline and fall of Christian America.

ZAKARIA: The decline and fall of Christian America.

(CROSSTALK)

ZAKARIA: But you noted a very significant, 10-point drop in the number of people who self-identify as Christians.

Take us through the implications of that politically, because the Republican Party's base, at some level now, comes from that part of the country.

MEACHAM: If you look at the central demands of what we think of as the religious right -- a school prayer amendment to the Constitution, an anti-abortion amendment to the Constitution, and now a gay marriage ban amendment to the Constitution -- none of the three is anywhere near passage.

And so, you have, I think, many frustrated evangelical Christians that have been an incredibly important part -- a third, if you will, to use the Nicaean formulation -- they've been a third. The fiscal conservatives, the foreign policy hawks, evangelical conservatives were the Reagan coalition.

And I don't think that's together now.

ZAKARIA: But see, if you think about it, the thirds that Jon talks about -- the fiscal conservatives battered by Bush's big spending, the foreign policy hawks battered by Bush's over-extension and Messianism, and then the evangelicals, you know, facing a somewhat more secular country, perhaps, than they did 30 years ago -- it's looking rough.

NOONAN: I think the conservative coalition that came together and led to the rise of Ronald Reagan, and that sustained itself until the 2000s -- maybe 2001, 2002 or 2003 -- started to fall apart during the Bush era. I think the Bush White House made decisions that made pieces of thee coalition not only fall apart, fall away, but go at war with each other. And so, libertarians were mad at social conservatives.

The old glue that held things together was no longer there. I think Karl Rove thought he was building a party of the future. I think it almost killed the Republican Party.

ISAACSON: I think what you're seeing is a major cyclical turn that happened with the Reagan revolution, it happened at the time of FDR, where we see a whole new coalition being built. And I think the old coalition that President Reagan put together, that three-part coalition, it's just not going to happen anymore, which is why you're seeing a cycle turn in American history.

ZAKARIA: So, who would be the most interesting figures in the Republican Party today?

ISAACSON: I think Newt Gingrich has a lot of great ideas. I'm from Louisiana, and I'm a very big fan of Bobby Jindal, who I think is a smart guy -- thanking (ph) you, you as a speechwriter for that speech he gave after the State of the Union -- but he's a decent guy.

I think you're going to look for people with new ideas.

NOONAN: People will -- the future leaders of the Republican Party, I think it's going to be like the 1970s, after Watergate, after Vietnam, after a very hard time. The leader of the Republican Party from 1976 to 1980 bubbled up. The leaders bubbled up locally.

ZAKARIA: But they had structural forces...

NOONAN: They bubbled up in the states.

ZAKARIA: But they had structural forces on their side, a white backlash, a backlash against a sense of lawlessness, a backlash against segregation. But...

NOONAN: Well, they had real, serious issues. They had the tax issue, which was huge. And they were quite correct on it.

I mean...

ZAKARIA: But what...

NOONAN: ... Proposition 13 in California gave rise to a prairie fire of...

ZAKARIA: And so, it has now bankrupted the state. But nevertheless...

(LAUGHTER)

NOONAN: Well, if you keep spending, that'll happen.

ZAKARIA: Let's talk about Obama and terror, because that's another part of this whole puzzle. You've had Dick Cheney giving a very unusual interview in which he says, effectively, Obama is weakening the country and setting up a scenario where, if there is by some chance another attack, it could be seen as Obama's fault.

You know, other Republicans saying that he should have kept in place all these provisions regarding torture, regarding whatever else, in order to fight the war more vigorously.

You've had a little bit of a controversy around all this, Peggy. You think that the memos about torture should have been released, but we should have moved on, or should never have been released?

NOONAN: Oh, it seems to me the world knows that things were done wrong. I think Obama has made it clear, coming forward, that his plans are to leave that old stuff behind.

There is always a temptation to focus on what the last administration in its mistakes did. I think the problems that are here, however, are so pressing, that sometimes you've just got to stop and say, "That was then. This is now. Move forward."

MEACHAM: Winston Churchill said that the British people can face any misfortune with fortitude and buoyancy, as long as they are convinced that those who are in charge of their affairs are not deceiving them, or not themselves dwelling in a fool's paradise.

The American people can do that, too. We can handle the truth. The covenant of modern democracies is, give it to us straight and we will do what it takes.

And as General Powell, I think, once memorably said, you know, we've gone abroad many times, and the only thing we've asked for is the ground in which to bury our dead.

I think that governments have to be responsible, because governments are us. I mean, otherwise, the entire idea of civic and republican -- lower case "r" -- virtue collapses. So...

ZAKARIA: So, you would be comfortable with investigations?

MEACHAM: Sure.

ZAKARIA: Walter?

ISAACSON: I actually agree with Peggy on this, which is, I'm glad that they were open about it. But I very much like President Obama's speech at the CIA, in which he did say...

NOONAN: Yes, so did I.

ISAACSON: Yes, OK -- in which he did say, don't be disheartened. What you do is very important at the CIA. And we're not going to try to prosecute or go back and criminalize what was done in the past.

NOONAN: That's good.

ISAACSON: If people want to hold hearings, OK. But let's not dwell in the past. And certainly, let's not make the CIA, which is trying to do the right thing, feel that somehow they can now be subject to criminal investigations.

NOONAN: I thought that was excellent. I thought it was sensitive, and it was smart, and it was sophisticated. And it was helpful towards an agency that understandably feels beleaguered.

ISAACSON: Which I thought was also typical of Obama, to be able to get the balance there.

MEACHAM: And I'm not sure...

NOONAN: You're an (UNINTELLIGIBLE). Come on.

(CROSSTALK)

ISAACSON: You're agreeing with me on this.

NOONAN: Well, I'm agreeing with you on that appearance. It was really good.

(CROSSTALK)

NOONAN: It was smart. It was good.

MEACHAM: ... I do -- I would be very reluctant, particularly since the lawyers at the administration were telling everyone that it was OK.

But in terms of...

ZAKARIA: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) investigation...

MEACHAM: ... in terms of investigations, here's what happened.

Are we a better or worse country because of the Church Committee?

ISAACSON: No. Although I would much rather have Senate investigations on how we got into this economic mess. I'd love to know...

MEACHAM: We can do both.

ISAACSON: ... you can't even remember what AIG did...

(CROSSTALK)

NOONAN: I want more journalism. I want more investigative journalism. I want these two gentlemen to...

ISAACSON: We've got to say, the journalism for all three of us.

NOONAN: ... look into everything.

But we do, indeed. That's a bigger threat.

ZAKARIA: On that note, Jon Meacham, Peggy Noonan, Walter Isaacson, thank you very much.

And we will be back.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NIALL FERGUSON: The promises that were made in this first 100 days are almost certainly going to be impossible to fulfill. And sooner or later, disillusionment sets in.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAKARIA: TARP, stress test, credit default swaps -- terminology none of us had ever heard of a few months ago -- has become the stuff of headlines and cocktail party conversations.

To help you out in cocktail conversations, particularly, I always turn to Niall Ferguson, who knows where he stands in this economic crisis.

Niall has written, by my count, 10 books, and he is 45 years old. His most recent is "The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World." Niall is also a professor of history at Harvard.

You've been in recent months on the kind of doom and gloom side of the spectrum. You've thought that things were -- this was a very, very serious problem. Japan in the '90s, you once said, was a good case scenario for the United States.

Markets are up, credit seems to be thawing. Does any of this change your mind?

NIALL FERGUSON, HARVARD HISTORY PROFESSOR; AUTHOR, "THE ASCENT OF MONEY": Well, there were about 11 bear market rallies between 1929 and 1933. It's easy to be deluded by those upticks.

In fact, if you track the S&P 500, it almost exactly traced the same downward then upward then downward trajectory that it did in the Great Depression.

But I'm not an extreme doomster. I mean, I don't think this is going to be a replay of the early 1930s, not least because the policy response couldn't be more different. But I do think we're in for something pretty protracted. And that's the thing that most people have difficulty with.

We expect this all to be over, because that's what we're used to. We're used to recessions that don't last too long. The idea that this could last years is beyond most people's imagining.

ZAKARIA: So, let's talk about Obama's economic leadership. It's 100 days into Obama's presidency, the stimulus package, the short term stuff and the long term stuff.

How do you react to it?

FERGUSON: Well, I've never been a great believer in a bill written by Congress for as far as one can see primarily political rather than macroeconomic purposes.

Seven hundred and eighty-seven billion dollars sounds like a huge amount of money. It's been spread over about three years.

And when you look closely at its likely impact, there's going to be a brief period when it pushes GDP up in the next few quarters. It'll look like it's achieving something, but then it's going to fizzle out.

The contrast is really striking when you look at the Chinese stimulus package, vastly largely in relation to China's GDP. And China is much better set up for that kind of infrastructure-led stimulus.

We're just not that good at it that anymore. We don't have the engineers. We don't have the projects. A lot of this money, frankly, is going to get wasted. And I think the bang for buck is going to be really disappointing for the administration.

ZAKARIA: What about the longer term issue, which is spend money on energy, spend money on fueling a green revolution...

FERGUSON: Spend money on everything.

ZAKARIA: ... spending on education...

FERGUSON: Health care, you name it.

ZAKARIA: Yes, yes.

FERGUSON: The biggest problem is, that this is causing an expansion in the role of the federal government unlike anything we've seen since Lyndon Johnson's day. And this really is a new era of big government Democrats, and they're much bigger than the big government Republicans we had under George W. Bush. And I really worry where this leads.

If I am right, and the trend growth rate of the U.S. is much lower than the administration forecasts -- you know, the administration says it's going to grow by 3 percent next year, then 4 percent, then 4.5 percent. That strikes me as a fairy tale.

It could be closer to 1 percent. If that's right, the federal debt could rise to something like 170, 180 percent of GDP within a 10- year timeframe.

Now, that is Japan. That's what happened in Japan. They tried zero interest rates, they tried an explosion of public debt, and it did not get them out of their lost decade. What's more, it paved the way for an even bigger crisis now.

So that's my worry.

ZAKARIA: Let's talk about the bank bailout.

There is a group of people who believe that the banks are vastly over-leveraged, and they have all these terrible toxic assets. These things are worthless. The government needs to take them over, write down these assets. That's the sort of left-wing economist, Paul Krugman, Jeffrey Sachs, Joe Stiglitz. And they're arguing for bank nationalization.

They're probably -- I'd say it would be fair to say another group who would say, no, just give it time. This is all psychological. It'll pass. These assets are actually valuable.

The administration seems to have taken a middle course. They're hoping that time will produce some stability, some rise in the value of these assets, and they're sort of bribing private actors to get involved and buy some of these assets off the banks.

Is the Geithner-Summers policy, which is sort of a middle-of-the- road, but maybe muddling-through policy. Is that right?

FERGUSON: Well, it reminds me of Charles Dickens' character, Mr. Micawber, who was always in debt, but kept hoping that something would turn up. And that's really the administration's policy.

And it's the same policy, of course, that the previous administration had. I can't see any real difference between Paulson and Geithner in the way that they have fumbled, improvised and chopped and changed in their response to this fundamental crisis, which doesn't apply to all American banks.

You know, there are thousands of banks out there, small banks, which don't have these problems. It really applies to a handful of institutions that are, by most serious measures, insolvent or very close to it. I'm talking here about Bank of America and Citigroup.

Now, it's what happens to those institutions that is giving people the real headaches. They look to be too big to fail.

The nightmare scenario of a bankruptcy clearly terrifies everybody at the Treasury, but neither does the Treasury want to take them over. So we're drip-feeding them money and hoping that something will turn up.

ZAKARIA: So should we...

FERGUSON: The latest...

ZAKARIA: Yes.

FERGUSON: Well, the latest plan, of course, is to partially nationalize them by converting the money that's already been put in there into equity, into stocks. Now, that latest suggestion is another illustration of the danger of improvising and muddling through.

The inconsistency of policy has been the real problem. It's that uncertainty that causes the bank stocks to go up and go down, driving, of course, the equity market as a whole.

And I myself on this occasion agree with Paul Krugman. That's almost unprecedented. I've said all along that the only way to deal with these big insolvent institutions is to take them into temporary conservatorship -- let's use that lovely euphemism, not nationalization -- as happened with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, institutions that they quite closely resemble anyway.

It's going to happen. We're going to end up doing this.

ZAKARIA: And you write off the assets and...

FERGUSON: Yes, and you restructure them. And you basically tell the bondholders, sorry folks, you're going to have to take a haircut.

I mean, these banks are in the same situation Argentina was in, in 2004. There's going to have to be a significant restructuring of their debts. And we're just putting off the evil hour at the moment at the taxpayers' expense.

ZAKARIA: And what does it mean for Obama? I mean at the end of the day, you look at this 100 days of Obama and the economy. What do you think?

FERGUSON: Well, I mean, he cannot be blamed for this crisis. And it seems to me he has quite a long period of time, a period of grace, before this is going to start seriously impacting on his numbers.

He has the advantage that the Republicans are in disarray, that the critique that they're making of his policies doesn't really have enormous credibility outside of the Republican base.

So from my point of view, politically, he's in good shape. The trouble is that, economically, this is not going to turn up in time for the midterms. It may not even improve in time for his reelection prospects.

So, when you look further down the line -- two years, even three years down the line -- there I do see political trouble, because the promises that were made in this first 100 days are almost certainly going to be impossible to fulfill. And sooner or later, disillusionment sets in, especially when you set the expectations so high.

ZAKARIA: On that cheery note, Niall Ferguson, thank you very much.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MALCOLM GLADWELL: What you have described is what I believe talent is. Talent is the desire to practice.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAKARIA: Malcolm Gladwell is probably the best-selling nonfiction writer in America. He's sold many millions of books based on very simple ideas.

"Blink." Should you trust your first impression? "The Tipping Point." How does a fad become a sensation?

His new book, which is my favorite, is called "Outliers." In it he explores what makes a person successful. Why do some talented people flame out early while others go on to brilliant careers?

His main point is this. Success doesn't have much to do with talent. Instead, he says, it's almost always a product of hard work and of the culture in which one lives.

Malcolm Gladwell, thank you.

MALCOLM GLADWELL, AUTHOR, "OUTLIERS": Thank you for having me. ZAKARIA: One of my favorite examples is actually your first example, where you talk about hockey players.

GLADWELL: Yes.

ZAKARIA: And the reason I think you talk about them is because, what could be more meritocratic than sports? You just -- you know, it's not who your parents are. It's just a question of raw talent and hard work, it would seem.

But what do you find?

GLADWELL: Well, you find -- there's some lovely work by a series of psychologists. What you find is that an overwhelming majority of hockey players are born in the first three months of the year, elite hockey players. And the same is true, by the way, of soccer around the world.

And the reason for that is that the system -- the system under which age class hockey and age class soccer are organized has as a cutoff date January 1st. And so, from the very beginning, when we pick young kids to pull them out and put them on all-star teams and give them special coaching and special encouragement, we're looking at groups of children who are all nine years old. And we're saying, those three are the best. Let's pull them out.

Well, who is the best at nine years old? Well, it's children who are the eldest in their class, those born closest to the cutoff date.

ZAKARIA: So, the ones who are nine years ten months, nine years 11 months and nine years 11.5 months, who tend to be the best.

GLADWELL: Are the best. When you're nine years old, 11 months can be four inches in height. It can be 25 pounds. It can be the difference between being a klutz and someone who's incredibly coordinated.

And so, we think there that what we've done is identify people who have extraordinary individual talent. We actually haven't. We've created a system that confers a special benefit on children born in a certain part of the year. And that benefit persists.

And those kids are the ones who end up 10 years later being in, playing all-star, playing in the NHL or playing professional football or soccer around the world.

ZAKARIA: Do you think this applies to, I don't know, finance? That there are some kids who seemed, at a young age, a little bit more talented at math, and that they get a certain amount of attention by teachers and parents?

GLADWELL: And it snowballs.

ZAKARIA: And they're told they're smart, and then it's reinforced. GLADWELL: Yes. This is -- this principle in psychology is called Matthew Effect, after the line in the Bible, "To he who has, much more will be given." Right?

It's this idea that -- it's called cumulative advantage, which is, small initial advantages mushroom over time.

The best data we have is on reading. A very, very small difference in reading ability at a very young age quickly mushrooms into a large difference. Why? Because if you're a little bit better at reading at the age of six, you'll read more. Right? Because reading is easier and more pleasurable.

And that little extra increment of reading that you do causes you to read even better than the person behind you. And the cycle reinforces itself until you have, by the time kids are -- when kids are six, the difference in the amount they read is like this. When they're 12, the same kids, the difference is this. And it's because of this snowballing effect that happens with small initial advantages growing.

ZAKARIA: Tell the story of the Beatles with regard to practice.

GLADWELL: The Beatles are a lovely example, because we think that their story begins with the invasion of America in 1964. Right? These four, fresh-faced, practically teenagers who burst on the scene.

You know, nothing could be further from the truth. They spend the really critical periods -- they spend two years in Hamburg, Germany, as the house band in a strip club playing eight-hour sets, seven days a week, for months at a stretch.

They have one of the most extraordinarily intensive apprenticeships in rock 'n' roll. And if you think about what it takes to play -- I mean, the typical set for a rock band is what, an hour, an hour-and-a-half. They did eight-hour sets, day in, day out.

If you think about that you realize, if you force a group of young musicians to play together over that -- in that way, for months at a stretch -- you're forcing them to master all kinds of different genres, to learn how to play together well, to write songs.

I mean, everything you need to do, particularly at the dawn of rock 'n' roll, to be the most dominant band of your generation requires some kind of apprenticeship. And lo and behold, they have it.

And I would argue, and many agree with me, that no Hamburg, no Beatles. You know, they're just not the band that we remember unless they had that kind of intensive training.

ZAKARIA: But of course, it raises an interesting question to me, which is, you could imagine a lot of other bands being told, "I've got good news for you. You've got a great gig in Hamburg, Germany. The bad news is you're going to have to play eight hours a day, seven days a week." And they would have said, "No way. We're not going to do it."

So, something about that group made them relish the opportunity...

GLADWELL: Yes.

ZAKARIA: ... to do enormous amounts of practice. And presumably, that's true of some of these sportsmen and true of other people.

That is, yes, it takes practice. But you need a certain mentality to want to practice...

GLADWELL: To want to practice that much.

ZAKARIA: ... the hell out of it. You know, the...

GLADWELL: What you have described is what I believe talent is.

Talent is the desire to practice. Right? It is that you love something so much that you are willing to make an enormous sacrifice and an enormous commitment to that, whatever it is -- task, game, sport, what have you.

When people use that word, we usually talk about something inherent in you. And we think of something very specific. I don't think that's what talent is. I think talent is simply desire.

It's what you said of the Beatles. Their talent consisted of their ability to see Hamburg as an opportunity, whereas 99 out of 100 bands would have seen Hamburg as a nightmare -- which, by the way, it was.

I mean, you could argue that the Beatles' talent was also an act of delusion. You know, to be able to see opportunity in Hamburg in 1959 required, at the very least, an extraordinary imagination.

ZAKARIA: And we will be back with Malcolm Gladwell.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAKARIA: And we are back with the best-selling author, Malcolm Gladwell.

Malcolm, when you talk about what succeeds, some of what you talk about in terms of success and failure is not just the individuals -- because, as you say, that doesn't seem dominant. It's the environment around them, the culture around them. And some cultures -- I mean, national cultures -- seem better and worse.

GLADWELL: Yes.

ZAKARIA: You found that, by and large, Koreans were very bad at being pilots.

GLADWELL: Yes.

ZAKARIA: Explain that.

GLADWELL: Being a good pilot, we think, is a matter of technical skill. It isn't really.

ZAKARIA: But what about Sully Sullenberger?

GLADWELL: Well, he's such a -- he's such an outlier, to the theory of "Outliers." That's a very rare kind of plane crash. In fact, I don't know if there'd ever been a successful water landing in the last 50 years.

Most crashes are of a very different form. The overwhelming majority of crashes are the result of a breakdown in communication between the co-pilot and a pilot.

Something comes up, a situation emerges that requires those two pilots to be in open and honest communication, and they fail to do that. One person withholds information. One person doesn't share. Whatever. There are invariably social failures.

So the question is -- this is why there's a cultural component -- is it easier in some cultures for a subordinate to speak openly and honestly to his superior than in other cultures? And the answer is, absolutely.

In fact, this is one of the dimensions on which cultures vary the most. It's called power distance. It is the respect for hierarchy. And there are some cultures that have zero respect for hierarchy, and some cultures for which that is the dominant paradigm of social interaction.

Korea, as it happens, is a culture which has enormous respect for hierarchy, where power distance is a -- in fact, the entire linguistic structure of the Korean language is infused with this sense of, how do I treat you if you are older and superior to me? I use specific pronounal forms. I mean, it goes on and on and on. Right?

Well, that is a, in 99 percent of cases, a beautiful and wonderful thing. In the cockpit, it's a problem.

And so, you see -- whenever you see cultures, if you overlay the list of cultures in the world by their respect for power distance with the list of cultures in the world by their plane crashes per capita, it's basically the same list.

ZAKARIA: So, it's the ones that are hierarchical that have the most plane crashes.

GLADWELL: That have the most plane crashes.

So, you'll see -- so a classic, you know...

ZAKARIA: And what does Korean Airlines do? GLADWELL: Well, this is the second part of this argument, which is, this is not to say that certain cultures are incapable of doing that task. It just means that, if they want to get better, they have to address the cultural component of their interaction.

And that's exactly what Korean Air did. And they fixed their problem.

Today, Korean Air -- Korean Air was, through the '90s, one of the most dangerous airlines in the world. I mean, it was almost shut down at the end of the '90s by international aviation authorities.

The Canadians told them at one point, you can't fly over Canada any more. I mean, which is a real problem if you're trying to get from one end of the world to the other.

And they fixed it. And they fixed it by bringing in people who have a different cultural attitude, and essentially re-educating the pilots in Korean Airlines.

ZAKARIA: And they made them speak in English...

GLADWELL: Made them speak in English.

ZAKARIA: ... because they said it's a non-hierarchical language.

GLADWELL: It's a non-hierarchical language. They want them to think like, you know -- I mean, non-hierarchical cultures are America, Israel, Austria, Australia. They want them to think like Australians, essentially. Right?

What do you do? Well, you make them speak English, right? And it works.

I mean, and this is the sort of hopeful lesson at the core of my book, which is that, when we acknowledge how much of success is embedded in culture, that's a hopeful thing, because culture is malleable. It's something we can address if we put our minds to it.

ZAKARIA: So, when you look at America today, what elements of our culture are producing the kind of problems we see -- with a bad education system, for example?

GLADWELL: I think that we are -- we have carried -- in the educational realm we have carried our obsession with individualism too far. And paradoxically, we have an enormous amount to learn, I think, from Asian cultures like Korea. I mean, just as they can learn from us on flying planes, we can learn from them on education.

If you go to Korea or China or Hong Kong, and you ask them, what does it take to be good at math, their answer would be, being good at math is a function of how hard you work.

Now, hard work is something that is available to all students regardless of intellectual ability. So when you come in with that perspective, your expectation is -- everyone can work. The dull child can work as hard as -- in fact, the dull child may find it easier to work harder than the smart child. That work-based perspective on achievement allows you, I think, to serve the needs of a much broader pool of students than our -- we have an ability-based approach. Right?

We're constantly segregating kids according to their aptitude, whatever on earth that is. I think we would do well to banish that word and simply -- I think we should separate kids according to how hard they want to work.

The kids who want to do their homework ought to be one. And if you don't want to do your homework, I think we should say, then, you have a problem. And we should -- and I don't care if you have an I.Q. of 150, you have a problem.

You know, you have to -- a work-based culture is, at the end of the day, a far more effective means of raising the middle.

ZAKARIA: Malcolm Gladwell, thank you very much.

GLADWELL: Thank you, Fareed.

ZAKARIA: And we will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAKARIA: Now, for our "What in the World" feature. Here's what got my attention this week.

If you don't recognize this man, you will soon. He is Jacob Zuma, the newly elected president of South Africa.

Since the fall of apartheid 15 years ago, South Africa has done a lot better than many had expected, politically and economically.

But there are problems: crime, violence, corruption, inequality. And it's a state where citizens have died by the tens of thousands, because of the government's backward policies on HIV/AIDS, a scourge that has infected almost 20 percent of the adult population.

Now, with Zuma's election, I worry that South Africa's dark forces are going to end up gaining ground.

Zuma is a man who has little understanding or knowledge of public policy. To the extent that he does, his pronouncements would suggest a move toward a kind of populism and state spending that have bankrupted most African countries in the past.

And then, there's his character. He had 16 criminal charges filed against him, mostly corruption and fraud charges related to his alleged involvement in an arms deal. They were dismissed just weeks before the election on technical issues.

To me, the most damning has been the charges three years ago that he raped the daughter of a friend. He pled not guilty on the grounds that the woman wore a short skirt, which he saw as inviting his attentions.

He also said that he avoided contracting HIV/AIDS, not by wearing a condom -- which he did not -- but by taking a shower afterwards.

For those hoping that South Africa will have a more rational AIDS policy, this is surely not encouraging.

Now, to the question of the week.

Last week I asked you whether, given the dire situation in Pakistan, where the Taliban have moved within 100 miles of the capital, Islamabad, the U.S. should take dramatic action and interfere in the inner workings of the country to keep it from falling apart.

The verdict? Most of you thought we should not interfere. But there were also a lot of you who hedged, saying maybe we should, maybe we shouldn't.

The question for the week: What's the single most significant thing Barack Obama has done in his first 100 days?

Let me know.

In addition to the question of the week, I want to put all of your great minds to the Fareed Challenge, the weekly world affairs quiz on our Web site, cnn.com/gps. It's great fun. Please do try it.

As always, I'd like to recommend a book. Ian Bremmer and Preston Keat have written a book called "The Fat Tail." It is a fascinating look at how to read an ever-changing geopolitical landscape.

And don't forget, our Web site, cnn.com/gps, has highlights from the program, our weekly podcast and our current affairs quiz. And you can e-mail me at gps@cnn.com.

Thank you for watching. Have a great week.

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