2024
July
12
Friday

Monitor Daily Podcast

July 12, 2024
Loading the player...

TODAY’S INTRO

How do you disagree constructively? These women found out.

Not so long ago, I wrote about the Abortion Talks. When the abortion debate became violent in Massachusetts, six women leaders on both sides came together to find a way to talk. They did, for more than half a decade. 

The series chronicling the Abortion Talks and the situation around them is now on Prime Video and Apple TV. You can see it here.  

What’s interesting is that the women found little common ground. In fact, they might be firmer in their viewpoints now. But they built genuine friendships and understanding. It’s a powerful lesson not only for America, but for the world.  

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Biden is on a knife’s edge: Can he hang on?

Heading into the Republican nominating convention next week, the Democratic Party is still roiled over whether to rally behind the president or quickly find a replacement. Thursday’s press conference didn’t settle the matter.

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 5 Min. )

Joe Biden lived to fight another day. 

But in performing adequately at a press conference Thursday night, with some notable gaffes, the president only prolonged the profoundly consequential debate over whether he should be the Democratic Party’s nominee in November. Several House Democrats immediately issued statements calling on him to drop out of the race, bringing the number of defections to 18, while key backers such as Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina reiterated their staunch support. 

After Mr. Biden beat low expectations Thursday, at least one Republican strategist aligned with Mr. Trump agreed that the president didn’t disqualify himself. The Florida-based Trump ally assessed Mr. Biden’s press conference in a text to the Monitor: “Passable for another couple of days.” 

While his first full press conference since November 2023 may have kept some critics at bay, donors are withholding some $90 million from a super political action committee devoted to the reelection campaign if Mr. Biden stays in the race, according to The New York Times.

Biden is on a knife’s edge: Can he hang on?

Collapse
Yves Herman/Reuters
U.S. President Joe Biden holds a press conference during NATO's 75th anniversary summit in Washington, July 11, 2024.

Joe Biden lived to fight another day. 

But in performing adequately at a press conference last night, with some notable gaffes, the president only prolonged the profoundly consequential debate over whether he should be the Democratic Party’s nominee in November.

President Biden is fighting for his political life, amid serious concerns about mental acuity and his ability to defeat former President Donald Trump. Less than four months before Election Day, the clock is ticking. 

Mr. Biden’s core supporters expressed confidence in his performance, in which he spoke knowledgeably, if haltingly, about foreign policy after hosting a summit of NATO leaders in Washington. 

“I’m all in,” said Democratic Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina on the “Today” show Friday. Representative Clyburn, who was key to Mr. Biden’s 2020 victory, recently raised eyebrows by suggesting a “mini primary” in the event that Mr. Biden dropped out of the race.

“Trump world” is watching closely, too. The view among the former president’s team is that they’d prefer to run against Mr. Biden, but they’re also prepping for the possibility that Vice President Kamala Harris becomes the nominee.

After Mr. Biden beat low expectations Thursday, at least one Republican strategist aligned with Mr. Trump agreed that the president didn’t disqualify himself. The Florida-based Trump ally, speaking anonymously to be more frank, assessed Mr. Biden’s press conference in a text to the Monitor: “Passable for another couple of days.” 

Rebecca Blackwell/AP
Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally at Trump National Doral Miami, Tuesday, July 9, 2024, in Doral, Florida.

The steady drip of bad news for Mr. Biden continues. After the press conference, three more Democratic House members called on the president to drop out of the race: Jim Himes of Connecticut, Scott Peters of California, and Eric Sorenson of Illinois, bringing the number of House Democratic defections to at least 18. 

The swift announcements suggested that their news releases were ready to go before the press conference, and that barring a significantly improved performance by Mr. Biden after his disastrous debate June 27 with Mr. Trump, the members’ minds were made up. It didn’t help that, on Wednesday, actor George Clooney called on Mr. Biden to step aside, after interacting with him in person at a major fundraiser he hosted in Los Angeles last month. 

Right before the press conference, Mr. Biden stumbled badly. He mistakenly introduced Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy as “President Putin” – quickly correcting himself, but the damage was done. Then, during the press conference, he answered a question on Vice President Harris’ fitness to be president by referring to her as “Vice President Trump.” 

Mr. Biden did say that his VP was qualified for the presidency – and opened the door a crack to leaving the race if his advisers told him he had no chance of winning. 

“I believe I’m the best qualified to govern,” Mr. Biden said. “And I think I’m the best qualified to win. But there are other people who could beat Trump, too. But it’s awful to start – to start – start from scratch.”

For now, polling averages show that Mr. Biden trails Mr. Trump by a few percentage points, and is far less popular than the presumptive GOP nominee within their respective parties. A PBS News/NPR/Marist poll released Friday showed that 40% of Democratic voters thought Mr. Biden should not be the party’s nominee – triple the share of Republicans who said the same thing about Mr. Trump.

“Right now, it’s a moving target – will Biden step down?” says Karlyn Bowman, an expert on polling at the American Enterprise Institute. “If you look below the hood, Biden’s weakness as a candidate, being able to do the job, is very significant.”

Most ominously for the Democrats, Mr. Biden’s standing in key battleground states has declined of late, shifting three – Arizona, Georgia, and Nevada – from toss-up to “lean Republican.” And must-win Pennsylvania has moved from “lean Democrat” to toss-up, according to Sabato’s Crystal Ball.

Examples of American presidents struggling in their reelection campaigns abound. Some recover and some don’t. Then there are those who opt out altogether. In March 1968, amid protests over the Vietnam War, President Lyndon Johnson shocked the nation by abandoning his campaign for a second full term. Another relevant case is President Harry Truman, who in March 1952 declined to run because of low job approval ratings.

Mr. Biden’s situation is different – the nation is not at war – but the political challenges related to an apparent decline, at times, in vigor and sharpness are no less profound. 

“The vast majority of presidents want a second term,” says Matthew Dallek, a political historian at George Washington University. “That’s historically been seen as the barometer of a successful presidency.”

But today, the context is in some ways dramatically different, he says. In the modern age, presidents are expected to disclose health issues with the public. Gone are the days when a president (Franklin Roosevelt) could hide the fact that he used a wheelchair or, in the case of President Woodrow Wilson, conceal incapacitation following a stroke.

The advent of social media, too, and the deluge of information now available to the public, have changed the ballgame. In 1984, when President Ronald Reagan was running for reelection as the then-oldest American to hold the office, his administration and campaign “were able to manage his image in ways that would simply be impossible today,” Professor Dallek says.

Mr. Biden and his team have no choice but to grapple with the new reality. Just a day after his first full press conference since November 2023, which may have kept some critics at bay, there’s more bad news. Donors are withholding some $90 million from a super political action committee devoted to the reelection campaign if Mr. Biden stays in the race, according to The New York Times.

On Thursday night, the top House Democrat, Hakeem Jeffries, met with Mr. Biden to convey the views of his caucus and discuss “the path forward,” the congressman said Friday. Mr. Biden met virtually Friday with various congressional groups to allay concerns about his electability. According to Politico, a House Democrat told the president to his face that he should drop out of the race. 

Mr. Biden’s reelection effort is clearly still on a knife’s edge.

Today’s news briefs

• Gaza pier to close: The U.S. military’s humanitarian pier off the coast of Gaza, which has been hampered by bad weather and aid distribution problems, will shut down soon.
Ukraine aid: The United States announces a new security package for Ukraine worth $225 million.
• Israel security report: The Israeli military publishes the findings of a first probe into its own security failings during the Oct. 7 Hamas attack.

Read these news briefs. 

Reporting on the president’s acuity: It’s harder than it looks

The White House press corps has been criticized for lack of transparency around President Joe Biden’s mental faculties. But it’s a hard story to cover, given limited access and sensitivity about ageism.

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 6 Min. )

“It’s clear that the best news reporters in Washington have failed in the first duty of journalism: to hold power accountable.” 

That’s not a Republican lawmaker, pundit, or Fox News. It’s former New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson handing down a scathing indictment of the news media for allowing the Biden White House to perpetrate a “massive cover-up” of President Joe Biden’s declining abilities, faulting them on the news website Semafor for failing to pierce “the veil of secrecy surrounding the President.”

But reporting on something like a president’s mental fitness is not as easy as it may look to outsiders – or even insiders. Legacy news outlets such as The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and Washington Post have all chronicled Mr. Biden’s physical decline and raised concerns about his age and mental acuity – the Monitor included. But the press corps has also been fighting limited access to the president and layers of denials from the administration that make it hard to turn personal observations and off-the-record whispers into reportable fact. 

“You can’t act on suspicion,” says Martha Joynt Kumar, a longtime presidential scholar who keeps detailed logs of presidential press availability. “You really want hard information.”

Reporting on the president’s acuity: It’s harder than it looks

Collapse
Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre fields questions from reporters during the press briefing at the White House in Washington, July 8, 2024.

“It’s clear that the best news reporters in Washington have failed in the first duty of journalism: to hold power accountable.” 

That’s not a Republican lawmaker, pundit, or Fox News. It’s former New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson handing down a scathing indictment of the news media for allowing the Biden White House to perpetrate a “massive cover-up” of President Joe Biden’s declining abilities. “Shame on the White House press corps” for failing to pierce “the veil of secrecy surrounding the President,” she wrote on the news website Semafor.

But reporting on something like a president’s mental fitness is not as easy as it may look to outsiders – or even insiders. Legacy news outlets such as The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and Washington Post have all chronicled Mr. Biden’s physical decline and raised concerns about his age and mental acuity – the Monitor included. But the press corps has also been fighting limited access to the president and layers of denials from the administration and surrogates that make it hard to turn personal observations and off-the-record whispers into a spear of reportable fact sharp enough to pierce that veil. 

“You can’t act on suspicion,” says Martha Joynt Kumar, a longtime presidential scholar who keeps detailed logs of presidential press availability. “You really want hard information.”

Press conferences: Biden 37, Trump 99

Getting that information from this White House has proved particularly difficult, reporters say. As with other presidents, much of what Mr. Biden communicates verbally is from teleprompters. But he lags far behind his predecessors in unscripted press conferences and one-on-one reporter interviews at this point in his presidency. Thursday’s press conference on the heels of the NATO summit in Washington was his 37th  compared with Presidents Donald Trump (99), Barack Obama (73), George W. Bush (82), Bill Clinton (127), and George H.W. Bush (135), according to Ms. Kumar’s count. 

President Ronald Reagan held fewer – 25 – but they were all solo, often lengthy appearances, while only about one-third of Mr. Biden’s have been solo. On Thursday, the president stood alone and took questions for more than 50 minutes. He made a few noticeable flubs – referring to Kamala Harris as “Vice President Trump,” just as earlier that day he called Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy “President Putin,” before immediately correcting himself. But he also showed a strong command of foreign policy, giving in-depth, nuanced answers.

Evan Vucci/AP/File
President Joe Biden has held fewer news conferences than any of his five immediate predecessors by the same point in their presidencies. President Biden speaks during a news conference in the East Room of the White House, March 25, 2021, in Washington.

President Biden has also given far fewer interviews than other presidents, though the pressure is on to do more since his dismal June 27 debate performance. NBC’s Lester Holt will sit down with the president for an interview Monday – the first day of the Republicans’ nominating convention. 

The White House points out that President Biden has had hundreds of unscripted, informal exchanges with reporters. Indeed, he tops other presidents on Ms. Kumar’s scorecard except for Mr. Trump, who, despite his railing against the media establishment, was keen to talk with reporters. 

Why reporters were also “stunned” by debate

At the same time, Mr. Biden’s less formal Q&A’s are often in noisy places – with reporters shouting questions from a distance as he walks to or from his whirring helicopter or from their spot under the humming engines of Air Force One. They struggle to hear, and some replies are one-word answers.

“Reporters have been pressing for a long time for more day-to-day access – to be in the same room with the president,” says an experienced White House reporter who would only talk on background. The paucity of unscripted settings has made assessing Mr. Biden’s capabilities more difficult for the press corps, says the reporter, adding, “Most of the people I talked to were stunned by what happened on debate night.” 

Members of the White House press corps point particularly to the difference between reporting on a president’s physical condition – such as Mr. Biden’s gait – and reporting on more subjective health issues, including mental fitness. Journalists witness changes incrementally, and are wary of being accused of ageism. “This is not a black-and-white question,” says another longtime White House journalist.

At the same time, “Insiders in the Biden White House have not been forthcoming with concerns about his stamina or performance,” according to the first reporter. Instead, administration officials have frequently responded to media inquiries by insisting that the president is fully engaged and on top of everything.

They dismissed independent counsel Robert Hur’s characterization of the president as a “well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory” as a Republican hit job and as detached from reality. When asked about verbal miscues, advisers cite the president’s stuttering problem, which he struggled with as a child. “None of us have an ability to examine the president or gauge anything other than our time in front of him,” this reporter says.

FDR, JFK, Reagan, and Trump

Other White Houses have kept a wrap on the president’s health, from Franklin D. Roosevelt before his last election, to John F. Kennedy, to Ronald Reagan and the seriousness of his condition after he was shot. Although Mr. Reagan wasn’t diagnosed with Alzheimer’s until five years after he left office, a 1984 debate with Democrat Walter Mondale raised concerns about his mental health. But Mr. Reagan dispatched them in the next debate with a joke: “I will not make age an issue in this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” 

That took the issue off the table – and serious media attention with it, says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a communications expert and director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. “The press didn’t do the job it ought to have.” 

Mr. Trump, by contrast, has been bombarded with questions about his fitness for office, with a waterfall of insiders leaking their concerns about his psychological state in books and articles. He boasted he aced a cognitive screening test in 2020, and his personal physician last year described his cognitive exams as “exceptional,” but did not say when they took place or what they involved. 

President Biden says his daily work is a cognitive test, pointing to his policy record. Indeed, while the White House has limited media access to the president, it has made administration policy experts widely available, says Ms. Jamieson. However, she says, “When you have questions about mental acuity, then those questions cannot be addressed by looking to the success of the policies articulated by all of the members of the team.” 

Liberal bias?

One charge leveled at the media is liberal bias. Reporters, the accusation goes, refrained from digging too hard into Mr. Biden’s health because of a fear that it could aid in the election of Mr. Trump – a point raised by the former Times editor, Ms. Abramson. 

When asked whether liberal bias influenced the White House press corps, even subtly, against probing the president’s fitness for the job, the first reporter was adamant: absolutely not. “Being able to report on such a significant factor would be a story reporters want to pursue. And we have asked questions about his health, wellness, and age for years – and the reports we’ve been given, the comments coming from his team, have countered that.”

Frustration over the lack of information boiled over this week, causing a CBS News reporter to shout at White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre at Monday’s briefing for not answering questions about the president’s health and about visitor logs that showed regular visits by a neurologist to the White House. Late that night, the White House physician, Dr. Kevin O’Connor, released a statement saying the president had not seen a neurologist “outside of his annual physical,” noting that the neurologist regularly visits the White House Medical Unit in support of active-duty military members assigned to White House operations.

Despite issues related to his foot, ankle, and spine that affect his gait, the president is a “healthy, active, robust 81-year-old male, who remains fit to successfully execute the duties of the Presidency,” Dr. O’Connor wrote in his Feb. 28 annual summary this year. He has been examined by a neurologist each year of his presidency. At his NATO press conference, President Biden reiterated that doctors have not asked him to take another neurological exam but he will if they ask him to. 

Aside from the annual health review, reporters have little else official to go on. The longtime White House reporter says that even when Mr. Biden ran for president in 1988, he was then a “mix” of good speeches and goofy statements. “Twenty-five years later, it was not easy to tell if a garbled statement was the same old Joe or somehow a sign of slippage from age.”

Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, the reporter says that 2023 had more instances for concern. “But reporters are always wary of getting into psychiatric reporting,” including with members of Congress, the journalist says. “It’s not something we feel particularly qualified to write.”

Why NATO summit left Ukraine grateful – and disappointed

The NATO summit’s communiqué said Ukraine was on an “irreversible” path to membership. It was a dramatic step that managed to annoy Russia even as it disappointed France and fell short of everything Volodymyr Zelenskyy had hoped for.

Susan Walsh/AP
U.S. President Joe Biden (right) and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy shake hands during a meeting on the sidelines of the NATO summit in Washington, July 11, 2024.
  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 4 Min. )

At the just-concluded NATO summit in Washington, alliance members pledged to provide Ukraine with more than $40 billion in assistance over the coming year. More missile defense systems to thwart Russia’s devastating attacks on civilian and energy infrastructure were announced.

And Ukraine will soon begin receiving dozens of F-16 fighter jets from several NATO countries. White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said the coveted fighters should be in Ukrainian skies later this summer.

Perhaps most dramatically, NATO declared that Ukraine was on an “irreversible” path to membership.

At a meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden at the close of the summit Thursday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was careful to thank the American people, members of Congress, and Mr. Biden personally for the substantial assistance Ukraine has received since Russia’s invasion.

Yet two things he really wanted were not offered: an invitation for Ukraine to join NATO, and further lifting of limitations Mr. Biden has imposed on use of U.S.-supplied long-range armaments on Russian territory.

“If we want to win, if we want to prevail, if we want to save our country and to defend it, we need to lift all the limitations,” Mr. Zelenskyy said.

Why NATO summit left Ukraine grateful – and disappointed

Collapse

At this week’s NATO summit, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was in some ways like the boy who receives piles of impressive gifts on Christmas morning – but nevertheless feels disappointment for not getting what he wanted most.

There was an “irreversible” path to NATO membership – but no formal invitation to join the alliance. An impressive range of new weapons – but no green light to use them freely against the Russian aggressors.

At a meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden at the close of the military alliance’s gathering Thursday, Mr. Zelenskyy was careful to thank the American people, members of Congress from both parties, and Mr. Biden personally for the substantial and critical U.S. assistance Ukraine has received since Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022.

He expressed gratitude to the 32-nation alliance for what the summit did deliver, including a declaration in the concluding communiqué citing the “irreversible” path. Countries pledged to provide more than $40 billion in assistance over the coming year, while more missile defense systems to thwart Russia’s devastating attacks on civilian and energy infrastructure were announced.

Moreover, Ukraine will soon begin receiving dozens of F-16 fighter jets from several NATO countries. The coveted fighters, which should help Ukraine foil Russian missile attacks and assist in preparations for ground offensives, should be in Ukrainian skies later this summer, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters Thursday.

Yet two things Mr. Zelenskyy really wanted – the invitation to join NATO, and further lifting of limitations Mr. Biden has imposed on use of U.S.-supplied long-range armaments on Russian territory – were not offered. The Biden administration, worried about the escalatory potential of strikes inside Russia, currently permits Ukraine to fire long-range weapons across the border only in the Kharkiv region and on Russian forces that are attacking or preparing to attack.

“If we want to win, if we want to prevail, if we want to save our country and to defend it, we need to lift all the limitations,” the Ukrainian leader said.

French disappointment

Some NATO countries, including France, have advocated that Ukraine be formally invited to join the alliance. While NATO did declare that Ukraine’s membership path is now “irreversible,” just what that word means for Ukraine’s future accession remains in the eye of the beholder.

Ken Cedeno/Reuters
President Emmanuel Macron of France speaks to reporters during NATO’s 75th anniversary summit in Washington, July 11, 2024.

U.S. officials who had opposed including the word embraced it once it was placed in a broader context of Ukraine’s European integration, including into the European Union. But French President Emmanuel Macron suggested disappointment, saying the door to NATO was “open, but not that much.”

The word was also not well received by Moscow. The Western alliance should not be surprised that Russia will make every effort to “make sure this irreversible path of Ukraine to NATO leads to the disappearance of either Ukraine or NATO, or better, both,” said Dmitry Medvedev, deputy to Russian President Vladimir Putin on Russia’s Security Council.

At his much-scrutinized press conference Thursday evening, Mr. Biden suggested that while there might be further adjustments to the limits on Ukraine’s use of long-range armaments, the policy is likely to stay.

“We’re making ... on a day-to-day basis [decisions on] how far they should go in” to Russian territory, the president said. But overall, he said, “if [Mr. Zelenskyy] had the capacity to strike Moscow, strike the Kremlin, would that make sense? It wouldn’t.”

China decries “sinister motives”

The summit, a celebration of the alliance’s 75th anniversary, was not all Ukraine all the time.

The gathering’s communiqué caused an international stir with its declaration that China has become an enabler of Moscow’s aggression through its “no-limits” partnership with Russia and its deepening support for Russia’s military industrial base.

Alexei Danichev/Sputnik/Kremlin/AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin (front left); Vyacheslav Volodin, chairman of the lower house of the Russian parliament (back left); and Zhao Leji, chairman of the National People's Congress of China, meet on the sidelines of a parliamentary forum in St. Petersburg, Russia, July 11, 2024.

“NATO hyping up China’s responsibility on the Ukraine issue is unreasonable and has sinister motives,” Chinese government spokesperson Lin Jian said at a daily briefing Thursday. He maintained that China has a fair and objective stance on the Ukraine issue.

The “enabler” language was part of a toughening stance toward Beijing – welcomed by some in Congress in particular as a sign that European allies are signing on to Washington’s more confrontational approach to what it sees as an increasingly aggressive China.

The summit was also marked by steps to deepen cooperation with four Indo-Pacific partners – Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea – at a time when Russia and China are drawing closer, and Russia forges closer links with North Korea and Iran.

In the run-up to the summit, Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the growing ties between NATO and Asian partners part of a “new geometry” to confront global challenges.

“Increasingly, partners in Europe see challenges halfway around the world in Asia as being relevant to them,” he said, “just as partners in Asia see challenges halfway around the world in Europe as being relevant to them.”

How Portugal became a world leader in fighting drug addiction

Portugal was the first country in the world to decriminalize drugs. Its drugs chief is clear that progress came from combining that step with compassion, connection, and support. Part 3 of a series. Here are Parts 1 and 2.

Dominique Soguel
Nuno Maneta and Mariana Gomes take an offbeat path in the hills in Quinta do Loureiro, Lisbon, to distribute harm reduction kits to those with drug addictions who are living in tents.
  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 7 Min. )

Tiago Gomes is a man on the mend, determined to renounce cocaine and heroin. It’s been two months since the last use, a feat he credits to the nonprofit Crescer, which moved him off the streets into housing during the pandemic. Initially, he slept on the floor because he had to relearn the habits of being indoors. Now, he is focused on getting a job and reconnecting with his daughter.

Since Portugal decriminalized drugs in 2001, its strategy is credited with reversing the drug addiction explosion of the 1980s and 1990s and halting the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Across the Atlantic, it has inspired policymakers in British Columbia, Canada, and in Oregon. In Europe, the Czech Republic has decriminalized drugs, and Ireland is considering that step.

Drug consumption is not legal in Portugal. What the 2001 reform changed is that it is no longer a criminal offense. Possession for individual use may lead to administrative penalties, such as fines or community service.

“There is a clear decrease,” says João Goulão, the national drug coordinator. “We estimate that we have half the problematic users that we had in the beginning of the century.”

How Portugal became a world leader in fighting drug addiction

Collapse

Nuno and Mariana are on a first-name basis with everyone in the grip of drug addiction they encounter while crisscrossing Lisbon. They know those who reside in tents on littered, suburban hillsides just as well as those who consume drugs in bustling neighborhoods at the heart of the Portuguese capital.

They know their stories – like that of the university professor-turned-police spotter for drug traffickers, or the migrant from India struggling to navigate health services. And, most importantly, they care about everybody’s immediate and future needs.

“Our priority is to make relationships with people,” says Mariana Gomes, a bubbly social worker who methodically jots down whom she meets and what they need in a giant binder. “When we say, ‘Do you need anything?’ we really are asking.

“We try to promote an honest relationship, a horizontal conversation,” she continues. “It seems small, but it makes all the difference in building trust.”

The pair walk in thick-soled shoes while distributing silver foils and safer drug-use kits. Their eyes are trained to recognize health issues. They handle the basics on the spot and organize follow-ups for harder cases.

“Most of the job we do is about creating goodwill, because we don’t have all that much to give,” says Nuno Maneta, a peer educator who overcame drug addiction himself. “It helps a lot if you understand the point of view of the person.”

The mindset of this duo working for Crescer, a nongovernmental agency, reflects Portugal’s broader approach to debilitating drug use. The goal is to help people overcome the issues that drove them to that point. It can be mental or physical health issues, homelessness, or job loss. People are not judged for consuming drugs. Instead, they are gently guided to manage addictions in healthier ways.

“They are lost on drugs, but in general these are good people,” says Mr. Maneta, who sees the key to recovery as the right mix of personal will and consistent support. “We don’t know if they are ready or not, but if they want to, we help them to try to take the right steps.”

Dominique Soguel
Workers contribute in the kitchen of É Um Restaurante in Lisbon, Portugal. As part of Crescer’s program, it offers staff an opportunity to start fresh and learn the basics of professional etiquette.

“What made the difference ...”

Portugal’s drug addiction landscape and approach to treatment was very different at the turn of the century. The country at the time faced a drugs crisis and the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Those with drug addictions who had lost a limb due to infections were a common sight in neighborhoods like Casal Ventoso, where thousands of people were consuming hard drugs like heroin.

“These people were almost never in touch with social and health structures,” says Americo Nave, head of Crescer, which was established in 2001. “Today, it is very difficult to find someone who is not in touch.”

Mr. Nave credits the change to the 2001 decision to decriminalize drug consumption in Portugal, and to a society-wide effort to pursue a harm reduction strategy instead. Legal reform was followed by outreach teams, homeless centers for drug users, low-threshold methadone programs, and walk-in points of care.

“We constructed a net, a whole system of complementary solutions,” he says.

The NGO itself follows a multipronged approach, helping people restore their sense of dignity and faith in the future. Its programming includes housing solutions, on-the-job training, individual counseling, and help navigating appointments with medical and state entities. Crescer has 107 paid employees; a quarter of them hail from a vulnerable situation.

“What made the difference is we worked together with these people, shoulder to shoulder,” stresses Mr. Nave. “We look at people based on their skills and not their bad deeds. And we work with these people to fight stigma – that’s the biggest problem.”

Tiago Gomes is a man on the mend, determined to renounce cocaine and heroin. It’s been two months since the last use – a feat he credits to Crescer, which moved him off the streets into housing during the COVID-19 pandemic. Initially, he slept on the floor because he had to relearn the habits of being indoors. Now, he is focused on getting a job and reconnecting with his daughter.

Dominique Soguel
Tiago Gomes stands at the doorstep of his home in Lisbon, March 7, 2024. He moved off the streets into a studio thanks to the help of Crescer’s housing-first project.

“It’s a process,” he says, sitting in a tiny studio that costs €700 ($760) per month. Participants in the municipality-funded housing-first program are expected to contribute toward rent, provided they manage to secure an income. “Sometimes I feel like I am missing drugs; sometimes I forget drugs. I know they exist, but I try to escape.”

“It’s more carrots” than sticks

Drug consumption is not legal in Portugal. What the 2001 reform changed is that it is no longer a criminal offense. Possession for individual use may lead to administrative penalties, such as fines or community service. Local commissions – comprising legal, health, and social work professionals – decide whether such a penalty is applied.

“It’s more carrots [than sticks],” says João Goulão, the national drug coordinator who was one of the original architects of the law. “Someone with addiction is always divided between the willingness to stop it and the willingness to continue to do it. So, if you are going to offer something to bring about a change, you need to offer it now.”

The capacity for Portugal to do so has been limited by budget cuts. Still, about 80% of people presented to commissions today are recreational and occasional users rather than problematic ones. The commission considers risk factors – divorce, loss of job, a death in the family – when inviting people to access treatment.

Portugal offers a wide range of models for recovery. There are therapeutic communities focused on specific groups like youth, seniors, pregnant women, and women with children. In the case of opioids, people may benefit from substitute treatments based on methadone or buprenorphine, which help reduce withdrawal effects and cravings.

The results have won Portugal global attention. The Portuguese approach is credited with reversing the drug addiction explosions of the 1980s and 1990s and halting the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Across the Atlantic, it has inspired policymakers in British Columbia, Canada, and in Oregon. In Europe, the Czech Republic has decriminalized drugs, and Ireland is considering that step.

Armando Franca/AP/File
A drug user who identified himself as Joao exchanges needles for clean new ones in Lisbon, Portugal, in 2010. Elio Lampreia (right) has worked in one of the street teams of Portugal's Institute for Drugs and Drug Addiction that try to promote safety measures and direct drug users to treatment centers. Portugal decriminalized the use of drugs in 2001.

Decriminalization alone does not work, cautions Dr. Goulão. “This is a very volatile area,” he says. “One of the key elements in our case, for the good and the bad, is that we have been stable in terms of leadership, at least at the technical level. I have worked with different governments and what varies is the speed and attention given to this issue.”

Information about the evolution of habits related to drug use is collected in an annual survey of 18-year-olds. Another source of insights is NGOs working on the front line. A third indicator is the number of people who approach treatment facilities. Recent crises ranging from the financial crisis to COVID-19 have partially undermined progress and made the problem more visible. So has the rise in homelessness and migrant communities struggling with addiction.

“There is a clear decrease,” says Dr. Goulão, who says there were about 100,000 hard-drug users in the country in 2001. “We estimate that we have half the problematic users that we had in the beginning of the century.”

At É Um Restaurante, serving more than food

As dusk descends in Lisbon, the assistant cooks and servers of É Um Restaurante spring into action. Some, like Daniela, are struggling with new-job jitters. It’s her second day of work. Rafael do Carmo, who took the cold-turkey approach to overcome methadone addiction, has been there for over six months.

Dominique Soguel
É Um Restaurante is seen in Lisbon. The restaurant provides on-the-job training to people who live or have lived in chronic homelessness.

 

“Every day, they become a little bit more focused and hopefully ready for the real world,” says chef Ricardo Guimarães of his team.

The restaurant delivers diners sophisticated dishes like duck and yellow croaker ceviche. As part of Crescer’s program, it offers staff an opportunity to start fresh and learn the basics of professional etiquette: Show up ready to work and on time. The chef copes with unannounced absences with grace and gentle explanations about why their presence matters.

“These are normal people who need our help,” says José Agostinho, who oversees the restaurant project. “They are not aliens. We need to create tools for them to rebuild their lives. Otherwise, they have nothing.”

Part 1: Stick, meet Carrot. How Portland police and activists teamed up to fight addiction.

Part 2: ‘Our children would not be dead.’ Why these moms are advocating for safe drugs.

Paris wants the Olympics to shine. Where does that leave its homeless people?

With the Paris Olympics set to start soon, the city’s homeless people are being shunted out of sight. Will Paris break the Olympic tradition of failing to improve the lot of the host city’s most vulnerable residents?

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 5 Min. )

Olympic host cities have typically found it hard to make real change when it comes to homelessness. Though the Games provide an opportunity for the host to show off its prosperity and modernity, they also reveal to the world its ability to tackle complicated social issues.

In two weeks, it will be Paris’s turn.

Ahead of the Paris Games, the organizing committee signed a charter of social commitments. The city also poured millions into creating an Olympic Village that is intended to provide housing to the local community post-Games.

The challenge has been how to find housing for the swell of migrants in recent years, and how to remove tent camps in a humane manner. The city has also struggled to handle the growing number of people who use crack, of which 1 in 4 are estimated to be homeless or living precariously.

With all the money being spent on the Olympics, there is little excuse not to make at least some progress, experts say.

“Cities need to ask themselves,” says sociologist Jacqueline Kennelly, “if this much public money is going to the Olympics, why is there no accountability as to whether the legacy commitments have been met?”

Paris wants the Olympics to shine. Where does that leave its homeless people?

Collapse
Telmo Pinto/SOPA Images/Reuters
Officers block young migrants from reaching a camp under Pont Marie that was evicted by police in Paris, March 6, 2024, ahead of the Olympic Games.

When Alseny left Guinea for a better life in Paris, he never thought he’d end up living on the street. But this spring, victim of a constellation of circumstances, he found himself sleeping under the Pont Marie bridge, along a stretch of the Seine frequented by tourists for its views of the Eiffel Tower.

Then on March 6, police came to remove Alseny and 400 other migrants, busing them to a nearby gymnasium. That’s when he got wind that Paris authorities were planning to send them to one of 10 new temporary shelters in rural France ahead of this summer’s Olympic Games. It was tempting but also a risk: If he left Paris, he’d have to start his request for residency as a minor all over again. (Alseny chose not to share his last name.)

Frustrated by their plight, Alseny and 150 underage migrants took over a Paris cultural center. “The city says they don’t want to see tents and homeless people on the streets during the Olympics, but we’re not delinquents,” Alseny says. “They want to send us away to clean up Paris, but what will we do in the countryside? It’s not a solution.”

City Hall says that the March evictions were prompted by a risk of flooding along the Seine, and that the shelters have been created to take the pressure off the capital. But for several months French nonprofits have denounced what they call a marked increase in evictions of those experiencing homelessness and a “sanitization” of the city ahead of the Games.

Olympic host cities have, in the past, typically found it hard to make a noticeable and lasting difference when it comes to homelessness. Though the Games provide an opportunity for the host city to show off its prosperity and modernity, they also reveal to the world its ability to tackle complicated social issues. And in two weeks, it will be Paris’s turn.

“The Olympics create a window onto a city and it’s all about giving a positive image, which does not include people living on the street,” says Thibaut Besozzi, a sociologist at the Regional Institute of Social Work in the Lorraine region who specializes in homelessness. “But you can’t just send people away and expect the issue [of homelessness] to go away. The question isn’t necessarily what we do with homeless people. It’s how we do things.”

Colette Davidson
Around 150 migrants occupied the Maison des Métallos cultural venue in Paris on April 6, in protest against the city's attempt to evict them from tent camps and send them out of the city ahead of the Olympic Games.

Aspirations vs. realities

When Athens held the first modern Olympic Games in 1896, the event was all about sports. But increasingly, it focuses on city marketing and legacy, say observers.

“The Olympics have always been a way to reflect the dominant aspirations of a society,” says Jacqueline Kennelly, a sociologist at Carleton University in Ottawa, who spent five years studying the effects of the London and Vancouver Olympics on homeless people. “But more and more, Western cities use the Olympics to show themselves as prestigious and tolerant, certainly not places where homeless people get displaced. But also not places where homelessness happens.”

Ahead of the Paris Games, the organizing committee signed a charter of social commitments, which focused on inclusivity, paying fair wages, and reducing carbon emissions. The city also poured millions into creating an Olympic Village in the Paris suburbs that is intended to provide nearly 3,000 housing units to the local community post-Games.

But previous Olympic hosts have been largely unsuccessful in keeping their social commitments.

Ahead of the 2010 Winter Olympics, Vancouver authorities created a network of temporary shelters; they were heavily criticized for the way they kept the homeless out of sight. And one year later, those people were back on the street, says Dr. Kennelly. Apartments constructed for the Olympic Village, intended to provide affordable housing post-Games, have since become too expensive for low-income renters. London experienced a similar fate in 2012 with its East London revamp and its own Olympic Village, whose low-income ambitions have not been realized.

“There is this naivete on the part of authorities, that we can build more housing and somehow it will magically work out,” says Paul Watt, a visiting professor in the department of sociology at the London School of Economics. “But it’s just spinning politics.”

Aurelien Morissard/AP
People use their smartphones near the Eiffel Tower, adorned with the Olympic rings, in Paris, June 7, 2024.

Signs of hope?

In Paris, the challenges have been finding both temporary and long-term housing for the swell of migrants in recent years, and removing makeshift tent camps in a humane manner. The city has also struggled to handle the growing number of people who use crack, of whom 1 in 4 are estimated to be homeless or living precariously.

“People on the streets are very eclectic,” says Alexandre Wasieczko, coordinator for the Île-de-France region at Doctors Without Borders. “Some are minors or migrants, some are drug addicts. We shouldn’t be focusing on that, but instead on the fact that living on the street destroys your life.”

Housing advocates say that at the core of Paris’s homelessness issue is simply an extreme lack of housing. An estimated 300,000 people in France are living without permanent accommodation, according to the French Observatory for Inequality, and between 6,000 and 12,000 are sleeping on the streets.

But there are hopes that Paris might offer a new model for dealing with homelessness in the future.

Since 2023, the “Revers de la Medaille” coalition of nongovernmental organizations has been working to make sure the Paris Games leave a positive legacy. They work closely with the Paris Organizing Committee and city officials, advocating initiatives to fight homelessness, and volunteers also assist with police-led evacuations to make sure they go smoothly.

An independent study by a research institute at the University of Limoges found that the Paris Olympics could generate up to €11 billion ($12 billion) in net economic benefits by 2034. If some of that money is allocated to housing, it could have an impact that other Olympic hosts have not yet seen.

In March, a delegation from Los Angeles City Hall visited Paris to examine the city’s homelessness initiatives, as the California city gets ready to be the 2028 Olympic host. But only time will tell whether Paris should be held up as an example, observers say.

“Cities need to ask themselves, if this much public money is going to the Olympics, why is there no accountability as to whether the legacy commitments have been met?” says Dr. Kennelly. “We need to think about why a two-week sporting event gets to take precedence over all other problems.”

A deeper look

Folk musician Jake Xerxes Fussell hears America singing

America has a rich tradition of folk music. Jake Xerxes Fussell breathes new life into this legacy as one of the country’s leading folk musicians.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Jake Xerxes Fussell plays his 1976 Fender Telecaster, his favorite guitar to play on the road, during a sound check before a gig at Club Passim in Cambridge, Massachusetts, March 22, 2024.
  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 15 Min. )

Jake Xerxes Fussell got his start in music as a toddler banging on pots and pans, and was “immediately good,” according to his sister.

Since those early days, Mr. Fussell has emerged as one of the most singular interpreters of folk music. He breathes life into familiar and forgotten songs and verses. 

“He’s a real-deal folk singer. And there’re not very many of those,” says Eli Smith, organizer of the Brooklyn Folk Festival. 

Mr. Fussell doesn’t consider himself a songwriter, though. “I’ve never written a lyric,” he says. “I’ve taken texts that I’ve found and messed with them musically.”

The folklorist has always looked to the past for musical inspiration. He was first introduced to traditional music by his father, who was a collector of oral histories and an organizer of folk festivals. The young Mr. Fussell was particularly drawn to songs that had been passed down from generation to generation.

“You hear a song you relate to. It doesn’t matter what year it’s from,” he says. “To me, that was always the most powerful thing about traditional music was that it was, like, immediately transcendent, no matter what era it was from.” 

Folk musician Jake Xerxes Fussell hears America singing

Collapse

In the summer of 1993, Fred Fussell, a folklorist and museum curator in Columbus, Georgia, packed his family van for a monthlong road trip to document the crafts and traditions of Native American tribes. He brought along his son, Jake, who had just finished fourth grade and was riding shotgun, where he kept a daily tally of roadkill.

That summer, the Fussells visited artisans from Native communities in Oklahoma, Texas, and Louisiana, those whose forebears had been expelled from the Southeast in the 1800s but kept alive their spiritual ties to the land. Jake took charge of a Sony tape recorder. He taped his father’s interviews, learning to “sit back and shut up” while people talked, which “is the key to good documentation,” says the elder Mr. Fussell.

His young son also recorded performances, which included music. On another road trip with his father, Jake witnessed a 2 1/2-day Yuchi ceremony in Kellyville, Oklahoma, that marked the birth of a new sun, using a flint from Georgia, the tribe’s homeland, to light a fire.

Jake liked vernacular arts and crafts, and he showed an early talent for drawing. But what lit his fire were the songs he heard at folk festivals his father put on in Georgia, songs that had been passed down from generation to generation and performed like the oral traditions of Homeric verse.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Mr. Fussell fell in love with folk music as a young boy. "I always knew I would play music because music was the thing that was a constant source of joy,” he says.

These were songs of sorrow and strife that spoke to him as a young man. “I always knew I would play music because music was the thing that was a constant source of joy,” the younger Mr. Fussell says today.

His family’s circle of friends included musicians, from blues singers to bluegrass pickers, and veteran collectors of traditional songs who never stopped looking for more. Mr. Fussell remembers them dropping by his house clutching tapes of field recordings. “Y’all wanna hear this?” they’d ask. He soon got his own guitar and started singing these songs himself.

From this unusual upbringing, Jake Xerxes Fussell has emerged as one of the most singular interpreters of folk music and all its tributaries. In his live performances and across five richly textured albums, he breathes life into familiar and forgotten songs and verses. His fifth album, “When I’m Called,” releases July 12. 

“He’s a real-deal folk singer. And there’re not very many of those,” says Eli Smith, organizer of the Brooklyn Folk Festival. “I don’t think there’s anyone that’s doing exactly what Jake is doing,” he says.

From spirituals and jigs to fiddle tunes and sea chanteys, folk music is part of America’s cultural bedrock. It has long braided commercial music – from the folk revivalists of the 1950s and 1960s, who include Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan, to contemporary Americana artists like the band Wilco, which serve as a counterweight to more sculpted and stylized pop productions.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Before a gig, Mr. Fussell tunes his Fender Telecaster.

Some traditional songs arrived with the European migrants who brought their fiddles and hymnbooks to Appalachia and other regions. Others sprang from the Black experience of enslavement and freedom. “Folk music belongs to everyone. It’s our collective inheritance,” says Mr. Smith.

Mr. Fussell draws on that inheritance to create music that sounds both contemporary and timeless. His creative process carries him down rabbit holes of archival research and experimentation with musical motifs, even while tinkering on his guitar at home or on tour.

He adds melodies when none exist and transposes verses, acting as both a caretaker and a remodeler of songs. What fires his imagination isn’t always clear to him.

“Usually it’s just a feeling,” Mr. Fussell says. It’s about “drawing something out of the melody or the rhythm or the syncopation of the thing that feels appropriate to me.” 

The musical byways he explores also shine a light on perennial questions of song ownership and racial and cultural categories. The fact that he has found a growing audience, both in the United States and in Europe, speaks to the enduring appeal of folk-inflected music in an era of digital abundance and algorithms.

He takes “old stuff” and transports it somewhere else, says James Elkington, his record producer. “And the place that he’s taken it to is all him.” 

Finding a voice

He started as a toddler on pots and pans, banging out rhythms at home. Then he got a drum kit and was “immediately good,” says Coulter Fussell, his older sister. “Which was unfortunate, because he played them constantly. It was super loud.” 

From drums, Mr. Fussell moved to the upright bass, which he learned at school from a teacher who played in a bluegrass band. When he was 13 years old, his teacher asked him to take over as the bassist at a weekly gig at a barbecue restaurant.

Courtesy of Jake Xerxes Fussell
Mr. Fussell jams with George Daniel, a blues musician, in Macon County, Alabama, circa 1996.

“Everybody went there on a Friday night,” says Ms. Fussell, who is now a quilter in Water Valley, Mississippi. “The band would play, and it was these scruffy grown men and then little Jake up there.” 

“That was the first gig I ever got,” says Mr. Fussell. “And it paid cash.”

He had started playing guitar, too. He learned fingerpicking and began to play, a little awestruck, with Art Rosenbaum, a painter and musician who was a family friend. Mr. Rosenbaum was a ballad collector who began recording folk songs in the 1950s on a reel-to-reel and had amassed his own archive. When Mr. Fussell asked about a song, Mr. Rosenbaum would tell him, “If you like that version, you should really listen to this one.”

Preinternet listening to field recordings meant ordering CDs from specialist labels. As a boy, Mr. Fussell would meticulously put them on his Christmas and birthday lists, along with guitar strings, books about music, and bicycle tires. 

He was also listening to rock and hip-hop on the radio and going to shows, including of Georgia’s R.E.M., whose lead singer, Michael Stipe, had studied drawing with Mr. Rosenbaum at the University of Georgia.

But rock bands lacked the raw passion and poetry of the traditional songs he heard growing up. “None of that stuff really spoke to me in any real deep way,” he says. 

Mr. Fussell also fell hard for the music of Mr. Dylan, whom Mr. Rosenbaum had known in Greenwich Village in the early 1960s. But it was another local musician and family friend, Precious Bryant, who would influence Mr. Fussell’s rhythmic guitar picking and give him a taste of life on the road.

Since Ms. Bryant, a country-blues artist, didn’t drive, it was Mr. Fussell’s mother, Cathy, who would drive her to shows. Her eager son began to take that role once he got a driver’s license. He would also visit Ms. Bryant at her rural trailer home, bringing along his guitar. “She would play, and I would play along,” Mr. Fussell says. 

“Jake always liked older people. He liked listening to older people. He liked hanging around with older people,” says his mother, a retired English teacher and quilter.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Folk musician Jake Xerxes Fussell poses outside Club Passim before a performance March 22, 2024, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

This patient absorption was how he learned his craft, says his sister. “Jake wasn’t very talkative, ... [but] he paid attention. He tagged along, and he read, read, read, and researched and researched, and listened to the music,” she says. He knew so many songs that Ms. Fussell would impress her teenage friends, asking the young Mr. Fussell to play a random song for them.

In his early 20s, Mr. Fussell relocated to the Bay Area in California to work at a record store owned by an indie folk label. He was able to mingle with musicians, filmmakers, and other creative people. In 2005, he moved to Oxford, Mississippi, where he graduated from the University of Mississippi. After getting his bachelor’s degree, he enrolled in the university’s master’s program in Southern studies.

In Oxford, Mr. Fussell started playing more gigs, both in local bands and as a solo act. He had a weekly show at a bar, where he played acoustic guitar and sang. Later, like Mr. Dylan, he went electric, but just so he could be heard above a crowd, not to signal a new direction. He found he preferred to plug in.

“I realized that I could just play electric guitar and play much more softly and be much more expressive just in my fingers,” he says. 

In 2014, he released his self-titled debut album, produced by William Tyler, a Nashville, Tennessee-based guitarist whom he met in Oxford. Mr. Tyler was struck by how Mr. Fussell played songs that seemed untethered to any particular era. “It sounds very relevant and not necessarily modern. It’s like out of time, in a very cool way,” he says.  

Mr. Tyler later got a cryptic email from Ry Cooder, the award-winning singer, composer, and slide guitarist not known for effusive praise. He had heard Mr. Fussell’s album, and he was impressed. Mr. Cooder’s email simply said, “Finally, somebody good.” 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
The audience listens as Jake Xerxes Fussell performs at Club Passim, one of his favorite venues, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

On the road

The autumn sky is dimming as Mr. Fussell pulls up at a converted railroad depot in Garrison, New York, where he’s playing an evening show. He has slept most of the way, letting David Swider, his tour manager, drive the battle-gray Toyota minivan through the Hudson Valley. Now they have a few hours free before showtime, midway through a two-week regional tour. 

Two weeks is Mr. Fussell’s limit for being away from his wife and son in their home in Durham, North Carolina. Lately, he’s taken both of them on the road with him for shows within range of Durham. But he’s mostly alone behind the wheel, driving between cities where he stays with friends or in budget hotels to save money. Up until 2022, he still worked part-time jobs; life as a full-time folkie is a precarious trade. 

On this tour, though, he’s traveling with Mr. Swider, an old friend from Oxford.

Tonight, Mr. Fussell is talking onstage before the show with Amanda Petrusich, a friend and a music critic for The New Yorker. The venue, Philipstown Depot Theater, holds 80 people under a sloped roof with exposed brickwork and girders, beside a commuter rail line to New York City.

As Mr. Fussell waits offstage, an audience of well-heeled locals and New Yorkers with weekend homes fills the tiered seats. He wears cuffed jeans, brown leather boots, a patterned blue shirt, and a beige cap with a sky-blue brim.  

After the lights go down, he joins Ms. Petrusich onstage, sitting in folding chairs next to his spotlit guitar and amplifier. She asks Mr. Fussell about his upbringing, his influences, and how he sifts the past for inspiration.

“It’s a constant thing for me. It doesn’t begin in any conscientious kind of way,” he says. “That’s what I’m always doing: listening to old songs, old material.”

“You hear a song you relate to. It doesn’t matter what year it’s from,” he adds. “To me, that was always the most powerful thing about traditional music was that it was, like, immediately transcendent, no matter what era it was from.”  

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Mr. Fussell (at left), musician Alex Dupree (center), and their manager Brian Hultgre hang out in the greenroom before a performance at Club Passim. Mr. Dupree, a published poet and folk musician, also performed this evening.

When he talks about the ballad collectors he knew growing up, a passenger train rumbles past, jolting the theater. Mr. Fussell looks around. “The blues, y’all,” he jokes. 

After the talk ends, Mr. Fussell takes a break, and then returns to begin his set.

He sits over his Telecaster electric, his right hand plucking and hammering notes as he sings of railroads and sea passages and land battles. His cap stays low on his forehead. Each song unspools at its own pace, propelled by his rhythmic playing and keening voice.

Come Philander, let’s be marching

First for France, then for Holland Cannons roar, colors flying

Oh, my love, there’s no denying 

Ring farewell, to my love farewell

We’re all marching around very well ...

Between songs, he retunes his guitar and thanks the audience, which claps appreciatively and beams at him. Nobody checks their phone or starts a conversation. More passing trains shake the rafters. But nothing seems to break Mr. Fussell’s spell.  

“When he starts playing, even if it’s in a bar or a club where it’s kind of noisy, people tend to stop talking pretty quick and start paying attention to what he’s doing,” says Mr. Swider. “It’s amazing to see.” 

By 9 p.m., the show is over. In a tiny lobby, Mr. Swider sells merchandise while Mr. Fussell comes out to chat with concertgoers and sign albums.

This journalist is a fan, too. I ask him to sign an album for my fifth grade son, who already knows the songs from our own summer road trips.

Then it’s time to pack up: Mr. Fussell loads his guitar and amplifier into the back of his van, nestled beside boxes of records. It’s been a long day, and tomorrow brings another show.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Mr. Fussell chats with fans and signs autographs after a performance at Club Passim in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Collaborating with the past

Mr. Fussell’s albums contain detailed scholarly footnotes on his songs. But he doesn’t get into all this – who, what, which year – when he plays live.

“I’m pretty quiet throughout my shows, just because I find it to be such a distraction between the playing and singing the songs to talk about the history of them,” he says. 

Not all his songs are excavated from folk archives or song sheets. A musical magpie, he plucks verses from unexpected places. The elegiac track that ends his 2022 album, “Green and Good Again,” is titled “Washington” and has one lyric:

General Washington, noblest of men. His house, his horse, his cherry tree, and him. 

Mr. Fussell found it in an illustrated book on hooked rugs, written in needlepoint and dated to 1890. He liked the words and their rhythm and memorized them, eventually marrying them with a tune he had kicked around for years.

On the new album, the title track, “When I’m Called,” is similarly obscure: Mr. Fussell heard the lines, possibly penned by a penitent student, recited by a friend in San Francisco who collected and published bits of Americana – flyers, notes stuck on doors, and other informal writings. It reads, in part, “I will not laugh when the teacher calls my name.” 

“At some point I memorized it, too. When I was playing this song it just came back to me, almost like a space filler,” he says. “But then I thought that it was interesting.” 

Nearly all Mr. Fussell’s song credits are “traditional & in the public domain,” which means he claims no copyright. This reflects both his scholarly desire to trace and showcase their historic lineage, and a moral stance against any exploitation of his source material. 

After a gig in Brooklyn, in fact, he planned to see a new exhibition at the Whitney Museum in Manhattan, which was displaying the work of Harry Smith, an eccentric visual artist whose 1952 “Anthology of American Folk Music” influenced Mr. Dylan and other folk revivalists. Mr. Fussell didn’t end up getting to see the exhibition, but he is well acquainted with Mr. Smith’s compendium. A collection of mostly forgotten old 78 rpm records from the 1920s and 1930s, the anthology was reissued in 1997, and a new generation of folkies began to sift it for inspiration.

But Mr. Fussell has reservations about Mr. Smith’s anthology because of what it didn’t include. For his master’s thesis at the University of Mississippi, Mr. Fussell researched how record labels combing the South in that period for new artists mostly ignored the music of certain ethnic groups. Folklorists, for their part, ignored the rich tradition of fiddle playing among the Choctaw, since it didn’t conform to stereotypes of Native American culture. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Albums and T-shirts are on sale at Club Passim in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The album in the middle, “Out of Sight,” has cover art by Mr. Fussell’s father, Fred.

Such scruples are commendable, says Brendan Greaves, a folklorist and co-owner of Paradise of Bachelors, the Durham-based label that released Mr. Fussell’s first four albums.

“There’s a long history of artists taking traditional material and claiming publishing on it and saying that they wrote it because there’s no one who can prove that they did not,” Mr. Greaves says. 

He had to push Mr. Fussell to take credit for the music he wrote. The song “Washington” is credited to “Jake Xerxes Fussell/Anonymous,” while three instrumental tracks are indeed fully credited to him. 

But he doesn’t consider himself a songwriter in the vein of folk singers who started out playing traditional songs but then became contemporary singer-songwriters. In 1963, Mr. Dylan told the New York Daily News, “There’s mystery, magic, truth and the Bible in great folk music. I can’t hope to touch that. But I’m going to try.”

Another Dylan lyric, however, would better describe Mr. Fussell: “It ain’t me, babe.”

“I’ve never written a lyric, and I’ve never had any interest in writing poetry or lyrics,” Mr. Fussell says. “Now, I’ve taken texts that I’ve found and messed with them musically. ... I don’t really think of that as songwriting.”

In tribute 

The new album is on Fat Possum, an Oxford-based independent label known for discovering older blues artists as well as newer acts. Recorded last December, it adds new hues to Mr. Fussell’s distinct sound, undergirded by his magpie mustering of old songs and lyrics.

Six months after hearing him perform two shows in New York, I visit Mr. Fussell at his home in Durham on a hot, cloudless day. Inside the brick single-story house, he prepares coffee as I admire his artwork and music collection. 

Jake Xerxes Fussell's fifth album, "When I’m Called," releases July 12.

On the fireplace mantel, above an acoustic guitar, is a fluted ceramic pot made by Dorris Xerxes Gordy, a Georgia potter and family friend (and his namesake). He was reluctant at first to use his full name on his albums, because he didn’t want to be pretentious. But Mr. Greaves insisted. “I said, ‘Absolutely, we have to use it. It’s memorable,’” he says. 

“When I’m Called” features an old whaling song, a Scottish ballad, and a nursery rhyme first published in 1744. There’s also a jocular song about Andy Warhol written by Maestro Gaxiola, a California artist and bodybuilder, culled from a 1986 cassette.

When you see me coming better get on your horse and ride,

’Cause this world ain’t big enough for both of us to fit inside.

More than half the songs came via Mr. Rosenbaum, who either taught them to him personally or left recorded versions, Mr. Fussell says. As a collector, Mr. Rosenbaum never stopped truffling for folk songs wherever he went. He was always attuned to local variations of classics, or the faint possibility that a song had somehow been overlooked. “It wasn’t like there was a [defined] hunting expedition,” Mr. Fussell says. “His whole life was that.” 

Mr. Rosenbaum died in September 2022, when he was in his 80s. Mr. Fussell had just come offstage at a festival in England when his mother texted him the news. Mr. Fussell dedicated the album to his former mentor.

“I didn’t set out to make an Art Rosenbaum memorial record, but I kind of did, in a de facto way,” he says. 

There are songs Mr. Fussell wouldn’t try to perform, he says, such as prison songs or Confederate ballads. He’s also wary of material that has a history of exploitation, including blues songs. “You always have to try to be a little bit self-reflective about your own position and privilege,” he says, adding that cultural appropriation is real and troubling.

“At the same time, I don’t always know where appropriation ends and creativity begins because I feel like so much of art is borrowing,” he says. 

Even the notion of a pure, unadulterated song is a false concept, he says. “They all have such complicated histories, and they’re put together from pieces of this and that.” Folk musicians belong to communities, work other jobs, and learn from other musicians. 

As his profile has risen, Mr. Fussell has played in larger venues. He’s also opened for bigger bands who fill arenas. In August, he has a solo show in London at a 600-seat capacity venue.

“I’m not interested in grabbing anybody by the collar and converting them to my way of seeing the world,” Mr. Fussell says. “My approach is to cultivate and nurture and trust the audience I already do have and to have some faith that that will lead somewhere interesting.”

Other headline stories we’re watching

(Get live updates throughout the day.)

The Monitor's View

Seeding thought with wonder and hope

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 3 Min. )

There are about 30,000 known varieties of apples worldwide. Fewer than 40 of these dominate global commercial markets. What, then, accounts for the restless pursuit in university labs and orchard nurseries to revive heirlooms long thought extinct?

One answer is climate change. Next year marks the midpoint in the United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, a global focus on renewing nature. If an apple is found that no one has ever seen before – as one was in Colorado a few years ago – it means a tree has survived for perhaps a century or more. It may hold clues for adapting other varieties to changing weather patterns.

Yet around the globe, projects to revive ecosystems and imperiled species are affecting something deeper – a restoration of thought in an age steeped in uncertainty.

“The benefit of a 100-year vision is that it begins with an assumption of success, allowing us to imagine how something can be and will be done rather than debating whether it’s possible,” wrote Florent Kaiser, executive director of Global Forest Generation, in a World Economic Forum blog. “Planting trees transcends carbon offsetting; it’s an act of hope for future life.” It reflects “a commitment to work together for the common good.” Such thought rises, like birdsong.

Seeding thought with wonder and hope

Collapse
Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor
The sun shines through the branches of an apple tree in Stow, Massachusetts, in September 2022.

There are about twice as many known varieties of apples worldwide as there are of clams – 30,000, give or take. Fewer than 40 of these – Fuji, Honeycrisp, and so on – dominate global commercial markets. What, then, accounts for the restless pursuit in university labs and orchard nurseries to revive heirlooms long thought extinct?

One answer, of course, is climate change. Next year marks the midpoint in the United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, a global initiative challenging governments and individuals to renew the planet’s natural systems and resources. If an apple is found that no one has ever seen before – as one was in Colorado a few years ago – it means a tree has survived for perhaps a century or more. It may hold clues for adapting other varieties to changing weather patterns.

Yet from the steppes of Kazakhstan to the shallow estuaries of Florida, projects to revive wild horses and seagrasses are affecting something deeper – a restoration of thought in an age steeped in uncertainty.

“The benefit of a 100-year vision is that it begins with an assumption of success, allowing us to imagine how something can be and will be done rather than debating whether it’s possible,” wrote Florent Kaiser, executive director of Global Forest Generation, in a World Economic Forum blog. “Planting trees transcends carbon offsetting; it’s an act of hope for future life.” It reflects “a commitment to work together for the common good.”

One reason the effect Mr. Kaiser describes may be so noticeable is that restoration projects often respond to factors like overexploitation of resources and political instability. Community-led forestry projects in South America, Nepal, and Pakistan have involved the planting of tens of millions of trees. By tapping the ecological expertise of marginalized Indigenous communities, they affirm values like equality and individual dignity.

Boosting ecosystems is also boosting democracy. An annual survey by the National Wildlife Federation and the National Gardening Association published last month confirmed a growing shift from lawns to native wildflowers. People who garden for bees and butterflies, studies have shown, are more apt to know their neighbors and participate in local civic activities.

Their gardens may be more collectively empowering than they know. A study led by the University of Massachusetts Amherst showed that climate change is accelerating the spread of invasive species 1,000 times faster than of native species critical to local environmental stability. Yet Doug Tallamy, an entomologist at the University of Delaware, points to the potential for individual agency. He noted in a recent podcast that 83% of land across the United States is privately owned.

“Some people argue about the word restoration,” he said. But planting native species restores “interactions between the plants and animals” that contribute to environmental health and stability. “You’re still recreating the ecosystem function.”

That’s not as dry as it sounds. As director of horticulture at the New England Botanic Garden in Massachusetts, Mark Richardson is attempting to restore a peck’s worth of heirloom apple varieties along with the American chestnut. “‘When you operate a botanic garden, you hope that it’s here in perpetuity,’ he said, and you work with that horizon in mind,” The New York Times reported last week. Such thought rises, like birdsong.

A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

God’s positioning system

  • Quick Read
  • Read or Listen ( 3 Min. )

Listening to the peace-filled messages that God is always giving us brings progress to our lives.

God’s positioning system

Collapse
Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition

Often in daily life, we feel a need for guidance in solving our problems. Sometimes technology can provide the needed help – such as when I use the GPS (Global Positioning System) navigation in my car. Most of the time it gives accurate directions, but occasionally it misdirects me. So, I don’t fully trust it.

This reminds me of how we sometimes lean on friends to give us advice and direction when we’re making important decisions. Often it’s helpful. Career moves, educational choices, where to live, how to invest our money wisely – we care about these issues and trust our friends to give us good advice. Yet, even those closest to us may have varying opinions, so how can we really know what decision is best?

This is where I find turning to God, the all-knowing, all-intelligent divine Mind, so valuable. His Word in the Bible reveals man as God-created, the image and likeness of Him. Each of us, therefore, is complete and spiritual.

The teachings of Christian Science explain that man, being a complete expression of divine Mind, must express the wisdom and understanding that this Mind supplies. God is our Father, guiding us continuously. Unlike variable human opinions, God’s direction is always sound. As a student of Christian Science, I have been learning to rely more consistently on this divine Mind through prayer and spiritual sense.

Everyone has spiritual sense – “a conscious, constant capacity to understand God” (Mary Baker Eddy, “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” p. 209). When we seek to understand the spiritual facts of existence, the mental suggestions that would have us believe that we are not capable of hearing God’s guidance or that we are somehow separated from God are silenced. Because we reflect Mind, we can hear what God is telling us; and it is always good.

Christ Jesus was certainly the prime example of listening for Mind’s guidance in prayer. He didn’t lean on his own personal opinion or human will. He said, “I can of mine own self do nothing: as I hear, I judge: and my judgment is just; because I seek not mine own will, but the will of the Father which hath sent me” (John 5:30). The same Mind that Christ Jesus expressed also enables us to hear our Father’s will for us, and make sound decisions based on what we hear.

Some years ago, I was faced with the problem of finding appropriate housing for my family in a nearby area. The rental market in the desired location was tight, and it appeared that it was going to be challenging to find a suitable house to fit our needs. The few ads I saw in the newspaper offered rentals that were not going to work for us. Friends offered what they thought might be appropriate solutions, but those did not work either. This move needed to be accomplished quickly, so I was also working against narrow time constraints.

One day, driving through the village where I was hoping to find our new home, a clear intuition came to turn left onto a quiet side street. From experience, I knew that this intuition was an inspired message from God. I listened and proceeded.

On the road was a sign advertising a rental. It was a small single-story residence with all the amenities we were looking for, and it was available immediately. This house had not been listed in the classifieds of our local newspaper, and I was surprised to find out that the landlord was someone I knew. He was delighted to rent to us and was relieved to be able to have someone he felt would take good care of his property.

It turned out to be a harmonious solution for everyone, and a lease was signed right away. We moved in shortly thereafter. Even as we packed and downsized our household items, we relied on God every step of the way. Everything was accomplished quickly and efficiently.

For me, this was concrete evidence that we can trust our ability to hear God’s guidance, and expect practical results from this listening. I’d call divine Mind’s unerring direction a reliable positioning system.

Adapted from an article published in the December 2023 issue of The Christian Science Journal.

Viewfinder

You can come next time

Michael Probst/AP
A stork starts from its nest while the family looks on, near Frankfurt, Germany, July 12.
( The illustrations in today’s Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte. )

A look ahead

Thank you for spending time with us this week. Among the stories we will be following next week are the Republican National Convention, where Donald Trump arrives in perhaps his strongest position ever, and the evolution of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who appears to be putting some daylight between herself and the other conservative justices. 

More issues

2024
July
12
Friday

Give us your feedback

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.