John Powers

John Powers, the author of Sore Winners (And the Rest of Us) in George Bush's America (Doubleday), writes about culture and politics for Vogue and is critic-at-large for NPR's Fresh Air.

Recent Articles

The Hidden Candidate

(John Cuneo)
When Gore Vidal died a few weeks ago, eulogies quoted his famous observation that “the more money an American accumulates the less interesting he himself becomes.” Vidal originally wrote these words in a 1972 essay on Howard Hughes, but who could read them today and not think of Willard Mitt Romney? Blessed with parodically presidential good looks, yet cursed with the unconvincing mannerisms of an early-generation android without its update patch, Romney is that most discombobulating of political phenomena—a boring enigma. Trying to figure out his true nature is akin to facing a block of polystyrene. You can’t see inside, and you can’t get a toehold. You’re left with analogies. Romney has been dubbed the next Herbert Hoover, awarded the honorary George H.W. Bush “Wimp” prize from Newsweek , and compared to a porn-movie queen because he changes his positions so often (this last from Arlen Specter, who only changes parties). Those of a...

Dreams from My President

Every president plays a symbolic, almost mythological role that’s hard to talk about, much less quantify—it’s like trying to grab a ball of mercury. I’m not referring to using the bully pulpit to shape the national agenda but to the way that the president, as America’s most inescapably powerful figure, colors the emotional climate of the country. John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan did this affirmatively, expressing ideals that shaped the whole culture. Setting a buoyant tone, they didn’t just change movies, music, and television; they changed attitudes. Other presidents did the same, only unpleasantly. Richard Nixon created a mood of angry paranoia, Jimmy Carter one of dreary defeatism, and George W. Bush, especially in that seemingly endless second term, managed to do both at once. While Barack Obama’s election left a joyous imprint on American culture—most of us were thrilled to discover that we could sometimes be what we want to think we...

Rachel Maddow, the Lovable Wonk

With the release of her latest book, Drift, MSNBC’s biggest 
star shows once again why she's captured the liberal imagination.

(Photo by Frank Micelotta/PictureGroup)
I can’t say for sure when it happened—it was after Barack Obama’s swearing-in yet before Keith Olbermann got suspended for giving money to Democrats—but at some point it began dawning on people that the face of MSNBC was Rachel Maddow. Certainly her bosses thought so. Not only did she have her own prime-time show but she also began landing the gigs traditionally reserved for a network’s Grand Poo-Bah, in particular, anchoring election-night coverage. You can understand why MSNBC execs would want Maddow in this talismanic chair for the 2012 campaign. Young and sunny, she’s their highest-rated anchor, especially among the magical 25-to-54 demographic, which makes her the ideal front woman for a network whose tagline is “Lean Forward.” Just as important, she’s their easiest and most polite host, a woman who once chastised Pat Buchanan on Dan Abrams after he told a Clinton campaign worker to “shut up,” a rebuke that left...

The Inside Track

Luck, HBO’s horse-racing series, is about the other American pastime: gaming the system.


Early in the new HBO series Luck , a gangster’s chauffeur-cum-bodyguard, Gus Demitriou (Dennis Farina), goes to L.A.’s Santa Anita racetrack with his boss, Chester “Ace” Bern-stein (Dustin Hoffman), and makes a bet on a long shot. When the horse comes in, Gus clutches his winning ticket and says happily: “Don’t ever let anyone tell you this isn’t a great fucking country.” I wouldn’t dream of it. But I will point out that Gus doesn’t win his bet because he’s been shrewd or even lucky. He wins because he’s gotten an inside tip from a dodgy trainer, a fact that, in the exhilaration of victory, he either forgets or takes for granted. Such is the slippery world of Luck , a program that aspires to capture not only the rich splendor of horse racing but this country in all its star-spangled dreams and delusions. This is no less than you’d expect of a show created by writer David Milch and co-produced by director...

Highlight Reel

The year in culture: the winners, the losers, and not spiking the football

1. MISSION ACCOMPLISHED Barry Blitt When the great Chicago Bears running back Walter Payton scored a touchdown, he never performed an end-zone celebration. He merely handed the ball to a lineman so his blocker could slam it onto the turf. It was in much the same spirit that President Barack Obama announced that U.S. forces had killed Osama bin Laden. As Obama walked toward the microphone, the country was burning to hear him say something memorably jaunty—you know, “We got the son of a bitch.” Instead, he talked sensibly, but here was an occasion that called for more than good sense. Even when crowds thronged outside the White House fence chanting, “USA! USA!” Obama didn’t do what Ronald Reagan would have done—step outside, however briefly, to share this moment of joy with the public. No doubt, he would have found such triumphalism tasteless. (“We don’t need to spike the football,” Obama replied when asked why he wasn’t...