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Non-Politicians Talking Politics: Sports Writer Mitch Albom On 2016 Election


Our next guest runs an orphanage in Haiti. He's also an award-winning sports writer, philanthropist and the best-selling author of "Five People You Meet In Heaven" and "Tuesdays With Morrie." Mitch Albom's latest novel is "The Magic Strings Of Frankie Presto." It's now out in paperback. And Mitch Albom joins us from Detroit for our latest conversation about the election with people who are not in politics.

Mitch, thanks very much for being with us.

MITCH ALBOM: Sure, Scott.

SIMON: I understand you've been to Haiti since Hurricane Matthew.

ALBOM: I have. I go anyhow on a monthly basis and was there less than two weeks after it hit. Our orphanage is in Port-au-Prince. And, fortunately, most of Port-au-Prince was spared, particularly things that were on concrete. However, all of our staff - our nannies, our teachers, our - from the people who help clean up or do the laundry - everybody's family is from the South. And so virtually everybody in our extended family has lost everything that they had.

SIMON: Yeah. Are there concerns that are being overlooked in the presidential campaign you'd like to draw our attention to?

ALBOM: (Laughter) Where do you begin? I think every major concern has been overlooked in deference to tawdry things and comments and who said what on a TV show or an open mic or a snippy remark in a debate. To raise one - and it would just be one - I haven't heard a word about education in this entire election season. Every now and then, you hear Hillary Clinton talk about a plan for colleges, and that's about it.

Being here in Detroit, our public education in this city is - it's shocking. And the oversight of it and the oversight of the teachers and the funding is nonexistent, and the priority that's put on it is so low. And everyone keeps talking about fixing and returning America - making America great. But yet, nobody ever seems to focus on the fact that you're not going to make any country great if you don't address its children.

You know, you're not going to fix things by helping 65-year-olds or 75-year-olds for any long run. And yet, I never hear anything about education. Education - I guess it's just not sexy enough. And everybody claims to love their children and our children are the most important thing, but if that's the case, how come we never hear more about education as an election issue?

SIMON: Any two or three things you think could be done - should be done to improve education in the United States?

ALBOM: Wow. Well, literacy, first and foremost, is the beginning. It's shocking how many people - at least here in Detroit - and I'm sure this is true in other major cities - are functionally illiterate, how many adults are functionally illiterate, how many kids are getting passed through the school system who really can't make their way through a book. And I don't care about technology or computers, whatever. The basis of everything, of all knowledge, is the ability to read. So first and foremost, I would put a massive national emphasis on illiteracy with real markers that you could measure and real efforts to do a one-on-one kind of tutoring until kids can get up to snuff on that.

I would certainly make the attendance in college paid for, at least at a community college level or a state - you know, a sponsored university level so that if you wanted to go to college and if you had the grades - you might not go to Harvard - but you went to college. But again, I think we hear a lot of talk about college, and we don't hear about early education. And you're not going to get to college - you're not even going to be qualified, even to go to a community college, if you don't address the basic problem of literacy in this country. And there's no reason - no reason - for us to have that problem.

SIMON: Anything you would like to tell us about the two major presidential candidates or, for that matter, the Libertarian and Green Party candidates?

ALBOM: Probably only that I have not been more disappointed in a pair of candidates in my adult life. You know, I'm very lucky, Scott. I get to travel around, and I meet a lot of people. And I can't tell you how many times - and, gosh, in your job, you have to do this, too - how many times you have a conversation with somebody and after they leave, you go wow, what an impressive person - what an incredible set of values, leadership, accomplishment, whatever, and none of these people ever end up running for president.

And I think we've created a system here where only the lifelong politicians, who are used to this kind of life in the spotlight and don't care, or people who have egos along the lines of Donald Trump - who just don't care what people say about them - they're the only people who are ever going to run because nobody wants their life dissected as meanly and as randomly as our media has come to do with anybody who runs for office.

And so all these people that you meet or I meet, there's not a prayer in hell that they're ever going to run for office or major office because if they're that smart, they're also smart enough to know they don't want to take everything that they've built up and have it torn apart by a sensationalized media that's so hungry for any kind of salacious detail that they'll make that the emphasis of the person's life. And then all of sudden, 50, 60 years of hard work and accomplishment go out the window. And so what I have to say about these two candidates is summed up in the sentence that probably many people are uttering, this is the best we can do?

SIMON: Yeah. You write books that inspire people, that, if I may, they carry around in their hearts and minds. What inspires you these days as you look around the country?

ALBOM: Children. Honestly, Scott, as I get older - I'm 58 now - man, it's - I'm being made aware of my mortality all the time. Even as I'm speaking to you here, a longtime colleague of mine just passed away last night. I've gone from, you know, it's my parents and their friends who are passing away to my peers and my colleagues. And I think when that happens, you look around for something more long-lasting, perhaps, than things that you thought before. I still think there is a way to take all the mistakes that we've made as adults and put a little bit of a salve on them, a little bit of a fix on them, if we just are a little smarter in what we teach our kids.

SIMON: Mitch Albom, his novel, "The Magic Strings Of Frankie Presto," is out in paperback. Mitch, thanks so much for being with us.

ALBOM: OK, Scott. Anytime.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.