As I mull over preparations for a visit to the US next May, I found myself returning time after time to the same question: who should I expect to find this time? And why should it be a matter of significance?
This is not about regional variations. I recognize that diversity has always been a defining characteristic of the USA. And I have been lucky enough experience it at first hand, sometimes over extended periods. My first visit – in 1968, as a young student - set the scene. Driving down the Pacific Coast Highway, I found myself at Big Sur in the (slightly drunk) company of a couple of marines from the nearby naval base who were on their way to Vietnam; then I was in LA when Bobby Kennedy was assassinated and Watts went up; in San Antonio when Julius Boros beat Arnold Palmer by one stroke in the USPGA, thus preventing him from claiming in the only Major he never won; in Miami in August when, at the GOP Convention, Richard Nixon caused some consternation by nominating Spiro Agnew as his VP candidate - “Spiro who?!” On the way up the east coast, I stopped off in Savannah, Atlanta, Charleston, Richmond, DC (the first of many visits), Baltimore and Philadelphia, before eventually flying home from New York. Since then I've added San Francisco, Chicago New Orleans and Boston to the list. Wasps and Hispanics, bible belts and beltways, fly-over states and Keys, Razorbacks, Yankees and Cowboys, bluegrass and Red Sox – the variations implicit in these terms should alert the visitor not to expect any single “national character”.
Nor it is about history. US history is fascinating, partly because so much is packed into so little time, partly because it holds one of the keys to how the nation became what it is today. I wrote after my last visit in 2011 of my admiration for the way you present your past – from the great, and tragic, battlefields of Virginia to the revolutionary events staged in Philadelphia and Boston. Even the youngsters queueing up to see Benjamin Franklin's study weren't too unruly. If anything, American history is borne on a dynamic of change.
Nor is it about stereotypes, political or celluloid. On this side of the “pond”, we are quite well versed in images of US heroism – from George Washington onwards, of the principles of liberty and freedom enshrined in the Constitution, and the likes of Lincoln, Roosevelt (x2) and Reagan who gave expression to them; of the great (and no-so-great) 19th and early 20th century capitalists and criminals, the Vanderbilts, Carnegies and Capones; and of the unrivalled start-up capacity that has spawned the Gates, Dells and the Jobs. Resent their success we might, but we can't deny their impact.
So why am I apprehensive about who I will find this time around? Just because here we are prey to all sorts of doubts and uncertainties about our identity and future – as Dean Acheson put it, “having lost an empire and not found another role” - why should I imagine that the short-term whims of politics, from Tea Parties to Obamacares, should have disturbed the abiding consistency of the American self-image? No reason at all – except for a reading of history that suggests – to paraphrase an English aristocrat - “power changes, and absolute power changes absolutely”. A few years ago a friend of mine suggested that the best way to understand Americans was to look at the most powerful brand images in the States. These were, according to him: 1. The Marlborough Man; 2. Harley-Davidson; and 3. the NY Yankees. Somewhere in this iconic mix I'd find the timeless essence of the American. As an outsider, writing to Insiders, my question is: “Do you believe this still holds true? Or should I prepare myself for a radically different species: the 21st century American?
Excuse my ramblings. They are born of a genuine fascination and respect. I'll close by quoting a few lines penned by one of your most popular (I think!) and influential 20th century Presidents of a colleague: "He is", he wrote:
“America incarnate - sham-hating, hard-working, crackling with jokes upon himself, lacking in pomp but never dignity....a great, boyish, wholesome, shrewd, sincere, kindly gentleman.”
I'll buy a drink for the Insider who can identify the Speaker and a bottle for identifying his Subject!
arkwright As usual, your post is beautifully written, moving and thought-provoking. Many Americans, too, are questioning who we are today and where we're heading. Tomorrow--election day--may add some definition to both.
And having recently finished Doris Kearns Goodwin's The Bully Pulpit, I'm fairly certain that was Teddy Roosevelt on William Howard Taft.
Now see, there's the difference between a beer guzzling n'er do well and an intellectual big time college professor. I was actually going to guess T.R. based on all of his rough rider, persistence, man in the arena, reputation (but I would have guessed it was said about him not by him). I even saw Kearns Goodwin on Morning Joe talking about her book - but it hasn't come out as a movie yet, so I didn't know squat. Oh well, enjoy the beverage with one of our forum's big time deep thinkers.
The answer to his other question, From here (yes Williamsburg, but no doubt he swung by after delivering a speech on the Age of Voltaire at William and Mary) to where? the answer - Watermark Bar at South Street Seaport where ark will enjoy a pint of Fuller's London Porter.
arkwright - nice write up and as always, thought provoking and indeed, many of us share those observations.
ps - that American incarnate, sham hating, hard working... gentleman was also the very first President to throw out the first ball to open a baseball season (that, I knew )
Many thanks for your comments. And "yes" it was Teddy R of William H Taft, before that relationship soured. I'd be delighted to honour my offer, but think we'll need to do a diary exercise to work out where and when. I'll be in the US next May, but probably focusing on the E Coast from Washington north to Boston.
What was your assessment of "The Bully Pulpit?" She is clearly an extremely accomplished historical writer. Somehow, though, for me her latest didn't have quite the impact of "Team of Rivals". I was left wondering there is any modern equivalent of TR's journalists? Could social media play the same role?
By the way, what is your academic discipline? Contrary to ERC's suggestion, I was neither an historian or philosopher: just a boring microbiologist.
arkwright Well, I'm in the East, but well south of your planned travels, so a "virtual bottle" will probably have to suffice -- thank you, sir. I agree with your notion that The Bully Pulpit wasn't quite up to Team of Rivals, although I enjoyed it a great deal, probably because the issues of the day were some of the same issues our nation struggles with today: economic inequality, corporate resistance to and evasion of regulatory oversight, dysfunctional government, etc. And owing to a journalism background, I always enjoy a good read about the muckrakers. I currently teach scientific and technical writing to budding natural resource managers: wildlife and fisheries biologists, foresters, hydrologists and the like.
I'm not certain about "social media," but the Internet certainly plays a major role in modern journalism, and there are many excellent writers and investigative journalists producing phenomenal work on the web. But because of the sheer volume of content, it's a situation of "reader beware." One must read carefully and question often. As I've grown older, I've gravitated more and more toward non-fiction, particularly history. I'm always amazed by how much history does repeat itself. One would hope that we'd learn. Like erc, though, these days I'll wait for the movie to come out to "read" fiction.
Thank you for your contributions to this forum; they are always eloquent, insightful and welcome.
Many thanks for yours. One of the attractions of the USA is that, however many times you visit, there is seemingly always somewhere different to go - somewhere often unheralded, almost unknown (outside of the nation, even State), yet full of fascinating heritage.
Sometimes TV plays a useful role. For example, "T'is Murder, She Wrote" might not have been the greatest series, but it served to draw my attention to Maine and Vermont, and idealised though the image it presented certainly was, it nevertheless left an attractive, enticing memory.
I doubt whether, on this trip, I'll have time to move north of Boston, but the option is certainly recorded.
I would like to parrot foxglove. Beautifully written and provocative. It would be a fantastic topic for a round table discussion (accompanied by a favorite libation), though my offerings would be laced with my usual naivety.
There is nothing boring about microbiology (but of course, you know that.)