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Authors: Simon Schama

The American Future

BOOK: The American Future
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The American Future

A History

Simon Schama

For Nick Kent and Charlotte Sacher, buddies on

the wild ride, without whom this would all have

been unthinkable, impossible…

History, by apprising them of the past,
will enable them to judge of the future.

Thomas Jefferson,

Notes on the State of Virginia, 1787


Iowa Waltz

American War

Veterans Day: 11 November 2007

The fight for the citadel: soldiering and the Founding Fathers

The Drop Zone Cafe, San Antonio, Texas, 3 March 2008

The trials of the Roman

Taking sides

Father and son

The quartermaster general, 1861–64

John Rodgers Meigs, the Shenandoah Valley, summer and fall 1864

Montgomery Meigs and Louisa Rodgers Meigs, October 1864–December 1865

Washington, D.C., February 2008

Hamilton resurrexit

American war: Rohrbach-lès-Bitche, the Maginot Line near Metz, 10 December 1944

American Fervor

Atlantic City, August 1964


Raven, Virginia, 2008


“Whereas Almighty God hath created the mind free…”

National Sin

Jarena Lee

The sovereignty of the voice

Easter Sunday, 2008, Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta

Great white hopes?

Photographic Insert

Ruleville, Mississippi, 31 August 1962

What Is An American?

Twilight, Downing Street, June 2008

Citizen Heartbreak: France, August 1794

The German threat

The Chicken Club, south Texas, July 2008

The immigrant problem in Texas

The German threat—again

The importance of Fred Bee

Grace under pressure

Jefferson's Koran

American Plenty

Running on empty?

Strawberry fields, 1775

White Path, 1801–23


The church of irrigation

Ghost house

Roll up that lawn


The Impotent Angel?


I can tell you exactly, give or take a minute or two, when American democracy came back from the dead because I was there: 7:15 p.m. Central Time, 3 January 2008, Precinct 53, Theodore Roosevelt High. I know this as I was regularly checking my watch, and besides you couldn't miss the schoolroom clock, its old white face the object of generations of teenage hatred and longing. I suppose a visitor from another world—London, say—might have thought there was not all that much going on in west Des Moines that evening. Minivans were pulling into the Kum & Go at the usual clip; burly men bulked up by their down jackets were stamping their feet as they fed fuel pumps to their tanks. Bags of salt were being lugged over the forecourt, the plastic gleaming in the sour orange light. After many months of maneuvering and talky self-promotion, it was time for the Iowa voters to offer judgment on who they thought should be the forty-fourth president of the United States. They would, the media hacks opined, “winnow the field,” and Iowans are partial to a good winnow.

But it wasn't as if a sign was hanging from the steely sky reading “HISTORIC DAY.” The sidewalks weren't carpeted with discarded election flyers, nor was every third downtown store window screaming “HUCKABEE” at you! No one that I heard was Honking for Hillary. In a couple of days of steady driving around Des Moines, the only street corner placard-waver we could find was a solitary devotee of the libertarian Ron Paul, gaunt and hairy like a midwinter John the Baptist crying his hero up in a downtown wilderness. Every so often a car would toot and the Pauline would wave his banner, and then put it down for a moment so he could clap his arms around his chest. Then he'd jump up and down a bit to keep his spirits up and the blood in his brain from going gelid.

So even though a lot of happy “we're in the limelight” waving to out-of-towners was going on from behind car windows, maybe Iowa was just too frigid for vote-hustling. So I said to Jack Judge, our crew driver, while the cameramen and director were off on the far side of the highway getting windburn as they took pretty shots of frozen corn stubble: “It's big, Jack, right?” Jack took off his beanie, pushed the mop of steel-gray hair back from his creased brow, held up the glasses he kept on a cord round his neck, gave them a big
of steaming breath, wiped them with a Kleenex, and pronounced, “Way big.” Jack was definitely someone to ask, seeing as he'd been a bit of a pol himself. A farm boy from Melrose, fifty miles downstate, he had had some fast growing up to do after his daddy lost his fingers in an accident with a combine. Jack had tended to the hogs, sheep, and chickens, picked the corn and beans by hand, and cut his own standing timber into fences, as best he could. “We had runnin' water,” he chuckled, “the kind you had to run to fetch with a bucket.” He was seventy-three now but still grittily handsome, and you only had to take a look at his open face to see a man who would do right by his family and his neighbors.

Then, in the spring of 1960, a young Boston-Irish senator came through Melrose, which was nowhere in particular but which pointed north toward Des Moines. The senator stopped long enough at a coffee shop for Jack to get a good look and take in the glamorously tousled hair, the winning freckles, the stream of wisecracks, and the merry mugging for the cameras. Surrounding Kennedy were fast-talkers in snap-brim hats, pulling anxiously on cigarettes while they shook the papers open or pushed coins into pay phones. The candidate had put in a lot of Iowa miles already, but in Melrose he poured on the happy-go-lucky like it was maple syrup on a short stack, and Jack Judge just spooned it up, signing on right there and then for the campaign. Though the senator's staccato short “a” s made it seem sometimes like he wasn't speaking English at all, leastways not the kind Jack was used to, there was no mistaking his smarts nor his appetite for action and power, which, in the normal way of things, would have raised Jack's eyebrows but for some reason this time didn't.

The Judges had all been Democrats as long as anyone could recall, raised and schooled in old-fashioned Midwest populism, the kind of country preacher-man politics that was unafraid to blame metropol
itan money for small-town hardships. Nor, since it was the country's breadbasket, were they bashful about expecting the government to tide them over the rough patches with a few favors: low-rate loans, decent prices for their corn and livestock, secure markets. They were alright with the assumption that the nominee was bound to come from a quite different world just so long as he made some effort to understand theirs: the raw-knuckle mornings before dawn, the sinking misery of drought as sparse leaves on the corn stalks drooped and withered to papery rags, the heaviness of knowing they'd have to have a meeting with the bank manager before fall. For all his long cigarette holders and silky elegance, FDR had looked out for them, that much had been obvious from the AAA (Agricultural Adjustment Administration), and Harry Truman from Missouri was close to being one of them. They had wanted to feel good about Adlai Stevenson, him being from Illinois, but Adlai had reveled in his Princeton eggheadedness in such a superior way that he had proved a tough sell, especially against the war hero Ike. The thing about Kennedy, who was no less urbane than Stevenson, was his trick of making the cleverness seem down-home smart, the cocky high-school kid who could debate on Thursday and quarterback on Friday. So no one took against his can-do cheeriness, especially not when he sat down and listened to their stories of tough times and when he promised to do what he could to help them hang on to their family farms. Sure, all politicians talked that way when they were rustling up votes, but this one seemed in earnest. And he smelled, a little, of money himself, to which no one had much objection.

So Jack Judge went to work as a Kennedy campaigner and drove his battered pickup round the pothole-happy backroads to Moravia and Promise City, to Mystic and Plano, stumping for the Catholic Bostonian who was still reckoned a dark horse against Vice President Nixon. Jack listened to a whole lot of righteous bellyaching about how no one could afford a tractor now that they cost so much and how you couldn't make a go of it with less than a thousand acres, so that it was just a matter of time before they'd have to say yes to one of the big agribusinesses hungry for land. And Jack understood that people who were too proud to come right out and ask for help from the government were in bad enough shape that they wanted to hear it was on offer anyway. So he gave them a little something to hang
on to: the hope that there might be someone in Washington who would pay some heed. And Jack Judge was so good at listening and knowing what to say in a neighborly way, that people started to trust him, and as the years went on, they would come up to him in seed stores and wonder out loud why in the world he wouldn't run for something himself. After years of self-effacing hemming and hawing, Jack eventually came around to their point of view and ran for office in the small way that makes democracy real, spending sixty-five dollars on “Vote Judge” signs and getting elected to chair the city council.

“How was that, Jack?”

“Oh I liked it well enough, but you know, everyone takes everything so
. If some old boy had a problem with a traffic light or a neighbor's dog, he'd call me up drunk or even come around and hammer on my door like we should declare war.”

Jack laughed a long happy breakfast-in-Iowa laugh.

“So why do you think it is big, this time?”

“Hell, you know that as well as I do, the country's in bad shape, don't know when I've seen it this bad.”

It wasn't just the steady, muffled drumbeat of other Iowa farm boys coming home to be eulogized in memorial services on the high-school football field, or else hobbling out of ambulances with heartbreaking smiles on their faces while their moms tore themselves up inside what with trying so hard not to cry. No, it wasn't just that which had made Jack Judge furious. It was Hurricane Katrina and the pictures on his television of American
bobbing in the slick. It was the police of Gretna, Louisiana (“Small City, Big Heart” according to the municipal Web site) training their guns at people trying to cross the Mississippi bridge out of harm's way, desperate to find somewhere where they could just take a shower and get a night's sleep. It was the heavily delayed president finally choppering down into the calamity, frowning as he denied that anyone could have seen the levee break coming (many did and had said so to anyone who cared to listen). Then the president grinned broadly while he slung his arm around the shoulders of the director of the Federal Emergency Management Administration, who was supposed to be taking care of the mess, and congratulated him warmly for doing “a heckuva job.” This had really turned Jack Judge's stomach. Like most Americans he
got upset when things didn't work properly, including the obligations of common sense and common decency.

Right now, Jack was worried for his boy, the grandson he'd raised after the boy's mother had taken to drugs. The boy was pretty smart at high-school academics, but his real gift was on the wrestling mat, all-state caliber. He'd wrassled (as Jack sounded it) his way into all the Iowa colleges of his dreams, so that was taken care of, but Jack would sometimes wake up in the small hours worrying about what would happen afterward; whether the boy would be taken in a draft that might have to come if the country continued sending troops every-whichwhere, or what kind of job he could do in rural Iowa, where the economy in both town and country seemed on a slide.

And who from the array of Democrats did Jack think would best look after his grandson's future and America's? “Obama,” he said, somewhat to my surprise. “Seems a down-to-earth guy.” “Obama:
down to earth?”
I marveled, thinking of the Illinois senator's sharp threads, Harvard Law School logic-chopping mind, acquired gospel cadences, and coolcat body language. Not the kind of down-to-earth regular who perched on a lunch-counter stool in Des Moines. But then I was wrong about the kind of place Des Moines actually is. I did think that if the likes of Jack Judge had been smitten as he was in 1960, we were in for an interesting evening.

Just how different this would be from the Iowa caucuses of other election years, no one yet knew. Among both Republicans and Democrats and a whole lot of people who were officially neither, it was already a commonplace that the 2008 election was going to be fateful for the political direction of the United States, and so for much of the rest of the world. Republicans had been shaken by the inability of 150,000 troops in Iraq and Afghanistan to secure the “mission accomplished” that had decorated George Bush's premature victory speech aboard the USS
Abraham Lincoln
on 1 May 2003. As often as they rehearsed the line that after 9/11, the choice was between victory or capitulation to the terrorists, the number who truly believed that was wasting away. Some of them, like the maverick Vietnam War hero and senator from Nebraska, Chuck Hagel, for example, had broken ranks in a storm of indignation, accusing the administration of deceiving the nation by translating grief and anger over 9/11 into a war on a dictatorship
that had nothing to do with the attack, and that to date had cost 4,000 American dead, five times as many gravely wounded, perhaps 100,000 Iraqi dead, a fiscal sinkhole of $10 billion a month, and that had no end remotely in sight. Even staunch loyalists recognized that the unpopularity of the war and the president had contributed to their loss of control of Congress in the midterm elections of 2006. Incumbent hard-line conservatives, like Mike DeWine in Ohio, George Allen in Virginia, and Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania—normally shoo-ins at the midterms—had all forfeited their seats, Santorum by the biggest margin in his state for twenty years.

While the Republicans could feel the ground shifting beneath their feet, they were unsure how to stand before the country. Repudiation of their own eight-year administration was not an option, though some “distancing” seemed prudent. The furthest some of the candidates, Senator John McCain, for example, would go was to concede there had been “mistakes” in planning, both before and after the invasion, but then insisting on the necessity of “staying the course,” the shameful and irresponsible alternative being to “cut and run” as the Democrats proposed. Yet when, in the television debates, the candidate furthest on the right, the Texas congressman Ron Paul, laid into the president, Vice President Dick Cheney, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for putting one over on the country, leading it into a literally interminable conflict, and usurping unconstitutional powers to stifle dissent, you could feel the sweaty shifting of weight right through the plasma. Some of the suits did their best to change the subject to a different threat that would rile up the patriots: illegal immigration. Others, like the former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, threw red meat to the public by retorting to questions about closing Guantánamo that he would rather enlarge it and its powers of interrogation.

For the Democrats, the election of 2008 was going to be balm in Gilead after nearly thirty years of acute suffering. The conservative ascendancy inaugurated by Ronald Reagan had been interrupted by the Clinton victories in 1992 and 1996, but to many in the party those victories seemed pyrrhic after the midterm Republican landslide of 1994 turned control of Congress over to the party determined to correct what they thought had been an electoral freak of nature, by using all the machinery of obstruction in their power to thwart the president's initiatives. Impeachment hadn't helped, nor the Supreme
Court delivering the White House to the candidate who had lost the popular vote. They seemed doomed in the foreseeable future to be tagged as liberal losers, remote from the sentiment of the heartland. It seemed to get even worse when, contemptuous of the weakling notion that they should acknowledge the narrowness of their victory, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney proceeded to act as though they had a triumphant mandate.

BOOK: The American Future
13.1Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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