- Historic Sites
The American Century
The English journalist has spent more than a decade preparing a book on this country’s role in the most eventful hundred years since the race began. He liked what he found enough to become an American himself.
September 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 5
There are great forces, certainly, but you can’t ignore the importance of individuals throughout. And not just great men. There were so many vital contributions made by Americans you may never have heard of. For instance, the student Freedom Riders or the four young men who sat down one day at a Woolworth’s counter in Greensboro, North Carolina—Blair and McCain 100 and Richmond and McNeil. Or Moses Wright, the sixty-four-year-old tenant farmer who had lived all his life under Jim Crow and was willing to stand up and identify the men who had killed Emmett Till, even under threat of death.
Then there’s the heroism of the Americans who risked their lives to find the cure for yellow fever down in Cuba and Panama: Walter Reed, who really gave his life to it, and the doctors James Carroll and Jesse Lazear. Or Pvt. John R. Kissinger, a regular soldier who was paralyzed after volunteering for the medical experiments but whom Congress refused even to give a pension to for years. Men you don’t normally read about in the history books, although they have been critically important. I wish more were known about them, particularly in the schools. One of the reasons we’ve done this book is to try to give younger people and newer immigrants a sense of the greatness of the people who created this free society they are inheriting.
You also celebrate some great reformers and dissidents who have been largely dismissed or trivialized over the years.
I think it’s tremendously difficult to dissent in this country. Despite all the openness and the guarantees in the Constitution, the paradox is that there is a very strong desire for conformity—stronger than in Europe. So I say thank God for the dissidents—people like Emma Goldman, whom frankly I used to think of as just some violent anarchist who didn’t contribute anything. In fact she contributed a great deal just by extending the boundaries of free expression, and she was savagely treated for it. She said some foolish things, but she was very courageous in standing up for women’s rights and workers, and she saw through the Soviet Union right from the start.
Or Florence Kelley, the great Chicago settlement-house reformer, who was really a very important figure but is nearly forgotten today. Her very anonymity, I think, speaks to how necessary it is to keep reassessing our history.
Another example is Paul Robeson, the great black singer and actor and activist for civil rights decades before Martin Luther King. He was naive about the Soviet Union, I know, but he gave up everything—his career, even his passport—to fight for what he believed in. He was kept a virtual prisoner in his own country. He was always a hero in my household, by the way, because when he came to England in 1949, he walked the whole length of the train platform to shake the grimy hand of my father, who happened to be driving the train. I know it sounds simple and affected today, but he really had a great concern for working people and was willing to put everything on the line for what he believed in.
To return to great men, do you have a favorite President or Presidents?
FDR of course is monumental. Teddy Roosevelt is irresistible. I think Reagan deserves some credit for finishing off the Soviet Union and for setting what the diplomat Jack Matlock called a four-point agenda—arms reduction, withdrawal from Third World countries, respect for human rights, and lifting the Iron Curtain—though I think he did miss an opportunity on arms control in the end. Nixon, though he was a badly flawed man, accomplished some worthwhile things in opening up China, fostering d»tente, and preserving the environment.
Is there any common thread? Any particular key to presidential character?
“In the end the freedom was won by blacks themselves, through their enduring belief . . . and their incredible individual courage.”
I would say the key is a moral vision, a sense of guardianship of the people, if you will. Both Roosevelts had it; Truman had it; Eisenhower had it. A recognition that the people means all the people and not just those economic groups or interest groups that happen to support you.
Besides that, I would say the key is also a capacity to communicate, since so much of the job is about communication, and an ability to concentrate on the large things rather than worry about who’s on the White House tennis court, as Carter supposedly did. And then I think a President has to believe that all things are possible. This country requires it.
Many Americans today, I think, would be hard-pressed to name anyone who could fill that job description. Why?
It is almost impossible now to find the best people in America to serve in public office, and it’s not a situation that will improve in the immediate future unless something is done. The main problem is money; you hear again and again from good people who are bowing out of politics that it has turned into one long, continuous fund-raiser.
If I could make one change, it would be real campaign-finance reform. A second would be a change in the way the media cover politicians—all this irrelevant, prurient interest, often without very high standards or fact checking.
• The Presidency in this century seems to have become quite a burden.