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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
“And then I think a President has to believe that all things are possible. This country requires it.”
It really has, when you consider that four Presidents—McKinley, Harding, FDR, JFK-didn’t make it out alive. Another one, Wilson, barely did. Hoover and Lyndon Johnson and possibly Carter came out all but broken in spirit. Nixon resigned. Five of the last eleven Presidents have been shot at: FDR, Truman, Kennedy, Ford, and Reagan.
Of course, the power of the Presidency has grown astoundingly. At the beginning of the century there was hardly anybody in the White House. The President would answer his own telephone. He would walk into the street with perhaps one Secret Service agent. And then we have a photograph of the end of Arcadia: Warren Harding joins Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone, and John Burroughs on their annual tented nature trip, and Harding for the first time has along a Secret Service man with a radio—the harbinger of the man with the nuclear codes in a football.
It does seem to be the century of tragic Presidents. Does one stand out?
I’m fascinated most of all by Woodrow Wilson and his—how can I put it?—self-defeating idealism. A man of enormous gifts and eloquence, made weak by time and fate. Then there’s Herbert Hoover, the great engineer. A man of great principle and integrity, a humanitarian, who ran famine relief so well in Belgium and Russia and who even started some of the antidotes to the Great Depression, but too late.
How about a villain? In or out of the Oval Office?
The obvious one is Nixon, though of course he did the most damage of all to himself. The other obvious ones are Joe McCarthy and Roy Cohn, and before that A. Mitchell Palmer, with their assaults on innocent people. And J. Edgar Hoover. And Breckinridge Eong, in the State Department, trying to downplay the Holocaust during World War II. Yet most of the people we cover are really too complicated to be dismissed simply as villains.
You’ve worked with some outstanding Americans yourself over the past couple of decades. Whom did you find the most interesting?
Interesting being the key word, I would have to say Richard Nixon. For the most admirable, I would say Colin Powell. But Nixon was a bewilderment to himself as well as to the rest of us, a dark, tormented man but a statesman with an original strategic vision and brilliant insights. Every time I met him he would surprise me with different perspectives: his views on Woodrow Wilson’s moralism, a dissection of Republican candidates, a reassessment of Eisenhower’s decision not to try to capture Berlin. And always there was the faint, tantalizing possibility that he would ruminate on his own downfall. That’s certainly the sort of thing that makes a man interesting.
Do you have a favorite era?
Oh, the Roaring Twenties. Despite the contempt of the intellectuals for America at that time—despite the very real corruption and the complacency—there was a tremendous ferment, of literature, of culture, and of freedom. There was a great surge in levels of general education, and the winning of woman suffrage, and the rise of women in general. The proliferation of books, and music, and new magazines. At the same time, all the characters of the period seem painted in particularly gaudy colors. Al Smith in politics, Capone and George Remus in gangland, Tex Guinan, even Coolidge—they’re all fascinating.
Do you have a favorite historian?
Oh, there are so many of them. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., of course; John Kenneth Galbraith in economics; Allen Weinstein and Michael Beschloss on the Cold War; Barbara Tuchman on the outbreak of the First World War; and Doris Kearns Goodwin on Eyndon Johnson. Taylor Branch is inspiring, in his books on King and the civil rights movement. From a more radical perspective, there’s Nell Irvin Painter, and Lawrence Goodwyn on the Populists. William Manchester is a wonderful storyteller. Stephen Ambrose is a delight. Recently I’ve very much enjoyed reading Jack Matlock and David Remnick on the fall of the Russian empire.
Then there are the figures themselves. Political autobiography is inevitably self-serving, but I’ve had great insights from reading Paul Nitze, Nixon, Kissinger, and Dean Acheson.
Again and again we see how a book has made a crucial difference in America. Can it still?
It is a splendid tradition, and it speaks again to the absolute need for free speech. You have Rachel Carson and Silent Spring , Gunnar Myrdal with An American Dilemma on race, Michael Harrington with The Other America on poverty, all the different things Ralph Nader has written on consumer safety, Jane Jacobs on cities. Then, in journalism, of course, you have Woodward and Bernstein and the rest of the Watergate reporting, and back in the Progressive Era you have the muckrakers. And even before that you have the Populists ingeniously organizing speakers’ bureaus, simply sending people out to sell their fellow farmers on very complex ideas about economics. And later, in yet another medium, you have Edward R. Murrow reporting over the radio from London and then his television documentaries on migrant workers and exposing McCarthy.
Is it still possible? To change American society through a book, I mean? Or for that matter, a television show?