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
Oh, yes. I think the intellectual life of the country is still very strong. Certainly there is a sort of intellectual corruption that can come from having so much of the media controlled by these giant entities. But overall it’s still very strong, and I think that all the contentiousness in academia, even when it’s sometimes over silly things, shows that people still care.
By writing history, you are venturing into what has become one of the most contentious realms.
Well, it’s actually a great time to be writing history because there is so much openness. Everything is open to debate, including whether history itself is over, which I believe is decidedly not the case.
What has surprised you most in this constant debate, this reassessment of the American past?
What has always struck me most is how close the past is in this country. For instance, one of the first things in our book is how Geronimo was finally arrested. When I first came over, forty years ago, I drove up to a little house in a town in Oklahoma, and there was this man bent double trying to push an ancient Model T Ford out of the mud. His name was Jason Betzinez, and he was the last living Apache to have ridden with Geronimo. He was ninety-odd years old and had recently broken his back, and there he was pushing his Model T. I have my snapshot of him in the book.
That’s the incredible thing, that you can just reach out with your hand and touch so much of this nation’s history. We have an extraordinary picture from a man named Walter Karliner who runs a shop up in Connecticut. As a boy he was one of the German Jewish refugees on the transatlantic journey of the liner St. Louis that became known as the voyage of the damned. The ship was supposed to take him and his family to Cuba, but it got all the way to Havana only to be turned away, and Congress and the Roosevelt administration would not give the passengers asylum. Eventually European countries took them in, but most of the passengers still died in the Holocaust. Walter and his brother made it out and later became American citizens, but all the rest of his family—his mother, his father, both his sisters—perished in the camps. He very kindly provided us with this heartbreaking picture of himself and his sister Ruth, smiling on the deck of the liner, full of hope about the promise of America. That’s how close our history is.
“That’s the incredible thing, that you can just reach out with your hand and touch so much of this nation’s history.”
Young as this nation is, are our democratic institutions in danger of atrophying? For better or worse, hasn’t the executive branch generally dominated the legislative in this century?
I think the change in the Presidency is emblematic of the vast increase in federal power, which is clearly something many Americans regret. Yet to some degree this was inevitable, considering the pace at which the world has moved in this century and the natural presidential advantage in foreign affairs.
Congress’s role in this century has become less to initiate and more to serve as a brake on runaway presidential power. But this function is still very vital. When it gave up its war-making powers after World War II, the result was disaster in Vietnam. Congress also failed to take up the slack very quickly in the McCarthy period, when President Eisenhower was less than forthcoming in confronting the threat to civil liberties, though of course some brave people in Congress and in the press did eventually stand up.
It seems now that Congress has also largely abdicated its role as a deliberative body.
It’s very sad to go into the Senate today and see how no one’s there, how the senators are just speaking for the cameras on C-SPAN. It’s enough to make one wonder whether we’re ready for a dramatic change in the way the country is run, perhaps with instant r»f»rendums, but then you see how that sort of thing has come to plague California over the past twenty years. The referendum and the initiative are classic Populist solutions, but they can be very easily manipulated today. I prefer Edmund Burke’s idea that you elect representatives not simply to do what you want but to use their best judgment.
Another recent nostrum has been term limits.
I’m personally against them because I think the outrageously bad incumbent can be removed at the polls and the average incumbent, with his knowledge and experience, is of value.
Would you apply that to the Presidency as well?
I would not have a limit on the Presidency. It both undermines the ability of Presidents to get things done and makes them less accountable.
How about the third branch of the federal government, the Supreme Court? You might say it has been the Century of the Court as well as of the Presidency.