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Our Times... And Mine
A newsman returns to a classic work by a famous predecessor and finds that Mark Sullivan’s vanished America has something to tell us
May/June 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 3
Mark Sullivan tells of a nation consumed by optimism. He sees pride in our shared past and no doubts in the wonders of our anticipated future. The very nature of this history—one that sets daily life and the “average American” alongside Presidents and captains of industry—is quintessentially American and may even be a leap of faith in the grandest tradition of the American experiment, whose inventors dared trust that “We, the People” would indeed be wise and strong enough to lead the new nation.
This attitude extends beyond the “can-do spirit” we heard praised by our grandparents; it exceeds the nationalistic fervor that informed the war with Spain. It is nearer to the bravado shown by the kind of legendary American who bursts into London or Paris proudly declaring himself the equal of, if not better than, the crowned heads of Europe.
Sullivan was less boisterous in his optimism but nonetheless remarkable. He could look on the leaders of the U.S. government, most of whom he knew personally, yet summon what appears to be boundless admiration, especially for Theodore Roosevelt. Sullivan is capable of skepticism—no reporter can have been a muckraker, as he was, without a healthy dose of that—but he is never cynical.
Teddy Roosevelt looms like a colossus over our times. And it is his writing about Roosevelt that best illustrates the generosity and guilelessness of Sullivan’s optimism.
Sullivan’s optimism remains resilient even when confronted by the disappointments that characterize the second half of his history: the decline of the Progressive movement, the retreat of the United States from the world arena, and the death of Roosevelt himself. Certainly the Great Depression is a mess, Sullivan might say, but it’s no match for American energy and spirit (and it probably could have been avoided if we’d stayed more true to our duty—or elected leaders more like Teddy).
Roosevelt looms like a colossus over Our Times . He dominates the first half of the history; his absence dominates its second half. And it is his writing about Roosevelt that best illustrates the generosity and guilelessness of Sullivan’s optimism.
Sullivan identifies, analyzes, and praises Roosevelt’s use of “balanced sentences,” the way TR seldom addressed one view without allowing for its opposite. Today’s reporters might well describe that as waffling, not balance, a sign of weakness, not of comprehension (even though many reporters, especially those for broadcast networks, are often required to employ exactly the same kind of balanced sentences). Roosevelt, Sullivan observes, can’t resist a challenge; throw down the gauntlet, and he will pick it up. Today we might call that dangerous, hotheaded, or at the least thin-skinned. Yet again and again Sullivan succeeds in demonstrating that the qualities Roosevelt brought to public office—intelligence wedded to emotion, seriousness of thought coupled with swiftness of action—were exactly those that served him and the country well.
The reader of Our Own Times must, however, question whether Roosevelt could have succeeded if his constituents, Sullivan among them, had not also been endowed with certain qualities amenable to his own, including that willingness to appreciate and admire the best intentions and best efforts of a public figure. Did Teddy Roosevelt have “spin doctors” who told Sullivan just how wonderful the President was, or did Sullivan arrive independently at that conclusion? How much does hindsight, ours as well as Sullivan’s, improve Roosevelt’s appearance? And how much would we benefit from (or be betrayed by) adapting Sullivan’s attitudes toward our own leaders?
After reading Our Times , we might wonder why Mount Rushmore contains portraits of any President but TR. Even without Sullivan’s help he has become a beloved character in our national folklore—the teddy bear and the grin saw to that—yet, much as we may love him in retrospect, how would we have felt listening to his Bull Moose campaign song, “Onward, Christian Soldiers”? In Our Own Times politicians promise to force their religious or cultural beliefs (or lack of same) on the rest of the country. Would Sullivan’s old-fashioned optimism protect us sufficiently from politicians who aren’t as nice as Teddy?
I am often struck by how little we recall the way that same optimism did once protect us—at the very time Our Times was written. It is easy, too easy, to forget how close the United States got during the Great Depression to domination by the forces of fascism and communism, forces that came not from any foreign threat but from within our own borders. Economic hardship brought desperation and a desire for quick, easy solutions; fascism and communism seemed like such solutions. Charismatic leaders offered well-turned speeches, preyed upon fears and hatred, and offered salvation at the low cost of our liberty. Liberty always seems least valuable when it hasn’t been lost.