- Historic Sites
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
My parents were exactly the kind of people the demagogues sought to sway. They enjoyed some respect in their community, but not because they were wealthy or extensively educated; they worked with their backs and their hands. The Communists would have been quick to call them “working-class Americans,” but my parents would have been just as quick to deny that America had a class system.
In the main, my parents and Americans just like them resisted the demagogues and the seductive charms of authoritarian rule; they couldn’t believe things had gotten so bad that they would actually need to abandon democracy. They remained true to their own principles, and they survived. Only a fundamental confidence in this country’s institutions, and optimism for their future, could have seen them through the Great Depression.
Perhaps it was easier for my parents’ generation to retain that optimistic spirit, since they were closer to the golden age of Theodore Roosevelt and Mark Sullivan, and closer, too, to the eras of Washington and Jefferson and of Lincoln. The lessons of history were still fresh to them, what we call the good old days were a living memory, and the disappointments of today had not been visited upon them. In more complicated times some would say that optimism is no longer feasible, and may even be harmful.
Some would point back to the familiar list of modern disillusionments: Vietnam, Watergate, the Iranian hostage crisis, and the Iranian arms scandal. I reported every one of those disillusionments. As the White House correspondent for CBS News during the Nixon administration, I missed several important early leads and exclusive stories because I was reluctant to believe that this country’s highest officials could be guilty of such widespread criminal activity. I had been brought up with an abiding faith in my country’s leaders and a tremendous respect for the Presidency. Only when brought face-to-face with extensive irrefutable documentary evidence did I come to accept the repellent truth. Doubtless thinking of such incidents, in which the faith of the citizenry is abused by the leadership, the cynics today insist that Americans cannot afford optimism, even if we could regain it.
But I disagree. We cannot afford to do without optimism. We have been sorely disappointed, but optimism has, if not softened the blows, at least shown us the light at the end of the tunnel. My own faith in this country’s system of government was confirmed at the time of the Watergate scandals, the very time when it might have taken its worst bruising. Although one President resigned in disgrace, another stepped in peacefully, lawfully, hopefully. It was not only our legal Constitution but also our spiritual constitution that carried the day—exactly as all our antecedent optimists hoped they would.
Our lives are surley more complicated than the© lives of Our Times . We haven’t the luxury of time that our ancestors, our parents, or even our former selves once did. A proliferation of communications media distributes information, factual or not, more widely than our forebears would have dreamed possible. We have more information, of more kinds, through more means than ever before. And it is no longer possible even for latter-day Mark Sullivans to pretend that ours is a nation entirely composed of white males. We cannot help seeing a rainbow of faces, hearing a chorus of voices, when we consider our America today. That diversity provides energy and strength, but it can also make more difficult the teaching of valuable lessons. The prescriptions of the Founding Fathers may have saved our skins during the Watergate crisis, but those men two hundred years ago were white slaveholders who denied their wives and daughters the right to vote and whose sons would oppress the native population across the continent. Knowing all these things, we find it more difficult to hold up as paradigms the people, or even the words and feelings, that built this country.
Admitting that optimism is valuable, how can we encourage it? How can we teach it to our children when our history tells of disillusionment and schism, of demoralizing events and shaming truths? A school district in Florida recently came up with a suggestion: Teachers would be required to tell students that the American culture is superior to all others. The proof of this superiority, they said, was that America had outlasted all other cultures, meaning presumably the Soviet Union. (The ancient Egyptians, whose culture lasted thousands of years, would surely be amused by the idea of a two-century-old culture’s having “lasted.”)