Jewish World Review May 19, 2004 / 28 Iyar 5764
Letter from America
It was wholly a pleasure to receive your request for a radio piece in the tradition of the late Alistair Cooke. He wrote, or rather spoke, the BBC's Letter from America for some 58 years, delivering some 3,000 broadcasts in all. When he began the series in 1946, it was supposed to go on for only 13 weeks, but it got to be a trans-Atlantic habit.
We on this side of the pond came to appreciate him, too, much as an exotic tribe might appreciate an anthropologist who was sympathetic but still clear-eyed. No one sees the workings of a household more clearly than a guest.
It's not easy to get us into focus. Indeed, that may be impossible. As Alistair Cooke well understood. He didn't try to fit all of America into his lens. He knew better than to think he could. Instead, he would choose a sliver of America - a political rally, an assassination, a personal reminiscence or an impersonal statistic - and hold it up to the light, turn it this way and that, and let it reflect the whole.
Here's a sliver of American life that might interest you:
John Kerry was in Little Rock for a campaign appearance last week. A fly-by, really, since the big rally was scheduled for the airport. That's how it's done these days. In the age of the railroad, we had whistle-stops. Now we have touch-downs.
Senator Kerry has sewn up the nomination so early that he isn't campaigning so much as introducing himself, proving his credentials to the party regulars, making the obligatory gestures. Here in Little Rock, that means making a side trip to Doe's Eat Place on Markham Street to pick up a package of hot tamales and chili to go. Sharing the cuisine of the country has always been a kind of bonding. And Doe's was one of the favorite haunts of Arkansas' own prodigal president, Bill Clinton. So this was a two-fer - a double way for the party's nominee presumptive to identify himself with us.
Actually, barbecue would have been more representative of Arkansas than hot tamales and chili, which are more Tex-Mex - while Doe's is an offshoot of a legendary steakhouse across the state line in Greenville, Miss. But the candidate showed the right spirit. Back when Gerald Ford was campaigning in these latitudes, he made the mistake of starting to eat the corn husk in which the tamales are wrapped. But, like John Kerry, he showed the right spirit.
It's not what the candidate says on these trips that counts, it's what he eats. It's the hands he shakes, the names he invites, the gestures he makes to show us he's folks, the Good Ol' Boy credentials he rolls out, even if in the case of a Boston Brahmin, they may have a certain canned quality to them. In these latitudes, gravy comes in two standard flavors - brown and white, meat and cream. But a friend describes John Kerry as clear gravy. Flavorless.
Senator Kerry isn't the kind of candidate who makes a crowd swoon - not yet, anyway, and, I suspect, not ever. He's a long, tall, cool drink of water. Still, he doesn't have to worry about what the pros call Energizing the Base, not so long as George W. Bush is around. What really animated the crowd at the airport was not any great enthusiasm for John Kerry, but its antipathy toward George W. Bush, although antipathy is much too mild a word for it. It's a sheer, visceral force. But it's a force still on the edge of the American political spectrum, off to one side.
It's as if the great behemoth that is American public opinion has scarcely noted this presidential race. At this early point in a presidential campaign that already feels very old, the election mainly interests only the candidates, their more avid followers, and the kind of obsessive political buffs who never lose interest in politics no matter what year it is.
I have yet to detect any groundswell of interest in this presidential election on the part of sane Americans. The rallies, the charges and countercharges, the political commercials that aren't all that different from those for Viagra and Ditech . . . they all tend to blur into a kind of background radiation. Call it the ongoing static of American life.
Our minds are elsewhere just now. It's not the presidential election but the war that keeps tugging at us. Its focus may change from week to week - Baghdad, Fallujah, Najaf - but the war itself goes on. Other issues may arise, but they stay in the background. A war is like that. It won't let you go. A horse race, even a presidential horse race, may break through into the foreground from time to time, but always we return to the war, the war, the war . . . .
Already both left and right grow half sick and all obsessed by the war in Iraq, and bitterly critical of its conduct. Frustration will have that effect. Those who remember the political atmosphere at the time of the Korean War - excuse me, Korean Conflict - will find this breakdown of consensus familiar. Back then, it brought a new president to the White House, someone a deeply divided America felt it could trust. This time there's no Eisenhower in sight for the country to turn to.
It was a general named MacArthur who told us that in war there is no substitute for victory. Well, there's no substitute for it in politics, either. Tell me how the war will be going come election day, and I'll tell you how the election will go. But for now, the election is a side dish, like those tamales.
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