As I mull over preparations for a visit to the US next May, I found myself returning time after time to the same question: who should I expect to find this time? And why should it be a matter of significance?
This is not about regional variations. I recognize that diversity has always been a defining characteristic of the USA. And I have been lucky enough experience it at first hand, sometimes over extended periods. My first visit – in 1968, as a young student - set the scene. Driving down the Pacific Coast Highway, I found myself at Big Sur in the (slightly drunk) company of a couple of marines from the nearby naval base who were on their way to Vietnam; then I was in LA when Bobby Kennedy was assassinated and Watts went up; in San Antonio when Julius Boros beat Arnold Palmer by one stroke in the USPGA, thus preventing him from claiming in the only Major he never won; in Miami in August when, at the GOP Convention, Richard Nixon caused some consternation by nominating Spiro Agnew as his VP candidate - “Spiro who?!” On the way up the east coast, I stopped off in Savannah, Atlanta, Charleston, Richmond, DC (the first of many visits), Baltimore and Philadelphia, before eventually flying home from New York. Since then I've added San Francisco, Chicago New Orleans and Boston to the list. Wasps and Hispanics, bible belts and beltways, fly-over states and Keys, Razorbacks, Yankees and Cowboys, bluegrass and Red Sox – the variations implicit in these terms should alert the visitor not to expect any single “national character”.
Nor it is about history. US history is fascinating, partly because so much is packed into so little time, partly because it holds one of the keys to how the nation became what it is today. I wrote after my last visit in 2011 of my admiration for the way you present your past – from the great, and tragic, battlefields of Virginia to the revolutionary events staged in Philadelphia and Boston. Even the youngsters queueing up to see Benjamin Franklin's study weren't too unruly. If anything, American history is borne on a dynamic of change.
Nor is it about stereotypes, political or celluloid. On this side of the “pond”, we are quite well versed in images of US heroism – from George Washington onwards, of the principles of liberty and freedom enshrined in the Constitution, and the likes of Lincoln, Roosevelt (x2) and Reagan who gave expression to them; of the great (and no-so-great) 19th and early 20th century capitalists and criminals, the Vanderbilts, Carnegies and Capones; and of the unrivalled start-up capacity that has spawned the Gates, Dells and the Jobs. Resent their success we might, but we can't deny their impact.
So why am I apprehensive about who I will find this time around? Just because here we are prey to all sorts of doubts and uncertainties about our identity and future – as Dean Acheson put it, “having lost an empire and not found another role” - why should I imagine that the short-term whims of politics, from Tea Parties to Obamacares, should have disturbed the abiding consistency of the American self-image? No reason at all – except for a reading of history that suggests – to paraphrase an English aristocrat - “power changes, and absolute power changes absolutely”. A few years ago a friend of mine suggested that the best way to understand Americans was to look at the most powerful brand images in the States. These were, according to him: 1. The Marlborough Man; 2. Harley-Davidson; and 3. the NY Yankees. Somewhere in this iconic mix I'd find the timeless essence of the American. As an outsider, writing to Insiders, my question is: “Do you believe this still holds true? Or should I prepare myself for a radically different species: the 21st century American?
Excuse my ramblings. They are born of a genuine fascination and respect. I'll close by quoting a few lines penned by one of your most popular (I think!) and influential 20th century Presidents of a colleague: "He is", he wrote:
“America incarnate - sham-hating, hard-working, crackling with jokes upon himself, lacking in pomp but never dignity....a great, boyish, wholesome, shrewd, sincere, kindly gentleman.”
I'll buy a drink for the Insider who can identify the Speaker and a bottle for identifying his Subject!