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France was a land, England was a people, but America, having about it still that quality of the idea, was harder to utter — it was the graves at Shiloh and the tired, drawn, nervous faces of its great men, and the country boys dying in the Argonne for a phrase that was empty before their bodies withered. It was a willingness of the heart.
F. SCOTT FITZGERALD
This is one man's look at his country. It's also a look at America the way we Americans want to be looked at.
For me, it has been a journey of rediscovery, an often nostalgic trip back through the books and movies of my youth and those heroes whom I've never forgotten. It was thrilling to learn that what worked for me then works for me now.
The journey took me further than I expected, back to the very beginning of this country. In uncovering the kinship between my literary and cinematic upbringing and the heroic history of my country, I was struck by the potency of our shared American-ness.
Talk about power. What stirred the souls of our ancestors two centuries ago — and through all the generations in between — still does.
Our cowboy love of freedom is a prime example. While it can mean different things to different people, it's at the center of everything we Americans care about.
But there's a lot more to being — and feeling — American than that. And now's a damn good time to say what it is.
For myself, the answer to the question of just who we are can be found in the great American romance we have been celebrating for over two hundred years. What I mean by that is the picture of America and Americans that grabs at even the toughest heart. The best part of writing this book was revisiting that romance. I went back to my favorite characters — from Shane to Jay Gatsby to Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca. I saw that they are part of something bigger, anchored in our unique history, present even now in our contemporary politics.
What else did I learn?
That being an American means buying into some very distinct notions.
Start with our view of war. Remember the airport scene in Casablanca when Bogie gives up the girl he loves? He does it because he recognizes that even his desire for the beautiful Ilsa doesn't "amount to a hill of beans" in the face of the ascendant Nazi evil. A stateless man of the world, he turns patriot once the stakes are clear.
George Washington would have understood. To the great general of the American Revolution, military action was a "last resort" and nothing more. War should be the exception to American life. He warned in his farewell address to avoid "permanent alliances" that would drag us into other conflicts. "I want an American character that the powers of Europe may be convinced we act for ourselves and not for others," he told his friend Patrick Henry.
In today's world Secretary of State Colin Powell, himself a former general, champions the same view. Like George Washington, he would be at home in Rick's Café Americain. "War should be the politics of last resort," he has written — and I believe he means it.
Our resistance to foreign entanglements is matched by our resistance to big government. It should be no surprise that the most beloved American political movie, Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, is about rot at the top.
Something of a scandal in itself when it opened in 1939, it showed the men running things in Washington as moral eunuchs. Angry senators stormed out of the premiere at Constitution Hall. The politically influential Joseph P. Kennedy, father of the future president, was so outraged that he demanded it be yanked from theaters.
This fable of youthful idealism triumphing over aging cynicism perfectly captures America's mistrust of the ruling elite. We cheer for the gallant young Jefferson Smith, who refuses to be licked even when the entire establishment lines up to destroy him. It was his namesake, Thomas Jefferson, after all, who counseled that "a little rebellion now and then" was good for the country.
The spirit of the rebellious Mr. Smith lives on in the same way as does the reluctant fighter of Bogie's Rick Blaine. If Secretary Powell can be considered the avatar of Bogie and George Washington, Senator John McCain is the embodiment of the democratic pugnacity that fueled the indignation of Jimmy Stewart's Mr. Smith. As a defiant POW in North Vietnam, McCain stood up to his captors. As a U.S. senator, he has fought the corrupt role of money in politics with the same indignation as the celluloid Smith, once stirred to action, did.
There are other distinctly American notions:
We have this peculiar penchant for enshrining misfits as heroes. Think of the driven Ethan Edwards, as played by a demonic John Wayne, in The Searchers or that obsessed loner, Robert De Niro's Travis Bickel in Taxi Driver. We love heroes who wouldn't fit in unless they were heroes. Could this be because we as a country don't quite fit with other countries?
Americans are a self-invented people. Here any person has a right to try and become who he or she wants to be. This could explain why The Great Gatsby retains its hold on our collective imagination. Even as it cautions against the grown-up dangers of acting out a youthful fantasy, it enshrines the lure that brings millions of people to this country ready to learn English, change their names, and grab for the brass ring.
We Americans love people who have proved themselves in action. This goes for writers as well as presidents. Ernest Hemingway is the Great American Writer — but not just because of the books he turned out. He was larger than life, certainly larger than anyone else sitting behind a typewriter. He was shot as an ambulance driver on the Italian front in World War I, ran with the bulls in Spain, and hunted big game in East Africa. By force of his life's example, he took the writer's life out of the garret and placed it against a panorama of high adventure.
Americans cherish the idea that any regular person can rise even to the country's highest office, if they have the right stuff. Three of our most legendary presidents, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, and Harry Truman, had practically no formal schooling. They were common men of uncommon ability, and that was what counts.
Americans root for the underdog. Oprah Winfrey is a media colossus for a reason. She does more than empathize with wounded people trying to heal themselves. She is someone who was hurt herself but refused to quit. This same unwillingness to stay down is what made Rocky a movie that had audiences applauding with tears in their eyes.
We are a country that will not abandon its pioneer past. The American frontier may be gone but its spirit lives on. From Daniel Boone in the Kentucky wilderness to Charles Lindbergh soaring high and alone above the choppy Atlantic to John F. Kennedy and his daring call to shoot for the moon, we Americans don't like to get anywhere second.
We are also a country of unabashed optimism. Even our critics see in us a confidence about our future that sets us apart and that has a way of being self-fulfilling. In what were some of our darkest times — battling a huge economic crisis at home or military foes overseas — Franklin Roosevelt understood the thirst the American people have for optimism. "This great nation will endure as it has endured," he said with perfect confidence that first day from the Capitol steps, "will revive and will prosper." FDR was handsomely rewarded for his optimism with an unprecedented four terms as president.
Finally, we Americans see ourselves endowed with a special destiny. Even before the Puritans reached landfall, John Winthrop spoke of building a "city upon a hill," a role model for all the world. Thomas Paine saw the American Revolution as a break not just with Europe but with the past. "We have it in our power to begin the world all over," he wrote.
I write this book uplifted by the fact that America has outdone the grandest notions of its founders. Yet I worry that we might unknowingly forfeit this legacy of who we are.
I hope, as you read these chapters, you will grasp the stakes. We Americans learn early these notions from our shared past. If we're lucky, they never leave us. They are what make us and our country great. The purpose of this book is to remind us of that single splendid fact.
Copyright © 2002 by Christopher Matthews
Chapter 1: A Self-Made Country
Chapter 2: The Constant Rebel
Chapter 3: The Reluctant Warrior
Chapter 4: Action
Chapter 5: The Common Man
Chapter 6: Underdogs
Chapter 7: The Lone Hero
Chapter 8: Pioneers
Chapter 9: Optimism
Chapter 10: American Exceptionalism
The truth was that Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island sprang from his Platonic conception of himself.
F. SCOTT FITZGERALD, THE GREAT GATSBY