American: Beyond Our Grandest Notions [NOOK Book]

Overview

From Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC's Hardball and NBC's The Chris Matthews Show, and New York Times bestselling author of Now, Let Me Tell You What I Really Think, comes a definitive work on the lifeblood of America -- its enduring spirit.
People have often wondered what makes America truly great. With a citizenry of vastly different races, religions, cultures, and ethnic backgrounds, what intangible bond unites and defines us as "Americans"? In his own inimitable style, Chris ...
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American: Beyond Our Grandest Notions

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Overview

From Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC's Hardball and NBC's The Chris Matthews Show, and New York Times bestselling author of Now, Let Me Tell You What I Really Think, comes a definitive work on the lifeblood of America -- its enduring spirit.
People have often wondered what makes America truly great. With a citizenry of vastly different races, religions, cultures, and ethnic backgrounds, what intangible bond unites and defines us as "Americans"? In his own inimitable style, Chris Matthews offers a portrait of a country born of contradictions. We are a people reluctant to fight, who become ferocious when threatened or attacked. We are a deeply practical nation, yet we stand as the world's great optimists. Inherently suspicious of governmental power, we still embrace our flag in times of danger. Fiercely independent, in love with freedom, and eager to face the future, we are like no other people on earth.
Matthews asserts that our greatest strength is a set of distinct notions that comprise our national character. The self-made man. The reluctant warrior. The lone hero. We celebrate them in our popular culture and throughout our history, from 1776 to 9/11. In American, Matthews explores the best America stands for and portrays our country as a beacon for the modern world -- unafraid of challenges, moving ever forward, and ready and willing to prevail.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
American: Beyond Our Grandest Expectations is Chris Matthews's expansive, unapologetic celebration of the American spirit. Asserting that Americans are unique among the peoples of the world, the MSNBC Hardball host cities examples from 1776 to 9/11 that show how they are united not by race or ethnicity but by threads of beliefs and principles. He names five traits, from love of freedom to romantic optimism, that are shared throughout the nation.
Publishers Weekly
TV pundit Matthews invokes a kaleidoscope of cultural icons, including Lincoln, Bogart, Hemingway, Oprah and the Don't Tread On Me rattlesnake in this giddy, slapdash, intermittently coherent love letter to "American-ness." Matthews boils down this broad idea into some basic-and sometimes contradictory-precepts. Americans, he says, are pugnacious but anti-militaristic; they admire gun-slinging loners and heroic men of action, but love the little guy and underdogs; they are optimists with a manifest destiny and an eye for personal reinvention. Matthews's analysis rarely goes beyond hagiographies of celebrities and politicians and ardent appreciations of movies like Casablanca and Rocky (or in a darker-but still light-mood, Taxi Driver, whose psychotic hero is an "oddly comforting figure from our frontier past" possessed of an "edgy generosity" and "readiness to give all"). Some claims are suspect: that Americans "reject the dandified haberdashery of war," for instance, might come as news to legions of Civil War reenacters. The volume's vaguely populist centrism nods benignly at Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, at pro-gun and pro-choice sentiments, at Vietnam War POW John McCain and Vietnam War draft-dodgers, all of whom partake of our transcendent national essence. His Whitmanesque embrace of contradictions papers over great fissures in American politics and society, but that is precisely the point of Matthews's positive, chest-thumping thesis: it's all good. Photos. (Nov.) Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781476764702
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publication date: 10/1/2013
  • Sold by: SIMON & SCHUSTER
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 256
  • File size: 14 MB
  • Note: This product may take a few minutes to download.

Meet the Author

Chris Matthews is anchor of MSNBC’s Hardball. He is author of Tip and the Gipper, Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero, Kennedy and Nixon, Now, Let Me Tell You What I Really Think, American: Beyond Our Grandest Notions, and Hardball: How Politics Is Played By One Who Knows The Game.
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Read an Excerpt

Prologue

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

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments

Prologue

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

Epilogue

Notes

Illustration Credits

Index

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First Chapter

Chapter 1: A Self-Made Country

The truth was that Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island sprang from his Platonic conception of himself.

F. SCOTT FITZGERALD, THE GREAT GATSBY


There was once an upscale men's shop in the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C., that featured a shiny metal nameplate over the door of its dressing room. It noted that the shop had been honored to have had among its patrons Mr. Cary Grant. It seemed that the gentleman had experienced some unusually warm weather during a visit to Washington and needed a lighter weight suit than he'd brought along. It concluded the historic note by saying Mr. Grant had used this very same changing room to try on his unexpected purchase.

Why would a relatively posh men's store in a high-end neighborhood make such a big deal out of a movie star stripping down to his underwear on its premises? Why would a store serving the well-to-do and the sophisticated get so wobbly in the knees as to give this guy the "George Washington Slept Here" treatment?

The best answer is to see one of his movies.

In a whole string of roles from Topper, Bringing Up Baby, Holiday, and Gunga Din in the 1930s to His Girl Friday, The Philadelphia Story, and Notorious in the 1940s to To Catch a Thief, An Affair to Remember, and North by Northwest in the 1950s, Cary Grant was the very model of the debonair American gentleman. He was both democratic and aristocratic, a man so charming and self-assured that every woman wanted him, every man wanted to be like him. He was an acrobat in a businesssuit, a man of dignity with the subtle physicality of a clown, a regular guy knowing full well how fortunate he was to be wearing such an expensive, well-tailored suit.

"Do you know what's wrong with you?" one of his screen partners had pretended to scold him. "Nothing." Director Alfred Hitchcock dared to say, "Cary's the only thing I ever loved in my whole life."

As a matter of fact, the man we know as Cary Grant loved the idea of becoming this world-class charmer so much that he decided early in his adulthood to do it. Born in Bristol, England, in 1904, Archibald Alexander Leach was the son of a tailor's presser. How he got from there to having his nameplate on a Georgetown men's shop is a great American story.

He began as a working-class English kid doing pantomimes at the theater. Then he got himself into music hall acts mimicking the popular singers of the day. He later picked up some magic tricks. The praise he was denied at home he earned at the theater. Stagestruck, he came to America. Here he picked up odd jobs, earning five dollars a day, ten dollars on Saturday and Sunday, as a stilt-walker on Coney Island.

By 1931, Archie Leach was what he wanted to be -- a working American actor. Landing the part of Cary Lockwood in a Broadway play, he liked the character's first name and decided to take it. He added "Grant" to make him sound more American.

Watching the great playwright-actor Noël Coward in Private Lives he decided to be Coward.

To achieve this transformation, he spent endless hours practicing how Coward walked, how he spoke, even his facial expressions. "I pretended to be somebody I wanted to be and I finally became that person," he would confess years later. "Or he became me. Or we met at some point."

At the age of twenty-seven, the man we would love as Cary Grant was born.

It wasn't as easy as it appeared. "I cultivated raising one eyebrow, and tried to imitate those who put their hands in their pockets with a certain amount of ease and nonchalance. But at times, when I put my hand in my trouser with what I imagined was great elegance, I couldn't get the blinking thing out again because it dripped from nervous perspiration."

What won Grant special devotion, however, was his refusal to deny who he was born. When we in the audience forgot about his background, he would remind us. "Listen!" he erupted in His Girl Friday, "the last man who said that to me was Archie Leach just a week before his throat was cut."

"It was a knowing wink to the audience, his audience, a secret shared with strangers," Grant's biographer Graham McCann noticed. "It was the kind of gesture that would have endeared someone like Cary Grant to someone like Archie Leach. Cary Grant was not conceived of as the contradiction of Archie Leach but as the constitution of his desires."

We couldn't imagine him ever dying, of course. This was especially true as he aged gracefully, giving up films to become an executive with Faberge. "I don't know how I consider death," he said. "So many of my friends have been doing it recently. My only fear is that I don't embarrass others."

He didn't. Grant died at eighty-two during rehearsal for a touring one-man show featuring his old movie clips. "Everybody wants to be Cary Grant," the actor once admitted amid all the fawning. "Even I want to be Cary Grant."

Much like this beloved matinee idol, America itself is a confection. In the years after the Revolution, the Founding Fathers had a vision of a country and government they wanted. They then very consciously, not unlike Archie Leach, turned that vision into reality.

Confecting a Capital

On a June afternoon in 1791, two gentlemen on horseback looked down from Jenkin's Hill onto a stretch of Maryland flatland banking the Potomac River. One, an architect, had designed a new national capital for this spot. The other, a trained surveyor, was the new government's first president.

Both Pierre L'Enfant and George Washington were men of vision and optimism. They had settled on a grand plan indeed: a capital city fit not for what had been just thirteen seaboard colonies but for a vast continental power. Jenkin's Hill, which L'Enfant called a "pedestal waiting for a monument," would one day be called Capitol Hill. L'Enfant's blueprints would become the world capital bearing the name of his companion on horseback that day.

When you think about it, this country designed itself. Just as L'Enfant and Washington built a capital from scratch, so did Thomas Jefferson and James Madison and the others design a new kind of government on a blank page. And if it seemed precocious for a French-born architect who'd never before done anything like it to design a national capital, it was more precocious still for a group of men who had never done anything like it before to confect a country, to guarantee as "unalienable" a set of rights the world had never before recognized, to ensure not only its citizens' lives and liberty but also their right to pursue "happiness."

And just as Washington and L'Enfant set wide bounds for the future growth of the new capital's geography, the designers of the Constitution generously conceived the new nation's freedoms. Americans could decide who they wanted to be and try to become it. A country that had dared design itself based on its own grandest notions would not stand in the way of its citizens harboring and pursuing their own grand notions. America would be a place where a person could be who he or she wanted to be.

And it was to be a place were people thought big.

If L'Enfant could choose a "monumental concept, with a capitol building and a 'president's house' " connected by a grand "public walk" to serve as the national seat for thirteen recently united colonies, then the American people could dare to be equally monumental in charting the contours and heights of their own lives.

Just as this new republic would, in Thomas Paine's words, "begin the world over again," it would certainly be a spacious and adventurous home to those hoping to do that with their own lives and ambitions. America would be a country where anyone could grab a second chance.

Here, the way things are is not the way they have to be. They can be the way individual Americans want them to be.

The Great Gatsby

In a country open to such big notions, the popularity of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby should be no surprise. It's the story of Jay Gatsby, a young soldier training for World War I who meets a beautiful young socialite named Daisy. He falls in love with her only to get a letter while he is serving in the trenches of France, telling him that she has married Tom Buchanan, a wealthy young man from Yale. At a practical level, he'd known it was coming. Rich girls like Daisy didn't marry poor boys like him.

An eternal romantic, our hero refused to accept the verdict. Back from the war, Gatsby makes the right connections and becomes a rich bootlegger. Whatever it takes to become the man Daisy Buchanan would marry, he is prepared to do.

Having enriched himself beyond his wildest dreams, Jay Gatsby now sets about pursuing the only happiness he knows. He buys a giant mansion on Long Island right across the bay from the home of Daisy and Tom Buchanan. From there he maps plans to win her back. He hosts loud and lavish parties open to all in the hope that she will show up at one. Finally, he makes the acquaintance and seeks the aid of his neighbor. Nick Carraway, who he discovers is Daisy's cousin.

Carraway, the story's narrator, doesn't know what to make of the man presiding over the garish mansion next door. "I would have accepted without question the information that Gatsby sprang from the swamps of Louisiana or from the Lower East Side of New York. That was comprehensible. But young men didn't -- at least in my provincial inexperience I believe they didn't -- drift coolly out of nowhere and buy a palace on Long Island Sound."

But Gatsby needed more than money: he needed to be someone who had always had it.

"I'll tell you God's truth," he says to the skeptical Carraway. "I'm the son of some wealthy people in the middle-west -- all dead now. I was brought up in America but educated at Oxford because all my ancestors have been educated there for many years. It is a family tradition."

For Jay Gatsby, the dream Daisy inspired in him is as important as the woman herself. It isn't what she felt, but what he felt.

"I wouldn't ask too much of her," Nick warns him. "You can't repeat the past."

"You can't repeat the past?" retorts an incredulous Gatsby. "Why of course you can!"

And: "I'm going to fix everything just the way it was before....She'll see."

This blind faith that he can retrofit his very existence to Daisy's specifications is the heart and soul of The Great Gatsby. It's the classic story of the fresh start, the second chance.

"The truth was that Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself," Fitzgerald wrote. "He was the son of God -- a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that -- and he must be about His Father's Business, the service of a vast, vulgar, meretricious beauty. So he invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen year old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end."

There was also Gatsby's smile. "It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced -- or seemed to face -- the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just so far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey."

The reader, like Nick Carraway, comes to like this guy. We love his dream because we have, all of us, shared something very much like it. "Gatsby was not a character," said the critic Alfred Kazin, "but an idea of the everlasting self-creation that Americans have mastered."

Gatsby, for me, is undeniably the great American novel. We celebrate its hero and his "heightened sensitivity to the promises of life," his "extraordinary gift for hope," his "romantic readiness," because we as a country share every bit of it.

Grace Kelly

People think of Grace Kelly, the actress who became a European princess, as someone born to the role. In reality, Grace Patricia Kelly of East Falls, Philadelphia, was never a debutante, never applied for admission nor was received in Main Line society. She was a Roman Catholic and newly rich, a double bar to the ultra-restrictive social registry of that day.

But while she was never invited to make her debut by the Philadelphia Assemblies, she did possess an early claim to prominence: her father was a wealthy building contractor: "Kelly for Brickwork" was a familiar sign at area job sites.

John B. "Jack" Kelly was also a famous sculler in a city that to this day attaches great importance to the rowing sports. Yet he had become famous in his hometown as much for a notorious rejection as for his achievements. In 1919, Grace's dad was scratched as an entry in the Diamond Sculls at England's Henley Royal Regatta on the grounds that he had performed manual labor -- that is, he had worked with his hands. He was not, according to the Regatta's encrusted code, a gentleman.

Kelly reared his only son and namesake to one day avenge the slight. Grace, his second daughter, got no such paternal attention.

When she gained admission to New York's American Academy of Dramatic Arts in September of 1947, her dad was supremely unimpressed.

That would change.

Grace Kelly's ambition was to be the greatest Hollywood movie star ever. Two factors in her makeup made that a credible goal: the blond German beauty of her mother, combined with the Irish drive of her father.

However, the first sacrifice required of her was a daunting one. It was the way she talked: that grating Philly accent had to go. She could never be a big star with the sound of the rowhouses in her voice. She either had to lose it or give up on her dream.

"You have got to get rid of that terrible twang!" an Academy tutor would tell her point-blank. And so she did. For this, the American Academy of Dramatic Arts was perfectly suited. "It takes a trained ear to detect all errors of pronunciation, accent and emphasis," its brochure advertised, "but by careful and persistent criticism, the dialects of Pennsylvania or New England, of Canada or the South, are at last dethroned."

"When Grace Kelly pronounced the word 'rotten' you could hear every single 't' and a few more beside," biographer Robert Lacey reports, "while her vowel sounds, tugged firmly away from East Falls, had ventured out across the Atlantic to hover remarkably close to the British coast."

Grace no longer talked like her father, her mother, her brother or her sisters. To make her voice deeper and more resonant still, she would spend hours talking with a clothespin clasped to the end of her nose.

Her family was merciless. They called it "Gracie's new voice." A friend, hearing her at a cocktail party, decided she was actually speaking in a "British accent." Grace defended herself, saying frostily, "I must talk this way for my work."

"She got away from home early," her brother, Jack Kelly, Jr., agreed in admiration. "None of the rest of us managed to do that."

Her legendary film roles included High Noon with Gary Cooper; Mogambo with Clark Gable, for which she won an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress; Dial M for Murder with Ray Milland; Rear Window with Jimmy Stewart; The Country Girl with Bing Crosby, for which she won the Oscar for Best Actress; and To Catch a Thief with Cary Grant, which brought her to the principality of Monaco and her final role.

It was when she came home to East Falls with that Academy Award for Best Actress -- a certified movie queen -- that she and her father experienced what I can only call a "Gatsby" moment. More than being simply her father's daughter, Grace Kelly now was greater than that. Her stardom made her the child of her own ambition. For the first time, the self-made, self-satisfied John B. Kelly had to accept that his offspring was daughter to a greater dream than his own.

This daughter, to whom he had given the least attention, the one in whom he had invested the least, the one who shared least in his love and devotion to athletic achievement, was now "Grace Kelly."

The joining of her aristocratic manner -- so assiduously honed at acting school -- to her American ambition was what it took to put the icing on the cake. Grace Kelly was about to become Her Serene Highness, Princess Grace of Monaco. Her tabloid-glamorous marriage to Prince Rainier elevated her even above her role as an American star. A queen of the silver screen, she was now the genuine article. When she died in a car crash in 1982, she was mourned as a royal. Her memory is cherished not least in our shared hometown, Philadelphia.

Ralph Lauren

The acronym WASP, for white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, was coined by Professor Digby Baltzell to describe the typical member of Philadelphia's Main Line society. Its allure arises as much from its exclusivity as from any inherent charm. But let's face it, it sells -- cars, clothes, furniture, dreams.

Just check the latest edition of Vanity Fair.

"My look is not really European," Ralph Lauren has said. "It's an American's visualization of Europe in the 1930s. I look in from the other side." We can see in the faces in his Polo ads that easy arrogance that says "I was born to this." Just as Daisy Buchanan's voice carried the sound of money, Ralph Lauren's designs would give his customers the look of money.

But Lauren's true "other side" is Ralph Lifshitz, the ambitious designer son of Russian Jewish immigrants. The tanned, handsome man recognizable everywhere from the gorgeously patrician layouts selling his clothing and cosmetics started out as a Bronx salesman of gloves, ties, and perfume.

Lauren's big break came when in 1967 he managed to convince a leading neckwear company to carry a line of neckties that he had designed. The ties, constructed from leftover fabrics found in warehouses, were wider than the narrow ties fashionable in those years. Americans loved them, and an empire was born.

Say this for Ralph. He knew what we wanted because he was us. Growing up, young Lifshitz -- just as we did -- fell for screen stars Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart, and Katharine Hepburn, attracted to their grand sense of style. And it's precisely their classic American aesthetic he's spent his life marketing. It didn't surprise me to learn that the staples of his line aren't so very different from the costumes he designed for the 1974 remake of The Great Gatsby.

The writer Neal Gabler argues that Lauren's popularity comes from knowing that Americans will "pay to transform their lives into their cinematic fantasies: safari outfits to make one a colonialist from Out of Africa; denim jackets and jeans to make one a cowboy from a Hollywood western; finely tailored English suits to make one an aristocrat from any number of crisp drawing room melodramas."

Lauren's flagship store on upper Madison Avenue, once a stately mansion, is the temple of assimilation where the newly rich come to worship the old rich and leave carrying clothes and furnishings that promise not just a comfortable look but a comforting history.

Lauren's furniture is "cunningly cinematic," writes Lauren-watcher Elizabeth Grice. "Long Island beaches, log cabins, English country houses, garden parties, the African bush. He dressed houses the way he dressed people, always mindful of the yearning for romance and escape...and the seductiveness of ideas."

The great seduction of America, he was not the first to notice, is that wildest of personal liberties: to be who you want to be.

A Self-Made People

To understand Americans, start with the fact that we're a self-made country.

It's an important notion. Free people gathered, articulated a social philosophy, designed a government and approved blueprints for a capital. Able to choose between British rule and self-government, they chose the latter, then defended the decision by force of arms. They discarded the society of their birth and constructed a new society of their choice. Had there not been an American Revolution, a Declaration of Independence, and a Constitution -- all freely agreed to -- there would not be a United States of America.

This was not the case for the British or the Germans or any other nationality from which we descended. Some of these evolved through tribe, treaty, and war, which was the pattern in Europe and Asia; others were carved up by imperial fiat, the norm in much of Africa and Latin America.

Many Americans would also create themselves personally.

Here a man or woman could change names, assume a new identity, hang out with other people who'd done likewise. It is the rare old acquaintance, much less a new one, who would question you seriously about your lineage or even ask casually what your father did for a living.

Such indifference to family and background leaves doors open here in socially mobile America that would be sealed shut in other, older, more regimented societies. Had Archie Leach stayed home in Bristol, England, Cary Grant would never have been born. Were this not America, a country where such things are possible, Grace Patricia Kelly would not have become a princess.

This freedom wasn't given to America. Rather, we grabbed it, held it, made it part of our Constitution. It shines today as our greatest national treasure. This country wasn't here when we got here. If we are as wise as we've been fortunate, that's something we'll never forget.

Copyright © 2002 by Christopher Matthews
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