In my early days as a journalist, Theodore H. White was required reading. If you don’t recall Teddy White, think of him as the father of modern political reporting. He is the author of “The Making of the President” series of books, beginning with the 1960 contest between Kennedy and Nixon and ending in 1980 with his two reflective volumes on American history. For a political history of post-World War II America, there is none better.
White’s reporting was entertaining, informative and fascinating. If you haven’t yet, read all his “Making of the President” books, and the two volumes afterward when he couldn’t figure out what was going on in this great country.
I often turn to those two books, “In Search of History,” about post-war America and our influence in the world, and “America In Search of Itself,” which revisits the presidential elections from 1956 through 1976 in the first half, then chronicles the 1980 watershed campaign between Carter and Reagan. I do wish we had a modern Teddy White today, for I feel now the way he did in 1976, when America seemed to be coming apart and none of the old solutions and responses were making any sense.
So I went back to White, to see if he could shed any light on our era. I think he does.
At the end of “America In Search of Itself” he describes the dueling forces of American life — equality and opportunity — this way: “(B)y the time of the 1980 election, the pursuit of equality had created a system of interlocking dependencies, and the American people were persuaded that the cost of equality had come to crush the promise of opportunity.”
But the promise of rampant opportunity during the Reagan, Bush I, and Clinton years left too many American behind. By the end of Bush II’s second term, more and more Americans had a growing sense of inequality. That feeling of inequality first unleashed Obama, and sustained him in his first term. The pushback against Obama is not racial animus, as some of said, but the fear that his effort to fundamentally change America focuses solely on inequality at the expense of opportunity. A great president understands equality and opportunity must be yoked together, for two great a focus on one betrays the other and both are necessary for America to be America.
There are two other issues White identified in his 1980 book that I had hoped would be resolved by now. Instead they’ve grown worse.
Near the end of “America In Search of Itself,” he talks about issues that rise to the status of the ultimate, where unless one knows how to ask the questions, one can never reach the answers.
Two of these ultimate issues are the plight of the great cities and immigration. About our cities, White says: “More money has been spent to save our great cities, and more paper covered with reports on those cities, than on any other concern in America life. Yet they are desperate, more unsafe and more frighteningly trapped than at any time in our history.”
Doesn’t that describe Chicago, with our entrenched gang violence, failing schools and flight of the middle class? We don’t even ask the questions any more. We just count the bodies, calculate the teacher pensions we can’t pay and celebrate the haunts of the 1 percent until a melee on Michigan Avenue or Montrose Beach shatters our illusions.
And about immigration, White asked in 1980: “Can the nation formulate a new national policy on immigration?” White speculated that just thinking about the questions could tear American politics apart.
“Who is entitled to become an American? Should that be decided by culture? By origin? By race? By need? By numbers?”
Our politicians for decades have refused to ask those basic questions, and now that it has reached a crisis point, everyday Americans answer the question of who can become an American out of stupidity and fear. Stupidity says everyone and fear says no one.