In 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville began a nine-month journey in search of what he later called "Democracy in America." Using Tocqueville's original notes, Richard Reeves retraced those travels, going to the same places to find the modern counterparts of the Americans.
The Americans of the 1830s and the Americans of the 1980s are the subject and the glory of American Journey. For two men, the Frenchman and the American, traveling the United States was an adventure of the road and of the mind.
Tocqueville and Reeves both began their journeys in Newport, Rhode Island, and then traveled through New York and Philadelphia, crisscrossing the country to Michigan in the north and Louisiana in the South. But Tocqueville's ride from the St. Clair River to the wilderness of Saginaw Bay became, for Reeves, a walk in the wilderness of Detroit.
Tocqueville's conversations with an embittered ex-President, John Quincy Adams, echoed over the years when Reeves asked similar questions of Richard Nixon. The presidents of Harvard University, 150 years apart, each presented a book to the traveler: Tocqueville's was a volume on the duties of public officials; Reeves was given a book about coping with the stress of daily life. Tocqueville interviewed the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence, Charles Carroll, the richest man in America. Reeves traced the signer's lineage to the direct descendent who was not admitted to the great medical school that stands on an old family estate.
Who are these nomad people, the Americans? How does this democracy of theirs work? Tocqueville asked and answered those questions in his time. Reeves, one of the finest of modern American political writwers, asked them again of the governors and the governed, of presidents and priests, of laborers and lawyers. In offices in Washington, prison cells in Philadelphia, banks in Manhattan, and classrooms in Boston and Los Angeles, Reeves recorded the words and ideas that have made America resonate throughout those 150 years of revolutionary change. The writer cannot contain his wonder at the consistency of the character and ideas that have continued to give us energy during two centuries. Americans are the same -- a breed apart with our passion for equality and our colonial suppression of Indians and many blacks, with our celebration of dissent and our dedication to conformity, with our belief in our own stirring rhetoric and our attempts to be better as a people than we know we are as individuals.
For a time, the two travelers part. Not only does Reeves talk with Americans in a West beyond the Mississippi River, but the American is more optimistic than the Frenchman was. Tocqueville believed that a democratic could never rise above themselves and their own petty demands and hatreds. Reeves discovered, almost with astonishment, a people better than his predictions, better than their leaders -- and, at their best, almost as good as their ideals.
Reeves, in an original and provocative analysis, concludes that the Republic and federalism are both collapsing in the face of more and more democracy -- and that Americans are better and happier for that.
American Journey is an adventure because Americans, Reeves found, are adventurers -- struggling, sometimes stumbling, toward a greater democracy in America.
"Reeves' reporting and analysis compare well with Tocqueville's own, which is to say they are first-rate." John Skow, Time
The International Herald Tribune is gone after more than 125 years as the American paper in France and then all over the world. Two months ago, it was renamed The International New York Times. That's a bit sad for someone like me who began at the New York Herald Tribune before it folded in 1966. Luckily, I was picked up by The Times, so my loyalties are split.
NEW YORK — Twenty-five years ago, I asked Charles Bartlett, a syndicated columnist, about his old and close friend John F. Kennedy. I have seen his answer published and broadcast dozens of times these past weeks as the nation marks the anniversary of the assassination of our 35th president.
NEW YORK — It was the usual suspects taping the Charlie Rose show last Monday: a quartet of writers who had written books about the life or the presidency of John F. Kennedy — Robert Dallek, Michael Beschloss, Jeff Greenfield and me, along with Jill Abramson, the editor of The New York Times.
LOS ANGELES — The president knew. Presidents always know, but are supposed to be protected from what they saw, heard and did when the best-laid plans hit the fan.
LOS ANGELES — Perhaps those tea party guys are smarter than they look. After all, these men and women in Congress came to Washington determined to cripple big government — or even destroy it. They, 30 or 40 bent Republicans, were mad as hell at where the country is going and how it is governed. Now, with a minimum of sabotage, millions and millions of Americans, Republicans and Democrats alike, share their hatred of Washington.
LOS ANGELES — Several years ago, Mike Pence, then a Republican congressman from Indiana, told Andrea Mitchell that Medicare was a failure because its costs had exceeded 1965 actuarial estimates. So they have, because Americans are living longer, largely because of Medicare and Medicaid.
WASHINGTON — If the Republicans in Congress are unable to prevent the United States from paying its bills later in this month of shutdowns and deficit limits, I assume their next move will be an attempt to impeach President Obama.
LOS ANGELES — Dana Milbank of The Washington Post reported on a meeting recently at the Heritage Foundation, the very conservative "think tank" in Washington, to discuss the terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans on Sept. 11, 2012.
LOS ANGELES — "It might be called the age of the genius machines, and it will be the people who work with them that will rise. One day soon we will look back and see that we have produced two nations — a fantastically successful nation, working in the technologically dynamic sectors, and everyone else. Average is over."
WASHINGTON — Syria: We're damned if we do, damned if we don't.
WASHINGTON — The power of historians and of the press is that they get to choose which events will be remembered and which fade into obscurity. Our choice concerning the events of Aug. 28, 1963, made with the help of news film, is the elevation of the performance and words of Martin Luther King Jr. and the obscuring of the fear that gripped the nation that hot and sunny day.
NEW YORK — Five years after Richard Nixon resigned as president, I did a long interview with him in his hideaway office in a downtown federal building. We were talking about the travels and writings of Alexis de Tocqueville, the French author of "Democracy in America." I was then seeking out the current counterparts of the Americans who talked with Tocqueville during his nine-month journey through the new and democratic United States in the 1830s.
LOS ANGELES — Fair warning: This column is about gigabytes of data collected by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, focusing mainly on Gini coefficients for the 34 member nations of the OECD. The purpose of this exercise, is to try to use OECD data and analysis to determine whether life in the United States is getting better or worse by studying statistics on inequality in our nation.
LOS ANGELES — A Republican pollster named Jon Lerner, who usually works for the most conservative of his party's candidates, did a poll this month for Fwd.us, the pro-immigration lobby financed by Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook.
LOS ANGELES — In 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville, the young Frenchman traveling in the United States to research what many think is still the best book on America and Americans, was seated next to former President John Quincy Adams at a dinner in Boston. They talked:
LOS ANGELES — In the days following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the Federal Bureau of Investigation began arresting, without charges, Japanese immigrants in California, Oregon, Washington and Hawaii who were on government lists as possible threats to national security.
WEST HOLLYWOOD, Calif. — "Give us also the right to our existence!" was a prayer that ends "The Well of Loneliness," an English lesbian novel by Radclyffe Hall, published in 1928. Tame by today's standard, the semi-autobiographical book was banned in Great Britain and had great trouble finding an American publisher.
LOS ANGELES — If you walk into a Barnes & Noble store — yes, there are actual bookstores here — you are more or less surrounded by tables and shelves marked "Beach Reading." But if you're not going to the beach anytime soon, there are three very good books farther in the back. The titles are enough to make your head hurt:
SAG HARBOR, N.Y. — In a place of honor on my office wall is a photograph of me relieving myself in the bushes alongside the field where some of us here play softball on summer Saturdays. It is, happily, taken from the back.
PARIS — An estimated (by police) 150,000 people took to the streets of the French capital last Sunday to protest "le marriage pour tous." That is "marriage for everyone," the same-sex legislation signed into law last week by President Francois Hollande. Meanwhile, in the south of the country, the Palme d'Or, the highest honor of the Cannes Film Festival, was awarded to a film called "Blue Is the Warmest Color," a long and very explicit film about a teenager's wakening lesbianism.
SIENA, Italy — Here's a modest idea to break the gridlock, the stupidity, the meanness, the partisan lying and irresponsible ineffectiveness of modern Washington. We should consider returning to the Middle Ages.
LOS ANGELES — Just about 30 years ago, I wrote a "Reporter at Large" article for The New Yorker magazine about Mexicans and Mexican-Americans living, illegally and legally, in Southern California. The Mexican and Chicano population of Los Angeles was the second-largest Mexican city in the world, behind only Mexico City itself.
LOS ANGELES — Times are tough. Do the numbers: Chief executive officers (CEOs) of the country's biggest companies experienced pay increases of a minuscule 15 percent in 2012, compared with the 28 percent their pay rose in 2011.
LOS ANGELES — A very wise man, Harvard philosopher George Santayana, said more than a hundred years ago: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
LOS ANGELES — When ATMs, the cash machines, began to appear on the outside walls of banks in the 1970s, I refused to go near them. My mother was a teller at the Trust Company of New Jersey on Journal Square in Jersey City, and I knew the machines were designed to eliminate her job.
LOS ANGELES — I thought I had said all I had to say last week about the accelerated change in American attitudes toward gay marriage and "illegal" immigration. But there are a lot of other folks out there examining the accelerated politics of the day and generally coming to the conclusion that, after years of moving right, Americans are moving left again.
LOS ANGELES — As the Supreme Court debated last week over the federal Defense of Marriage Act, the 17-year-old law barring same-sex marriage, Justice Antonin Scalia noted the number of states that are permitting gays and lesbians to marry. "There has been a sea change," he said, "between now and 1996."