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FDR and Bush “Americans are just SOooo arrogant!”

This isn’t Baghdad. It’s a suburban Melbourne post office and the young woman with the vehement opinion is about 20—she would have been a schoolgirl on September 11, 2001. What riles her as she weighs my New Yorker re-subscription envelope is the pre-printed address: it doesn’t include a country, just the street, state and zip code.

“How am I expected to know it’s America? They just think they run the world. I’ll show them!” She brandishes a black texta and scrawls "USA" across the envelope, sabotaging the urbane decorum of the New Yorker’s form letter.

Let the Hero born of woman
Crush the serpent…

I’m so distracted by the morning’s news about President Bush’s proposed detainee legislation—torture by another name, habeas corpus traduced etc.—and the Australian government’s winking at it, that I mumble a cowardly “mmm, uhuh” and retreat home to pack for Providence, Rhode Island. Lost opportunity.

In the Providence Journal (founded 1829) chief political columnist M. Charles Bakst notes that in the Democratic state of Rhode Island, "Bush" is just short of a swear word. The New York Times condemns the detainee legislation in an editorial headed “Rushing Off a Cliff”.

As other people see usIt doesn’t spare the Democrats either, from any state, concluding that Americans of the future won’t accept their pragmatic cave-in—so they can’t be branded as “soft on terrorism” (sound familiar?). Rather, trumpets the Times, the American people will know that “in 2006, Congress passed a tyrannical law that will be ranked with the low points in American democracy".

I can read his righteous sentence
By the dim and flaring lamps

On the leafy campus of Providence’s Brown University, you can hear, as I did last week, Newsweek’s senior editor Jonathan Alter in a public lecture on democracy and leadership under Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Comparison with the Bush administration is implicit and unavoidable. Alter is a careful journalist, hard-nosed, scrupulous in his assembling of facts, of evidence—not much red stuff bleeding from his liberal heart.

He lists FDR’s many faults first, then praises the Depression and World War II-era President’s “bold, persistent experimentation”, his flexibility, his practical ability to get things done in a time of crisis. Alter isn’t shy of rhetoric, invoking phrases like “the winds of chance, the hurricanes of disaster”.

The audience immediately conjures Katrina and manifest government inaction—Bush not getting things done. Almost as an aside, Alter says: “I think the American people finally get it: this guy doesn’t care about them.” Heads, many of them young heads, nod all round the room. These are not downtrodden youth: a year at Brown costs about US$40,000.

As other people see usHe is sifting out the hearts of men
Before His judgment seat

“But what about Fox News? How many Americans read the kind of books and journalism you write?" I ask as he signs my copy of The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope. “Not enough," he grants, more angry than deterred. As he moves to the next signing I hear words about reasserting constitutional rights, democratic entitlement and responsibility. Alter wants to change America’s present course.

With a glory in His bosom
That transfigures you and me

Next day I stand up in the Brown U Bookstore and scan the latest table of new releases. Alter’s book is there. So is Lewis Lapham’s Pretensions to Empire, Notes on the Criminal Folly of the Bush Administration. Its subtitle is “A Case for Impeachment”. I lived in upstate New York during the Watergate hearings, so a ghost walks—and it’s not the Phantom—when I read, in the Times, that Bob Woodward has a new book out, called State of Denial, detailing, from official but not always named sources (remember Deep Throat?), radical dissension in the Bush ranks.

But weigh that against the next book I turn to: Godless, The Church of Liberalism, by Ann Coulter, recent Time magazine cover girl and warrior queen of the right. She has her own website. You can As other people see ussample her quotable quotes: “Whether they are defending the Soviet Union or bleating for Saddam Hussein, liberals are always against America. They are either traitors or idiots.” Or, “There are a lot of bad Republicans; there are no good Democrats.” Coulter says (whether she believes it is moot) that the US should "nuke" the North Koreans. Let them die to make men free.

I’m staying just down the street from the John Brown House. Not the abolitionist John Brown, whose body lies a-mouldering and who prompted The Battle Hymn of the Republic, but John Brown, slave trader, privateer, merchant, patriot, member of the US House of Representatives and supporter of George Washington. John’s younger brother, Moses Brown, became a Quaker, social reformer and ardent abolitionist, and saw his brother John in court over slave trading.

Paradox? Ambiguity and contradiction in the very stones that underpin American democracy? Yes. But the resolution, if there is to be one, is to be found here too. Over and over again. My young friend from the post office should visit America. Meet the people. See some of the glory.



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Existing comments

That is an excellent piece. Ann Coulter is a VERY scary woman to witness in action. A real Jezebel.

Andy Johnson | 03 October 2006  

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