Searching For America

by Michael Liss


Film still from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

It is time for navel-gazing here in the US.

We are about to have an election in which the two likely nominees have managed to alienate the electorate to an unprecedented degree. It has led to a surreal atmosphere. Hillary Clinton slogs on with a message that brings to mind the appeal of an appointment with a dental hygienist—it won’t be the highlight of your day, but it’s the healthy choice. Donald Trump has managed to do something quite brilliant—he has identified his target audience, taken disgust with dysfunction, mixed it with a shot of anger, and distilled it into one easily digestible slogan: “Make America Great Again.”

It is a genius-level move by a master salesman. With those few words, Trump seizes for himself and his supporters a core identity as the true heirs of a legacy of American preeminence. Like a classic old building, American greatness is still here—it’s just covered under layers of accumulated grime. With the right man in charge, someone of vigor and boldness, we can sandblast it all away and have a palace—even a cathedral—that celebrates. As we once were, so shall we be again.

But who were we? To what are we returning? That’s a fascinating question, because to own something, you need to be able to define it. And history lacks the clarity of a mathematical proof or a replicable scientific experiment. To paraphrase an interesting point Mary Beard makes in SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, the historian engages in a work of reconstruction which, by definition, is self-limiting. When the written word is absent or suspect, you learn about things by piecing together inference and fact, as if you were reassembling a broken amphora. You can scientifically analyze the contents, you can date the time it was fired, you can make assumptions about the economic and social standing of the owner and the community he lived in, but, in the end, what you have in front of you is likely the remains of an attractive, once useful, pot. A pot—not an unimpeachable set of facts about the nature of the people who used it.

Yet, from some pots, and some ruins, and some odes and epics, we think we know Professor Beard’s Romans, even from two millennia distant, and what we see, we like. Putting aside, for delicacy’s sake, the more violent and unsavory aspects of conquest and governance (sacking Carthage, lions and Christians, etc.) we admire what they defined as Roman virtues: Prudence, mercy, dignity, tenacity, truthfulness, and virtus (manliness, excellence, valor). Of course, we don’t know how many Romans lived up to that code, and we can be sure that at least some of it is self-aggrandizing myth. But we project upon these ancients a modern set of values and give them life in our imagination.

In looking for what might be thought of as an American character, and placing it in contemporary political terms, we need to apply a different type of rigor than the historian might. A purely objective analysis, or how others might think of us, is less relevant than our subjective sense of what we were, and want to return to (Trump’s potent message), or what we are, and aspire to be.

So, who are we?

We do have a creation myth—a costume drama of 18th Century men in hose and formal wear, debating over gigantic issues such as the meaning of democracy, the form of government, the rights of the individual. There are common people in the story—militiamen springing out from behind some tree to pick off a Redcoat, or Molly Pitcher, or the shivering, starving soldiers at Valley Forge, but it is very much an aristocratic narrative. Creation needs Gods, the Founders are our secular equivalent, the Constitution our Ten Commandments.

But few children grow up wanting to be James Madison. What fires the imagination is what happens after the Gods do their work, when ordinary people are left to till the garden. That is one of first inflection points that is part of the American reality (or the American myth)—that neither power nor virtue is permanent or hereditary. The great things to come—the taming of our own wilderness, and then the preserving of the world—are much less the product of great men than of countless individual efforts by those who took risks and braved hardships.

For that part of the story, the key to determining our emotional center, pots and buildings even the written word have far less value. Instead, we have visual poetry, and the reflections of two great filmmakers—John Ford and Steven Spielberg—on American character and values.

Ford is the “tame the wilderness” artist. He deals with the opening of the West, cowboys and Indians, the struggle against difficult conditions, and the sometimes tenuous hold on life. His locations—dusty trails, beat-up saloons in small towns, tired ranches, arid farms, displayed against a backdrop of physical magnificence like Monument Valley—reflect the sheer scale of the challenge of the frontier. His heroes are quintessentially American in the sense that they explain a range of our sensibilities—complex emotionally, but sometimes unrefined; able, but not always in every way; seeking justice, but not always free of prejudice or anger; overcoming obstacles, but occasionally failing. Ford relies on an entire troop of stock characters to give familiar texture and color, but he convinces his stars to take risks. John Wayne not only gets to play the hero, in movies like Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and Rio Grande, but also, in The Searchers, the bitter monomaniacal racist Ethan Edwards, who (just barely) redeems himself. Henry Fonda is a thoughtful and deliberate Lincoln in Young Mr. Lincoln, saintly Tom Joad in Grapes of Wrath, the man of action and moral avenger (or revenger) Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine, and the brittle, arrogant, contemptuous Colonel Thursday in Fort Apache.

Ford’s later work in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance comes to grips with another part of the frontier/Western legacy—hard men have to do hard work to secure the peace, and other men stand on their shoulders. Jimmy Stewart’s Rance Stoddard has the moral and physical courage to challenge Liberty Valance, but can barely aim a gun, much less be willing to kill someone with it—even if it means his own death. John Wayne’s Tom Doniphon, who contemptuously calls Stoddard “Pilgrim,” recognizes that physical evil like Valance’s has to be opposed, even with extreme acts. From an unseen vantage point, Doniphon fires the shot that kills Valance, but it’s Stoddard who gets the “credit” for Valance’s death—and uses it to launch a successful political career. The movie is tremendously bittersweet—neither man’s hopes are fully realized: Doniphon’s secret rescue of Stoddard costs him the woman he loves—Hallie, who then marries Stoddard. And Stoddard knows he’s been living a lie—the last seven minutes of Liberty Valance, following Doniphon’s funeral, are confessional, redemptive, and excruciating all at once.

Spielberg, who approaches Ford’s talent in both visual mastery and story-telling ability, uses Tom Hanks’ Fonda-like appeal to great effect in wrestling with America’s post-frontier ethos—the time in which our battles were the world’s. In Saving Private Ryan, Hanks’ Captain John Martin is like millions of others in the Greatest Generation—an ordinary man placed in extraordinary circumstances, who then rises to the challenge. He is sent on a mission he sees as largely symbolic, and, to carry it out, must put himself and his six men at great risk. He sees and suffers loss all around him, and ultimately settles on the only rationale that gives him comfort—finish the task and he can get home to his wife. But he is acutely aware of the paradox of war and what it does to the psyche: “Every man I kill, the farther away from home I feel.”

Take that “Greatest Generation” forward to the 1960s, and Hanks appears again as the lawyer James Donovan, in Bridge of Spies. The world has changed dramatically. The absolute evil of Hitler and the Nazis has been replaced by a Cold War between stupendously powerful forces with incalculably deadly weapons. The people who fight this war are cognizant, to the point of paranoia, that mistakes can have existential consequences. The public feels the same. With that as backdrop, Donovan finds himself the one straight-arrow in a world of shadow-boxers for whom the ends justify any means. “Don’t go all boy-scout on me,” says Hoffman, Donovan’s CIA contact. But boy scout is what Donovan is. He defends the accused Russian spy Rudolph Abel at significant personal and reputational risk. He sticks to his principles, at home, and in East Berlin, and succeeds. This is Spielberg’s statement about American values—our strength derives from our belief that we made a compact some 200+years ago, that we play fair, that everyone is equal before the law. That, what Donovan calls “the Rules” (the Constitution), are what binds us as Americans, regardless of our place in society, ethnicity, or place of national origin.

Do those ties still hold and are we all legatees? We live in a complex and contradictory world where risk aversion can muffle the better angels of our nature. Are we still the America of Ford and Spielberg, realists and idealists at the same time? This is a test, in this election cycle and beyond. As Teddy Roosevelt once said: “Character, in the long run, is the decisive factor in the life of an individual and of nations alike.”