Editor of The Times looks at America
I have just completed a fascinating and very moving tour of the United States of America. I arrived in San Francisco on March 4 and left New York to return to Britain 19 days later. In that time I visited Berkeley, Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, Ames (Iowa), Chicago, and Washington and attended a meeting at Arden House on the Hudson. I found an America that was disturbed, uncertain, confused , and looking potically for a leadership that does not seem to be provided. Yet at the same time I have never known an American mood that was so completely sympathetic, so reasonable, so constructive, so thoughtful.
The contrast between the America I saw and the America that is presented to the world is very great. The America that is projected to the world belongs to three cities, each of which indeed I visited. They are Washington, New York, and Los Angeles. They represent the America of political power, of sophistication and finance, and of entertainment and television. It is in these areas that the critical problems exist.
There is much that is good in this America, though there is much that is harsh and materialist as well. Yet the America of power and money and television is not built on a human scale, and from abroad it inevitably looks inhumanly large; its nature is to speak in a language of exaggeration and to seem to threaten by its giant strength. It also distorts the true America, which is the america I was looking for on my journey. I wanted to know what America thought, not what the men with the loudspeakers believe Americans to be thinking.
I started at Berkeley. I only spent a couple of days there, had my first dinner on American soil with the chancellor [of the Univesity of California], and gave a lecture on gold and the international exchange system. Berkeley was of course the first campus to experience the troubles of the 1960s, and became what one might call the lead indicator of student revolt. If Berkeley is still a lead indicator, one can be very optimistic about the prospects for American universities.
It is natural to expect that the academic staff of Berkeley will be scholars of international reputation, as indeed they are. Yet the assumption of intellectual standards in Berkeley conversation is as attractive as it is self-confident. In Berkeley talk flows easily, because the intellectual assumptions do not have to be laboured or spelt out. The students are good, too.
As I was a guest of the university, I was taken to my appointments by a car from the university pool, driven by a student who was in that way helping to earn his way through college. He is something of an athlete, practising with the university crew and having sailed a small boat from Hawaii to California. He had spent a year in England when his father was on an exchange. He was obviously motivated, and had a refreshingly positive attitude, which I thought was reflected in other students I met there and later -- positive, but not showy.
What do they think at Berkeley? They think what everybody thinks, that America in the 1980s faces great problems, in some ways more difficult to tackle than those of earlier times. They feel that the problems are bigger than the men. They are worried by President Carter, but also the other candidates. They would like, I think, to raise the professional standards of leadership, to feel that politics was a better-qualified profession. They are themselves very free to the world, as in 1980 is all America; nowadays you find a truer cosmopolitan approach to world affairs in Berkeley than in Paris; they know more of the world , they like it better, and are more understanding of its failures.
Berkeley is a good start; a nation which can produce one such university can be proud of its civilisation, and among American universities Berkeley does not stand alone. I went from Berkeley down to Los Angeles to lecture to a conference of the American Economic Council, again on gold. Los Angeles is one of the difficult cities of America; it is too big, it has no centre, it has a fluidity both physical and mental, and it is the home of the entertainment industry. Of all major American cities it is the one which offers the least sense of security, of stability, of peace. Yet I had one morning of complete refreshment. I went out to Malibu to visit the Getty Museum, that strange yet delightful monument to a man who was driven to make money.
His idea of building a reproduction of a specific Roman villa to house his cllection was regarded as accentric, but was in fact justified. It is fascinating to walk in the grounds, as near to the Pacific as the original villa was to the Bay of Naples, and to be able to form a picture of what a Roman villa was like. It also provides a domestic setting for the display of the collections. The great funds with which he endowed the museum will no doubt spread into the development of a series of collections, perhaps a group of museums, which will make Los Angeles one of the great museum centres of the world.
Los Angeles also has a great newspaper, in an age when great newspapers, or even good newspapers, have become less common than they once were in the United States. The Los Angeles Times, with its staggering paging -- 522 pages on the Sunday I was there -- and its vast revenues -- I would guess it is the richest newspaper in the world -- gives its readers a coverage of the world of which the newspaper is rightly proud. A major newspaper is also a work of civilisation.
From Los Angeles I flew to Salt Lake City. Both by its setting and its architecture, it is one of the beautiful cities of the United States. The tabernacle and the temple must be two of the most important and successful 19 th-century buildings in America. I admire the combination of conservatism and sound responsibility which the Mormon Church has given to Utah.
I was shown the new symphony hall, which is the latest addition to the public buildings of Salt Lake City. Here again in an example of the resources and personal effort which are being put into American civilisation. Utah has good universities as well; I visited both Brigham Young and the University of Utah.
Yet how little one hears of these things. In Britain we receive many hours of American-originated television every week, entertainment mostly, but news as well. Berkeley was in the news when it had riots, but not at all since. Los Angeles is seen in terms of car chases through Beverly Hills, with a few far-out sects added. Salt Lake City is hardly known, though an occasional Mormon scandal story is run. If Britain is underinformed, so is America. Across America there are active cultural centres of the highest quality, not adequately reported by the dominant media, and known only locally or by distant reputation. The bad about America is reported and exaggerated. The good is only too often ignored.
From Salt Lake City, which politically is Reagan country, I went to Ames, Iowa, and visited Iowa State University. I had last been to Ames in 1951, when I was on a student debating tour. Ames has grown, but it has not greatly changed. It is still one of the clean, tree-lined cities of the Middle West, and I think it must be a good place in which to lead a good life.
Again the quality of the university is surprisingly high. People do know that Iowa State is particularly strong in agricultural science; I had the benefit of an ad hoc seminar in politics. It is hard to describe the quality of an argument, but this had such a combination of seriousness and openness, not without humour, that it alone could have been taken as a proof of the health of the American university. Iowa State has one of the great libraries of America -- more than a million books. How many Americans have ever been told that? Yet a library is a primary resource of the intellect. In Iowa I found a regional shift. In Utah even Democrats quite like Mr. Reagan; in Iowa most Republicans are worried by him.
From Ames to Chicago. There I have three striking memories. I went to the Rev. Jesse Jackson's PUSH meeting on Saturday morning. The Chicago Sun-Times, with the mutual courtesy of journalists, gave me a briefing on the primaries and suggested I should go. PUSH is an impressive operation of black self-help -- again a striving to raise the level of civilisation. Mr. John Anderson spoke, not very well, I thought. The vice-president spoke, excellently. I had met Hubert Humphrey in the old days, and Mr. Mondale has the same quality of political concern and humanity; there is a special Minnesota style of American oratory; politicians from Minnesota speak fluently, while Massachusetts oratory is staccato. Why, I wonder, should that be?
My second memory is of a Reagan fund-raising lunch in a Chicago suburb. Governor Reagan spoke only briefly and answered questions, which he did very well. His jokes are not especially funny, but they lighten his speeches and they are agreeable. His grip on the economic arguments is surer than I had realised. He reminded me of Mrs. Thatcher, a firmly committed conservative, but by no means an extreme or irrational one.
my third memory is of another university dinner, this time with friends at the University of Chicago. Again it is the quality, the interest, in teaching and in arguing, the penetration of the discussion, that impressed me. I was somewhat tired that night, and felt rather slow in their company, but as surely as Berkeley the Univesity of Chicago is a great university by the most exacting world standard.
From Chicago I went to Boston, a city with which I am more than half in love. There are three cities in the world I could happily live in: London, where i do live, Rome, and Boston. All three have the essential ingredients, physical beauty, interesting company, history, variety, and a pedestrian rather than purely an automobile existence. All three also have very good food. I suppose if I lived in Boston I should eventually tire of seafood, or in Rome of pasta, but if cooking is a test of civilisation it is one which Boston passes.
Indeed Boston is surely the premier city of American civilisation. It is sometimes difficult for other Americans almost because of that. As one goes farther west, one finds that Americans become more nervous about Boston, and tend more to assume that Bostonians will be unduly conscious of their own superiority. That is only reversed when one reaches California, for San Francisco tends to regard itself as the Boston of the West Coast -- I am not sure the phrase would appeal to all San Franciscans -- and identifies its uneasy sibling rivalry with Los Angeles with Boston's sharp and sisterly relationship with New York.
I will not refer to the univesities of the area, because they are too celebrated for praise. To comment favourably on Harvard is an pointless as paying a compliment to the Sistine Chapel. Nor will I comment on the publishers , who are so important an aspect of Boston civilisation. Of what I saw on this visit I would choose to point to the Massachusetts Historical Society, where I was most courteously received, whose house is both an excellent small museum, a library, and an institute for research. To read, in his own hand, the note in the back of the journal in which Gov. John winthrop records paying $:750 sterling for the Arbella gives one the thrill of immediate contact with a vital moment in human history.
There were other realisations of the quality of American culture after I had passed through Boston. Discussing the future of the world exchange system with Dr. Arthur Burns, or visiting the American luminist exhibition in the National Gallery in Washington, were both experiences which gave the same feeling of interesting exploration. I lunched with Congressman Jack Kemp, of Buffalo, who also discussed the world exchange system. He is leading supporter of Governor Reagan and at least a possible candidate for vice-president.
The chief impression of my visit was therefore one of the strength and variety of American civilisation, but also of the extent to which it is understated in television reporting. Because of this understatement, American's image of America seems to me to be far less positive than it ought to be. There is, I would think, no country in the world where there is more civilised activity, proportionate to the population; it is, however, easy for Americans to feel that they live in a relatively poor culture, because their popular communication system lays such heavy stress on the negative or merely superficial aspects of their society. It is possible that cable television, which will make television for minority interests economically viable, may soon offer Americans a truer picture of their society.
American attitudes towards politics I found to be those of a lowered expectation, and this lowering of expectation may be the key to this year's presidential election. Popular expectation, as I found it, has been lowered in a number of ways. The United States is seen as being in balance with the Soviet Union, but no longer superior, as a military power. The United States is also seen as being in balance with Japan and Western Europe, but no longer superior, as an economic power. The effect of the Vietnam war has been to limit the possibilities of the use of military power; the effect of Watergate to limit the power of the presidency; the effect of inflation, to lower personal economic expectations. Most Americans are affluent, by the world's standards, but most are less well off than last year, and expect to have a more difficult time in the coming year.
This revolution of fading expectations has two political effects. It naturally makes Americans more conservative. The failure of Senator Kennedy in the earlier primaries partly reflects doubts about his character -- though he has shown the family courage in facing the early primary defeats -- but it also reflects a rejection of his message. His programmes belong to an age of expansion, and are seen to be implausible in this period. Despite his victories in New York and New England I doubt whether he can overtake the President.
This conservatism helps Governor Reagan, who sounded too cautious in the booming '60s, but sounds a voice of reason in the limited '80s. Conservatism is the political philosphy of limits, of restraint, and in a period of falling expectations, life itself reinforces those restraints. Govenor Reagan is the natural Republican candidate, because for more than the last decade he has been the leading spokesman for the conservative position.
Given the agreement between the times and the doctrine, he must also be a formidable candidate in November. When the main campaign comes, his conservative doctrines will seem to conform to the present American experience of life. The Russians in Afghanistan, inflation, and high interest rates all strengthen conservative feeling. He also a skillful compaigner; his relaxed style compares favourably with the moralistic tension of President Carter's speeches. Yet there are lowered expectations here, too. Americans would like a great leader to face great challenges. Few Americans I spoke to regard the Carter-Reagan choice as one which offers great leadership on either side.
Such lower expectations tend to help an incumbent. I heard the point put several times, sometimes in support of President Ford and sometimes in support of President Carter. Of Ford, people said: "He wasn't the brightest guy, but he proved competent. Nowadays I'd settle for competence." Of Carter, people said: "It's taken the President three years to learn the job, and I don't want someone else spending the next three years the same way."
This could be crucial. At the excellent meeting of the Committee for Monetary Research and Education at Arden House, on the Hudson, I met a Texas Republican who said that November would be touch and go in Texas, if the Democrats nominate President Carter, because he is both a Southerner and an incumbent. In Texas Mr. Reagan would beat Mr. Kennedy easily. Yet without Texas i doubt whether the Republicans can win. The swing to conservatism in America is real, and may prove lasting. The catch for the Repoublicans might be that the American people will prove too conservative to turn an incumbent out, either for nomination or election. They have not done so since 1932, and 1980 is a long way less bad than that.