New York Times Book editor Barry Gewen selected Simon Schama's big-think book, "The American Future -- A History" for review in his "Books of the Times" piece on Tuesday, and took condescending aim at Dick Cheney and Sarah Palin in the process.
Columnist David Brooks had some fun with the British-born Schama in his May 24 review, consigning Schama's book to a long line of self-consciously "Brilliant Books" whose authors as a group Brooks satirized:
Along the way, his writing will outstrip his reportage. And as his inability to come up with anything new to say about this country builds, his prose will grow more complex, emotive, gothic, desperate, overheated and nebulous until finally, about two-thirds of the way through, there will be a prose-poem of pure meaninglessness as his brilliance finally breaks loose from the tethers of observation and oozes across the page in a great, gopping goo of pure pretension.
Gewen was more impressed, and used his review, titled "Despite the Crises, Seeing a Star-Spangled Destiny in the Mirror of Time," as a soapbox to lash out at Republicans and defend Obama.
Gewen saw Schama as celebrating a new kind of patriotism "in the age of Barack Obama," far superior to the "belligerent...chauvinism" of Dick Cheney or the "ostentatious flag lapel pin" of Sarah Palin.
Simon Schama's mischievously titled "American Future: A History" is a book for flag wavers, a full-throated celebration of the red, white and blue, an enraptured Briton's homage to his adopted country's spacious skies and amber waves of grain, from California to the New York island. Never count out the United States, never assume it is in hopeless decline, Mr. Schama declares in his best Fourth of July oratorical manner. It will most likely rise up and surprise you. He urges Americans to take pride in their country and what it stands for.
The patriotism on display in "The American Future" is hardly the narrow and cramped sentiment that in recent years has come to define love of country; it is not belligerent and defensive chauvinism, neither Dick Cheney's scowl nor Gov. Sarah Palin's ostentatious flag lapel pin. It's an inclusive affirmation of the ideals of openness, tolerance, diversity, equality and that much-abused concept, freedom.
At one point Mr. Schama recommends that schools replace the insipid Pledge of Allegiance with daily recitations of Thomas Jefferson's eloquent words in support of religious liberty; then children "would understand, right away" he explains, "the proper meaning of their nation's experience."
The "real America," he is saying, is not to be found in the rural hills of North Carolina, or not only there, but in the crowded precincts of Chicago and the churning barrios of Los Angeles and the Bronx. This is what patriotism looks like in the age of Barack Obama.
Gewen revealed a political blind spot in his discussion of one of Schama's unsung heroes, Montgomery Meigs:
Mr. Schama convinces us that every American schoolchild should know that name. Meigs (pronounced Megs), a member of a distinguished American military family, attended West Point in the 1830s before surveying a part of the Mississippi with Robert E. Lee and then heading north to build the city of Fort Wayne in Indiana. Called to Washington in 1852, he erected bridges and an aqueduct to carry fresh water to the district's residents. He also supervised the construction of the Capitol dome.
Though he voted for Stephen Douglas the year before the Civil War, Meigs soon fell under Lincoln's spell, becoming an ardent abolitionist and a crusader in what he came to call a "holy war." He championed the enlistment of black troops and founded Arlington National Cemetery, purposely locating it within view of Lee's Virginia mansion.
But Meigs's greatest achievement was his service as quartermaster general of the United States. He oversaw a budget of $1.5 billion, supplying the armed forces with weapons, equipment, clothing, 100,000 mules and 150,000 horses. It is a tribute to Mr. Schama's talent that he is able to make this work sound exciting, even inspiring: you read about the efforts to provision the troops and you want to be like Meigs. He was a combination of dedication, efficiency, idealism, and pragmatism -- a spectral rebuke to the Bush White House and Rumsfeld Pentagon.
So would Gewen have approved of George W. Bush being a "crusader" in a "holy war" in Iraq, the way his new hero Meigs was during the Civil War? Doubtful.