Book review: On The Road, by James Naughtie

James Naughtie loves the USA, unfashionably among members of his own clan, the liberal media; unfashionably today anyhow. He made his first visit as a student in 1970 when Richard Nixon was in the White House and the Vietnam War dragged miserably on, dividing the nation. He has been returning as a journalist ever since, though never a resident one. This book is first a memoir of his experiences which have included covering every Presidential election from Reagan to Trump. It is also a love-letter to America, but the letter of a lover who is now anxious and concerned about the loved one’s mental and spiritual health. There is a shadow over the USA, and “the heart of America, although it beats with its previous self-confidence, is trembling.” Self- doubt has crept in. It is a country where “people see problems of old being exacerbated rather than solved.”
James NaughtieJames Naughtie
James Naughtie

There are, as you would expect from Naughtie, lively descriptions and acute observations of politicians in action. There are fine passages, his account, for example of Teddy Kennedy’s rousing speech at the 1980 Democratic Convention when his challenge to the incumbent President Jimmy Carter had already withered, reminding you that, despite his quarter-century as an anchor-man on the Today programme, he has always first and foremost been a reporter, just as Alastair Cooke who for so many years educated us on the splendours and miseries of the USA, was a reporter and explainer.

There is nothing better in this delightful and always informative book than his account of rail journeys two years ago from Chicago to New Orleans and back. He loves trains, both as the most civilised way to travel and as offering unrivalled pictures of a country and of social change. “One of the best ways to feel America’s contemporary sense of loss,” he writes, “is to get onto the railroads.” 

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Once it was the railroads that “built the country, gave it iron sinews” – gave it a sense too, one might say, of its vastness, variety, yet cohesion also. Now he sees the misery of poverty in Mississippi alongside Mark Twain’s river from which, by way of Huckleberry Finn, Hemingway said all American literature derives; the nervous apprehension of New Orleans which has never recovered and may never recover from the Hurricane Katrina disaster; then back to Chicago which he also loves but which, though “the Great American City... for good or ill” nevertheless “speaks powerfully of America’s urban malaise.” 

Throughout the journey he talks to other passengers, and catches the mixture of pride, uncertainty, reverence for the idea of America and the fear that this idea is irremediably tarnished which characterises the Great Republic today.
Of course he deals with Trump; less, however, with the man himself than with what he represents or what he calls, after a talk with one prominent conservative, the “toxic mix” which is ”the true flavour of Trump’s America... a genuine feeling that people who have been forgotten are getting some attention again, but one that’s infected with a lust for antagonism, partisanship and frequently... conspiratorial thinking.”

Naughtie has sympathy and regard for Hillary Clinton whom he has also, I think, known for a long time, but he recognizes that her description of “half of Trump’s supporters” as belonging in “a basket of deplorables” was not only politically stupid, but, worse, could be understood as an expression of the contempt with which the privileged are thought to view others, an expression of the political establishment’s sense of its own entitlement and moral superiority. If one single thing cost her the election it was surely that phrase.

This is an illuminating and thoroughly enjoyable book. We may be a long way away from Reagan’s blithe “morning in America again,” the shining city on the hill may be tarnished, the welcoming message to the poor of the world inscribed on the Statue of Liberty may look like a sick joke, but America has been through worse times – the Civil War and the Depression of the Thirties that followed hard on the financial crash of 1929 – and survived. It will survive Donald Trump. For all its faults it remains the only polity which in its founding document speaks of people’s entitlement to “the pursuit of happiness.” 

On The Road, by James Naughtie, Simon & Schuster, 311pp, £20

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