I lost a $100 bet when Bill Clinton became president in 1992, but even then I thought it was money well spent. During the preceding decades, political conflicts had ripped the country apart, threatening the underlying cultural fabric that held the nation together. These divisions were not helped by the virtual monopoly of executive power that Republicans had held during most of those troubled years. The indictment of the U.S. as an "imperialist, racist, oppressor" had begun during the '60s, when the Democrats held the White House, in the fever swamps of the hate-America left. But with Republicans almost continuously holding the reins of state for the next 25 years, the animus and self-doubt spread to the Democratic political opposition, and thence to the American mainstream itself. Perhaps, by the ship of state being left to its critics, the Clinton presidency would begin a healing of the wounds. What better way to restore an appreciation for what America truly was when measured not by the left's abstract and impossible ideals, but in the sober exercise of power in a complex nation and world?
As we approach the last phase of the Clinton era, I think my hypothesis was correct. While congressional Republicans may whine that the president has "stolen" their program, the salient fact is that he has begun to bring Democrats back into the system they were in danger of abandoning altogether. To take one crucial example from an area where Clinton is most suspect in Republican eyes: As recently as 1990, George Bush could only get three Democratic senators to support America's deployment of military force to the Persian Gulf. Clinton has used American power against Saddam Hussein and elsewhere without serious Democratic opposition, conveying the message that even liberals understand that American power is the world's indispensable guarantor of peace. In that sense, a serious breach has been healed.
There are also deeper cultural signs of a healing process, exemplified by two singular works, one produced by one of America's greatest writers of fiction, the other by the country's most creative cinematic talent. Appearing as they do close to the end of a decade of postmodern cynicism, both works are striking in the deep and traditional reverence they share for America's character and mission -- for who we have been and what we are.
Philip Roth's novel "An American Pastoral" is an apocalyptic imagining of America's second civil war, pitting an immigrant industrialism against the postindustrial (and anti-industrial) counterculture of the '60s. Steven Spielberg's "Amistad," a historical re-creation of an episode from the dark age of American slavery, shapes itself as a metaphor for America's first Civil War. One is a work of hope, the other of despair. But they are linked by their common endorsement of the American experiment, and their shared belief in the vitality of the American dream.
Roth's central trope is the immigrant success story of a New Jersey Jewish family and the assimilation of its scion, Seymour Levov, into the American mosaic.
Known to friends and admirers as "the Swede," Levov is a star athlete, a golden boy, who marries a Miss America aspirant named Dawn, has a child named Merry and, out of filial responsibility and respect, takes over his immigrant father's glove factory. The Levovs are the ultimate testament to the merging of an outsider's aspirations with the American dream.
Blasting apart this idyll is the Vietnam War and the terrible passions unleashed by the '60s. Merry, the quintessential American innocent, metamorphoses into an anti-American terrorist ("for her, being an American was loathing America") who blows up the general store in their small New Jersey town and, with it, the town's only doctor. Merry's bomb also destroys the Levov family and, with it, its cherished middle-class American dream. "That violent hatred of America was a disease unto itself," Roth writes. "Three generations. All of them growing. The working. The saving. The success. Three generations in raptures over America. Three generations of becoming one with a people. And now with the fourth it had all come to nothing. The total vandalization of their world."
There is no happy ending here. "Yes, the breach had been pounded in their fortification," Roth concludes, "and now that it was opened it would not be closed again. They'll never recover. Everything is against them, everyone and everything that does not like their life. All the voices from without, condemning and rejecting their life! And what is wrong with their life? What on earth is less reprehensible than the life of the Levovs?"
Who would have thought that the author of "Our Gang," an unforgiving '60s satire of the Nixon era, would, in 1997, write a passionate defense of the American way of life, a paean to the America that the '60s had ransacked?
Spielberg's movie tells the story of the revolt of African prisoners on the Amistad, a Spanish slaver, and their eventual vindication in the American court system.
Coming at a time when the cultural left labels American slavery as a black "holocaust," an image conjuring parallels between the United States and Nazi Germany, "Amistad" reminds us of our roots as the beacon of human freedom, even in those dark times. "Amistad" reminds us that Africans were enslaved by other Africans; that, inspired by their democratic and Christian ideals, Americans and Britons ended the Western slave trade even as it persisted in Africa; and that white as well as black Americans were willing to risk their lives for the freedom of all.
Cinque, the leader of the rebellious slaves, tells John Quincy Adams that he is motivated to resist by the responsibility imposed by his ancestors' beliefs, hopes and aspirations. Adams uses this as the informing metaphor of his oration to the Supreme Court, reminding the justices that America is a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the idea that all men are created equal. "We are who we were," he says, echoing Cinque's existential insight. "If we are to be Americans then we must be true to this ideal. If it has to take a civil war to complete the American Revolution and to keep that faith, then let's have it."
"Amistad" didn't make many film critics' top 10 lists. Siskel and Ebert, who selected Spike Lee's anti-white "Malcolm X" as the best picture one year, couldn't find a place for it. Apparently, the slight and forgettable "The Full Monty," about a bunch of unemployed British males who perform a striptease to make some money, was a more worthy work. And Roth's novel has been misunderstood by both conservative and liberal critics as a novel about the failure of immigrant assimilation.
They miss the point, as do the revilers from both left and right who do not understand the real nature of the American bridge that William Jefferson Clinton -- even if he doesn't know it himself -- is building to the 21st century.