In 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville began a nine-month journey in search of what he later called "Democracy in America." Using Tocqueville's original notes, Richard Reeves retraced those travels, going to the same places to find the modern counterparts of the Americans.
The Americans of the 1830s and the Americans of the 1980s are the subject and the glory of American Journey. For two men, the Frenchman and the American, traveling the United States was an adventure of the road and of the mind.
Tocqueville and Reeves both began their journeys in Newport, Rhode Island, and then traveled through New York and Philadelphia, crisscrossing the country to Michigan in the north and Louisiana in the South. But Tocqueville's ride from the St. Clair River to the wilderness of Saginaw Bay became, for Reeves, a walk in the wilderness of Detroit.
Tocqueville's conversations with an embittered ex-President, John Quincy Adams, echoed over the years when Reeves asked similar questions of Richard Nixon. The presidents of Harvard University, 150 years apart, each presented a book to the traveler: Tocqueville's was a volume on the duties of public officials; Reeves was given a book about coping with the stress of daily life. Tocqueville interviewed the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence, Charles Carroll, the richest man in America. Reeves traced the signer's lineage to the direct descendent who was not admitted to the great medical school that stands on an old family estate.
Who are these nomad people, the Americans? How does this democracy of theirs work? Tocqueville asked and answered those questions in his time. Reeves, one of the finest of modern American political writwers, asked them again of the governors and the governed, of presidents and priests, of laborers and lawyers. In offices in Washington, prison cells in Philadelphia, banks in Manhattan, and classrooms in Boston and Los Angeles, Reeves recorded the words and ideas that have made America resonate throughout those 150 years of revolutionary change. The writer cannot contain his wonder at the consistency of the character and ideas that have continued to give us energy during two centuries. Americans are the same -- a breed apart with our passion for equality and our colonial suppression of Indians and many blacks, with our celebration of dissent and our dedication to conformity, with our belief in our own stirring rhetoric and our attempts to be better as a people than we know we are as individuals.
For a time, the two travelers part. Not only does Reeves talk with Americans in a West beyond the Mississippi River, but the American is more optimistic than the Frenchman was. Tocqueville believed that a democratic could never rise above themselves and their own petty demands and hatreds. Reeves discovered, almost with astonishment, a people better than his predictions, better than their leaders -- and, at their best, almost as good as their ideals.
Reeves, in an original and provocative analysis, concludes that the Republic and federalism are both collapsing in the face of more and more democracy -- and that Americans are better and happier for that.
American Journey is an adventure because Americans, Reeves found, are adventurers -- struggling, sometimes stumbling, toward a greater democracy in America.
"Reeves' reporting and analysis compare well with Tocqueville's own, which is to say they are first-rate." John Skow, Time
SIENA, Italy — Here's a modest idea to break the gridlock, the stupidity, the meanness, the partisan lying and irresponsible ineffectiveness of modern Washington. We should consider returning to the Middle Ages.
LOS ANGELES — Just about 30 years ago, I wrote a "Reporter at Large" article for The New Yorker magazine about Mexicans and Mexican-Americans living, illegally and legally, in Southern California. The Mexican and Chicano population of Los Angeles was the second-largest Mexican city in the world, behind only Mexico City itself.
LOS ANGELES — Times are tough. Do the numbers: Chief executive officers (CEOs) of the country's biggest companies experienced pay increases of a minuscule 15 percent in 2012, compared with the 28 percent their pay rose in 2011.
LOS ANGELES — A very wise man, Harvard philosopher George Santayana, said more than a hundred years ago: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
LOS ANGELES — When ATMs, the cash machines, began to appear on the outside walls of banks in the 1970s, I refused to go near them. My mother was a teller at the Trust Company of New Jersey on Journal Square in Jersey City, and I knew the machines were designed to eliminate her job.
LOS ANGELES — I thought I had said all I had to say last week about the accelerated change in American attitudes toward gay marriage and "illegal" immigration. But there are a lot of other folks out there examining the accelerated politics of the day and generally coming to the conclusion that, after years of moving right, Americans are moving left again.
LOS ANGELES — As the Supreme Court debated last week over the federal Defense of Marriage Act, the 17-year-old law barring same-sex marriage, Justice Antonin Scalia noted the number of states that are permitting gays and lesbians to marry. "There has been a sea change," he said, "between now and 1996."
LOS ANGELES — If you Google "Afghanistan," you get your choice of occupiers. There's "Occupation of Afghanistan by British," "Occupation of Afghanistan by Russians" and "Occupation of Afghanistan by United States."
LOS ANGELES —- "What if they gave an election and no one came?" That's a paraphrase of a war or anti-war cry of the 1960s. More than 40 years later in Los Angeles, the nation's second city, the cliche came alive in reports of last Tuesday's municipal election, where turnout has dropped to 16 percent, half the number of people who turned out for local elections only eight years ago.
LOS ANGELES — I do have an office, at the University of Southern California, but except for actually teaching, I have been working at home for most of my life. Naturally, I'm interested in the controversy generated by Marissa Mayer, the new boss at Yahoo, when she ordered all that company's employees to report to a regular company office.
LOS ANGELES — If I were a Republican activist, I think I would give up reading political journalism for a while. I might even turn to reading history, say the history of whatever happened to the Whig Party.
LOS ANGELES — President Obama said "jobs" 47 times in his State of the Union message last Tuesday night, so we know what's on his mind.
LOS ANGELES — I was standing in line for a movie years ago on Lexington Avenue in New York, when an unmistakable voice came from near the front of the line. "Hey, Dick! Hey, Dick! It's Ed Koch!" Who else? He kept on speaking at the top of his voice — he did not have a bottom — over a couple of dozen people, asking me or telling me about some problem at City Hall or maybe complaining about the newspaper, The New York Times, of which I was then City Hall bureau chief.
LOS ANGELES — The 30th president of the United States, who was not such a bad guy, sometimes seems to be remembered only for a single quote: "The business of America is business."
LOS ANGELES —- When I saw my friend Avery Corman, the novelist, for the first time after his wife, Judy, died eight years ago, I was, of course, at a loss for words. I blurted out the first thing that came into my head: "How's your work going?"
LOS ANGELES — On Feb. 1, 1943, President Franklin D. Roosevelt officially signed an order allowing Japanese-Americans to fight in the U.S. Army. Only a year earlier, the same president had signed an executive order to evacuate 120,000 Japanese and Japanese-Americans living near the West Coast into "relocation camps" in desolate, barren areas from east of the Sierra Nevada to Arkansas.
LOS ANGELES — Is there a wave of nostalgia for the 1930? I wouldn't have thought so, at least not until the Republicans of Michigan passed the bucket of anti-union legislation last week. The procedure they used to pass "right-to-work" was pretty sneaky: no hearings, no public readings, voting by a lame-duck legislature and signature by a governor who had given the impression that such doings and law were not part of his agenda.
LOS ANGELES —- It was Yogi Berra who supposedly said, "It's very hard to predict things, especially about the future." But then he also said, "I never really said all the things I said." He even talked about politics and the presidency: "You know Texas has a lot of electrical votes."
LOS ANGELES — I did not always agree with her politics and most of her policies, but I must say that I always felt a thrill when I saw television pictures of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arriving in some capital, the name of which most Americans could not pronounce. This gigantic jet would roll to a stop and various local leaders would stand in all their military finery at the base of the stairs. The door to the big bird would swing open and out would pop what the Irish would call "this mere slip of a girl."
LOS ANGELES — The 2012 election is all over but the shouting, and the shouting this time seems extraordinarily loud and revealing of the future of American politics.
LOS ANGELES — Mike Allen, for those who don't know, is Washington's insiders' insider. Every morning, sometimes as early as 4 a.m., the Politico.com editor sends out, via e-mail, a newsletter called the Political Playbook, a heads-up for the capital's political junkies.
LOS ANGELES — It was a dark and stormy night over most of the Eastern states, and all through many houses, not a creature was stirring. Water rushed around and nasty politics were forgotten for a bit. In New Jersey, the sting-tongued Republican governor, Chris Christie, said only good words about Democratic President Barack Obama and the federal response to the hurricane invasion of his state. It seems the president called him at midnight Monday and said: "Anything you need. Just call."
WASHINGTON — Beneath his cool exterior, there is passion and a trash-talking crudeness hidden in President Obama.
LOS ANGELES — Assuming that neither man faints on the stage at their final debate on Monday, the Obama-Romney race now depends on three smoking guns rarely discussed by candidates: geography, demography, and getting out the right vote.
LOS ANGELES — For at least the last couple of decades, the Republican Party has been anti-modern, but Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate for president, is modern, even post-modern. I don't mean that as a compliment. The man is a serial liar in a society that increasingly tolerates lying and cheating.
LOS ANGELES — Score one for Mitt Romney, at least on style. He did what he had to in the Denver debate, though truth was not his strongest suit. President Obama barely showed up, but he was, overall, a good deal more truthful, especially when he said he'd rather be home celebrating his 20th wedding anniversary.
LOS ANGELES — While President Obama was talking tough at the United Nations and being charming "eye candy" with Barbara Walters and her gang on "The View," the former prime minister of Great Britain, Tony Blair, was being wise on a round of appearances on American political shows. His message: "The United States ... should sort of give up on being loved."