'On The Road, American Adventures from Nixon to Trump', by James Naughtie (published by Simon & Shuster)
Growing up in small towns in the northern half of Scotland, attending what I guess were rather similar schools – Wick High School in my case, Keith Grammar School in his – and choosing to study English literature at university, James Naughtie and I have quite a lot in common. But above all, we have shared a professional and enduring fascination with the society and culture of the USA.
As readers of last week's issue of Scottish Review
may recall, in my account of a trip to London, I mentioned that in this book Naughtie is generous enough to remark that when he was a student in the English department of Aberdeen University in the 1970s and I was his tutor there, my course in American literature of the 1920s reinforced his existing preoccupation with all things American.
Our actual experience of America, however, proved to be quite different. In 1957, I arrived in the small, well-to-do town of Princeton in New Jersey to study at its prestigious Ivy League university. In my subsequent academic career, I returned to America frequently but almost always in the comfortable academic-related world. Naughtie on the other hand, still an undergraduate at Aberdeen, took advantage of something called the British Universities North America Club to cross the Atlantic in the summer of 1970. For a modest fee, the club offered British students a transatlantic flight, a free Greyhound bus pass, and a temporary job.
Naughtie duly arrived in upper New York state to work in a Jewish holiday hotel. In an early chapter, he provides an entertaining account of just how bizarrely different America seemed to be, but my point is that this experience, followed by a series of Greyhound bus trips up and down and across the vastness of America, exposed him to the rough and tumble of American life that I never encountered. His many subsequent visits to America, as a political commentator, often involved the same complexity of the good, the bad and the ugly apparent in his first one.
Having graduated with his English degree, Naughtie embarked on the journalist career he had chosen to pursue. Working initially for the Aberdeen Press and Journal
, he soon moved to become The Scotsman's
political correspondent in London. In 1984, he switched to The Guardian
, and a year later became its chief political correspondent. However, in 1986 he expanded his career by becoming a radio presenter on the BBC. For a number of years he worked on the World at One
, but it was his emergence as one of the major presenters on Radio Four's programme, Today
, that brought him to a new level of fame. By time he retired from that position in 2015 to become a more general political and cultural commentator, I think it would be fair to say he had become a household name.
Through all those years, however, Naughtie remained a fascinated observer of every aspect of America's political life. From the time of the Nixon Watergate scandal up to the election and presidency of Trump, his various jobs ensured he crossed the Atlantic to cover every intervening major American political event.
It is these political events, from the conventions at which the Republican and Democratic parties select their candidates for the presidency, occasions according to Naughtie 'as American as baseball or pumpkin pie', to the long drawn-out campaigns that follow, to the dramatic election nights at which the results are declared, and the nature of the presidency that ensues, that provide the meat of his book. Its various chapters focus around the contests that occur every four years: Jimmy Carter v. Gerald Ford (who had only become president after Nixon's resignation), Reagan v. Carter (who became one of the few sitting presidents to fail to win a second term), the first George Bush (who also became a one-term president) v. Bill Clinton, and so on up to Trump v. Hillary Clinton in 2016.
At this point, let me say that if you happen to be the kind of person who has no interest in politics – not to mention American politics – then this book is not for you. If, however, like many of us, you recognise that who becomes president of the United States affects all of us, then Naughtie's analysis of the last half-century of American politics is richly rewarding. And, if you happen to be a student of contemporary American politics, this book is a must read. His comprehensive commentary, based as it is on first-hand knowledge (there are, for example, lengthy interviews with such figures as Tony Blair and Hillary Clinton), comes across as fair and balanced as well as shrewd and percipient. Only in the case of one president could anyone suggest that the author allows his own views to bias his account. Inevitably, that one president is Donald Trump, and the 'anyone' would be a Trump believer.
In fact, one of the most impressive features of the book is the way in which Naughtie in different chapters begins to trace how the Trump phenomenon came into being. The story goes back as far as the Republican convention of 1964 and the emergence of Barry Goldwater as the Republican presidential candidate destined to be swept aside by the Democratic Lyndon Johnson. In his speeches and a book called The Conscience of a Conservative
, Goldwater adumbrated a series of policies well to the right of the Republican establishment. In subsequent years, what were in effect Goldwater's views began to gain more currency. Ironically, however, it was the least Trump-like of recent presidents who paved the way for the emergence of today's full-blown neo-conservatism.
Ronald Reagan was an easy-going, unassertive father figure who masses of American voters adored. His policies, however, influenced by the deeply conservative thinktank the Heritage Foundation founded in 1973, represented a major rightward shift in American politics and a rejection of the kind of America that liberal Americans had come to take for granted. This vision of an individualistic, deregulated, small government America, had become a reality for a majority of Republican voters. In due course, the emergence in the 21st century of an even more nationalistic movement called the Tea Party, and the financial support of multi-millionaires like the Koch brothers, pushed the Republican Party still further to the right. Mainstream Republicans from the Goldwater era would scarcely recognise what had happened to their party.
Finally, the book throws light on an aspect of Trump's support that I have always been puzzled by. We constantly hear that evangelical Christians are among his most dedicated supporters. Given Trump's language, behaviour, violent aggressiveness and militancy, how can this be? True 'evangelicals' would surely be unable to tolerate or support such a man. Well, Naughtie describes at length his many conversations with just such religious supporters – and it makes deeply distressing reading.
On the total abolition of abortion, for example, the Bible
says 'Thou shalt not kill'. End of story. What about the passages in the New Testament
which tell us to love our enemies one might ask? Well, if Trump occasionally over speaks and over acts it's because he's only a man, and all humans are fallen beings. Depressing indeed. In fact, closing his book with the word 'hope' – meaning that James Naughtie still hopes that the old America of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness can prevail – I came away from it feeling that given the unshakable devotion of his base, Trump might just contrive to win once again.
Instead of ending on such a sombre note, however, let me share with you the one laugh-out-loud American joke in On The Road
. Here it is. 'I answered the doorbell. It was the Boston Strangler. I called my wife. "It's for you!"'