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Q & A with Howard Fineman

By Heather Wilhelm

What inspired you to write "The Thirteen American Arguments"?

This project started as sort of an extra-credit report for me. When I started my career at the Courier-Journal in Louisville, I noticed that when reporters would pass on a particular beat to a new reporter, they would put together a memo explaining the ins and outs. This is my effort to do a "memo on the beat" for American politics--essentially, my theory on how it all works. I don't think I have a taxonomist's turn of mind, but I do like to see patterns in things. Covering politics as I have for a long time, you begin to hear the same conflicts over and over again, whether it's regarding the use of resources in Kentucky, the budget in Washington, or the dynamics of the campaign trail. I wanted to capture that larger theme.

This book is my way of looking at our public life and our history. I've heard many people say, "Well, lots of other countries argue!" But most of them weren't quite set up for it the way we were. America was built for argument.

Were there any arguments you considered adding to the book, but didn't?

Well, when you're putting together a book like this, you don't want the 872 American Arguments...but there were a few that I considered expanding. I was originally going to do the foreign policy section as two arguments, with one of them being isolationism vs. interventionism, which is the traditional framework. But, in truth, we were never really isolationists--we were founded as an international experiment. So I got rid of that one, making the foreign policy section center on one question: "Do we have to change the world to survive in it?" I think that works.

I also considered splitting the individualism chapter into two--into social and economic individualism. In the end, I decided not to, and that's a case where I may have over-generalized. But, with this book, I was constantly battling that tension. When you get a book contract, sometimes you think you have to write "War and Peace." Of course that's not the case, and it might not make a better book. I don't have an extensive scholarly background, but I do have thirty years of experience in covering politics, and I would argue that I understand the country pretty well.

Which of these great American debates do you think is likely to be most central to the 2008 election, and why?

I think it's the last one--"A Fair, More Perfect Union"--because right now, many people are feeling that the American idea may not be working, and that lots of people aren't being heard. The Internet, for instance, is a great metaphor for people wanting to be heard.

You may notice that I don't talk about class warfare, because I don't think that's a particularly American thing. I really struggled with the last chapter--it originally was titled "Elites vs. Vox Pop"--but I chose not to do that, because I don't think this issue is really a matter of class.

What, then, do you make of Barack Obama's recent comments regarding small-town Pennsylvania voters?

If you take a look at the people in those towns Obama referred to, it's pretty obvious that they don't feel inferior to anybody, and they certainly don't like candidates treating them like specimens on a Petri dish rather than human beings. Who does? That's the key problem with Obama's comments.

As this proverbial ship has launched, I've begun to see some holes in the book, and the class warfare thing is probably one of them. Another one, I think, is in the section on presidential leadership. I didn't really go into what kind of leader we want. It occurs to me, having written this book, is that the best presidents are those who embody all sides of these greater American arguments and try to mediate them. They, of course, have to have the breadth to do it. George W. Bush was not one of those people. I think the presidents we recognize as great were highly contradictory, complex people who were able to hear but not be immobilized by our various arguments. Lincoln is the greatest example of this--a great sum of the contradictions within the American arguments. The question for Obama, I suppose, is does he really, deeply understand the arguments he's talking about?

You write briefly in the introduction about wanting to "sound an alarm" because "we have clogged the arteries of the American body politic." Can you elaborate on this?

Sometimes I think that today, there is no public square. In colonial times, they literally came into the square and argued face to face. And while there were certainly problems with the era of big media, with Walter Cronkite saying "That's the way it is," you at least could hear opinions in one mass forum.

The problem now is that while the Internet fosters argument, it also diminishes it by allowing everyone to exist in their own universe of facts and opinions, which helps to reinforce what people already think.

You note that one of your goals is "to offer a sense of perspective in the midst of what, to many, seems like a gloomy period in our national life." Why do you think that sense of gloom has taken such a strong hold as of late?

I think that Americans aren't sure that they're special anymore. There is this feeling that we're losing, and we're not sure why. We have this sense that the world has grown beyond us, that we're no longer masters of our own fate.

What I concluded in the book, though, is that the truth has always been more complicated. We've always had to fight for everything, and we've never really been the masters of our own fate. And, using our system of argument, we've worked our way to better ways of understanding and negotiating the realities of world.

Through arguments, we have fought our way for a better future for 200 years--for 400 years, really. I think that's an optimism that I can defend.

Copyright 2008, Real Clear Politics


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