Magazine article The Spectator

Even the Republicans Have to Woo Americans Who Go to Church and Do Not Lock Their Doors

Magazine article The Spectator

Even the Republicans Have to Woo Americans Who Go to Church and Do Not Lock Their Doors

Article excerpt

Back in the 1950s, when 'gay' still meant having fun, a Congressional aide wrote a minor masterpiece, The Gay Place, now inexplicably forgotten. The author's name was Billy Lee Brammer. Shortly afterwards, he died young; a great promise unfulfilled. His book consisted of three novellas; their subject matter is Texas politics. The principal character, Governor Arthur Fenstemaker, is not just based on Lyndon Johnson; he is LBJ. But Brammer created much more than a roman a clef. As well as the humour and pace of politics, he evokes loss, fickleness, regret, stoicism. In The Gay Place, politics is part of the human condition, not an excrescence upon it.

The book opens with a powerful insight: 'The country is so barbarously large and final. It is too much country . . . alternatively drab and dazzling . . . so wrongfully muddled and various that it is difficult to conceive of it as all of a piece.' Though Brammer was merely referring to his native Texas, his judgment is even truer of the whole nation than of the Lone Star State with one exception. There is nothing final about the United States of America.

Every time the USA elects a president, much of the rest of the world recoils from the process in horror, and many sensitive Americans share that reaction. Apart from the demagoguery and vulgarity, two complaints are perennial: time and cost. The current presidential campaign was under way by July 1999, yet the serious electioneering is only just about to begin. By the time all this year's ballots are counted, around $3 billion will have been expended: more, no doubt, than the GDP of several countries which ought to rank among the deserving poor, if you listen to aid agencies.

And yet, for the last 100 years, this barbarously large and dazzling country has not merely been the home of the brave. It has been the land of the tallest, the biggest, the most extravagant - and it still is. The evidence for this does not just come from the projected budget surplus: $4 trillion over the next decade, equal to three times Britain's annual GDP. It comes from the casual sums thrown up in a day's news. An additional $1.4 billion is to be spent on improving security at US embassies, while the Republicans are to spend $100 million on boosting voter turnout: that from a party which has traditionally benefited from a low turn-out.

The era of the horizontal skyscraper may be over; these days, American cars look like normal ones. But in every other respect the United States is built on a larger scale than other countries. Only a roaringly excessive political process could do justice to America's magniloquent grossness. I reached that conclusion in paradoxical surroundings, for there is nothing gross about the Brandy Wine Valley in Pennsylvania. During the War of Independence, it saw fierce fighting while still a wilderness, thus ensuring that embattled manhood had to contend with implacable nature as well as with human foes. Since then, however, the Brandy Wine has been tamed to a Cotswoldian extent, and even by the 19th century it was attracting painters. But alas, none of their talents was worthy of the landscape, so the legacy is wall after wall of lush, banal twaddling.

The true Brandy Wine school did emerge later, in the person of Andrew Wyeth: is there a finer living painter? His predecessors were lush; he is spare. His subject-matter is a dead leaf on an autumnal branch, a bleak barn, a house at twilight, the frozen earth. …

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