Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Philosophizing about America

From Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large
January 29, 1986

On the Road
By Charles Kuralt
G.P. Putnam

Made in America
By Peter Ueberroth (with Richard Levin and Amy Quin)
William Morrow

Reviewed by Patrick D. Hazard

Juxtaposition can be the midwife of invention. Thus when my hand made a beeline for the new Charles Kuralt on the non-fiction rack at the local library, it brushed past Made in America, by Peter Ueberroth (His Own Story).

Rarely have the visages of disparate American characters been so patently on view. The Redskin Kuralt—shit-kickin’ (shit-eatin’, it turned out) grin, open-collared safari shirt, the yellow center line of a back-country open road behind his balding pate, inviting Brendan Gill to burble: “Charles Kuralt is a latter-day Whitman, taking to the open road with the purposeful relish that Whitman did and reporting what he finds out there with the same accuracy and high spirits.” Hmmm: New Yorker sophisticate affirming egalitarian camaraderie.

Juxtapose the primly smirking Paleface Ueberroth—rep tie over pale blue (eminently televisable) shirt, proper dark blue business suit, against a backdrop of David Wolper’s canny upstaging of the military antics at Moscow: a single flash of 140 flags of the teams competing at the L.A. Olympics.

The only thing more disgusting than that tight smirk was the year-long toothsomeness of Mary Lou Retton selling breakfast cereals and supercharged batteries. Even the groupie prose of the multiple authorship set my teeth on edge, as if “his own story” could be told only with the help of his press agents.

But the title caught my attention because it was identical with the classic that has most influenced my view of America, John Kouwenhoven’s still superb Made in America: The Arts in Modern Civilization (1949). I scooped Ueberroth up with Kuralt, maybe to prove to myself how far America had unraveled in fewer than 40 years. Little did I suspect what an ironic reversal I was setting myself up for.

Kuralt’s Sunday Morning TV show, I realize in retrospect, had become for me a kind of very low Mass, a secular substitute for not going to church (itself a simulacrum for the ritual Sunday Times, long since abandoned). Well, I do declare, Kuralt doesn’t hold up without the audiovisual ingratiation.

To conclude a piece on a hex-sign painter in Pennsylvania, he ruminates about the symbols’ alleged power to keep away the witches: “Along the way we saw a multitude of starbursts and rosettes and whirligigs and flowers. And I got to thinking. Pennsylvania Dutch are among the country’s most successful farmers, after all. And you hardly ever hear of witches in their barns.

“Be that as it may, we bought a hex sign, a rosette for good luck, and hung it on the bus. That afternoon, coming around a curve, a ten-ton truck just missed us. Missed us, I say.

“Of course, he might have missed us if we hadn’t had a hex sign.”

This is hokum, I say, pure rubese: in fact, looking closely at his chipper put-downs of modern America by comparing it with the pockets of purity he finds way off the beaten track, Kuralt’s ploy is “rube-rue.”

Oh, rue the day when blacksmiths went out of style, when folks put their interstates above their covered bridges. This is but TV’s version of the Saturday Evening Post’s Norman Rockwell—good-old-daze genial humor on the editorial side while the Curtis Publishing Company’s ad salesmen went lickety-split, undermining the old verities with new merchandise. Like Henry Ford’s facile pipe dream, Greenfield Village, a nostalgia-ridden memorial to the rubeosities that his Model T kicked off the face of the planet.

And how’s this for crocodile tears? “Drive across the country and you find that hardly anybody makes anything. I think of my own friends and neighbors. One of them sells insurance, one of them takes pictures for a living, one’s an actor, one’s a lawyer—none of them makes anything. I talk on television. I don’t make anything either. … Years ago, nearly everybody in the cities made something—harnesses, wagon wheels, hats, violins. …”

And 99 and 44/100s of them died at an early age, burnt out from overwork, making things.

What’s better, now the country’s crawling with hobbyists, people making what they want to make on their own time—that free time the symbol-peddling society has democratized.

(Although a lot of them, true, could be better off spending time making things, human and non-human, than watching this instant nostalgia.)

Even his twitting of the youth cult seems bogus to me, “I find myself,” he confides in the section portentously entitled “Passing the Torch,” “drawn to old people. My friends back at the office kid me about this endlessly. They say I never do a story about a man until he has lost his hair and his teeth. … Old people are more interesting than young people, that’s all.” That’s just the silliest generalization I’ve ever heard a middle-aged man utter.

Tell it to Peter Ueberroth—and the 72,000 fellow employees and volunteers he galvanized into making a success of the 1984 Olympics, or to the 40 million Americans “who stood by the roadsides to cheer on the Olympic torch.” Ueberroth comes across as an all-together Jeffersonian guy—slightly shallow perhaps—whose gut reactions under pressure really impressed me, in spite of myself.

When a WASPish delegation visited to complain, in a mealy-mouthed way, that he had too many Jews in top positions, he told them to get the hell out of his office, which he would continue to staff with the best possible people, irrespective of credential or connection. And when the equestrian-set snobs harassed him with their unearned sense of importance, he basked in Prince Philip’s lack of arrogance.

By Kuralt’s standards, Ueberroth, that water-polo major from San Jose State with a graduate degree in surfing from Waikiki, never made anything either—except budget travel packages for all those symbol-pushers in America’s post-rube age. And now he’s doing his damnedest to keep baseball, the national pastime, from being too much past its time.

But he does it with the energy, the lack of false moralizing that makes Kuralt merely look deep. It’s go-getters like Ueberroth who make Kuralt’s van and network-financed odyssey possible. It’s amusing sometimes, the Ripley “Believe It or Not” stuff that Kuralt turns up in his easy-going peregrinations. But spare us the deep-thinking commentaries.

Those good old days were a mess—blacksmiths or not—as, indeed, are our times, with computer whizbangs banging away on their high-tech anvils. Rube-rue just adds the false patina of false philosophy to his archaeological digs.

Come to think of it, all this current brouhaha about Edward R. Murrow as the statesman of television leaves me colder and colder. Murrow went too quickly and too glibly from Harvest of Shame to Person to Person, that telepreparation for People magazine, for me to think much of him as a heavy thinker. Television’s heroes lead me to formulate Hazard’s Law: A desolate valley of mediocrity makes a foothill look like a mountain.

Damn. That’s the trouble with reading books. You never know where the darn things are going to lead you. A mind is a painful thing to change.

Patrick Hazard emanates from the St. Paulish area of the Midwest.

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