The Washington Post has come out with a book called Looking For America. Post reporters David Maraniss and Robert Samuels write about the election campaign rallies they attended and the appeal of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders to ordinary Americans. I was drawn to the book because the title seemed lifted from a Simon and Garfunkel song about “looking for America”.
The song called America appeared on the Bookends album released in 1968. Simon and Garfunkel sing about a couple boarding a Greyhound bus in Pittsburgh to “look for America”. When the girl called Kathy falls asleep on the bus, her lover counts the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike. “They’ve all come/ To look for America,” goes the refrain, “All come to look for America.”
It’s a beautiful song. But what does it have to do with the 2016 US presidential election? The book, Looking for America, has the answer. America is as divided now as it was then, in 1968, when Richard Nixon was elected president.
America has been bitterly divided during every election of late, so why draw a parallel between 2016 and 1968? Because Bernie Sanders and his followers recall the anti-Vietnam War protesters in their fervour.
Simon and Garfunkel’s songs have a sweetness and poetry that recall the soulful, idealistic side of the Sixties. It was a time of singer-songwriters. Literature and poetry flourished. People explored alternative lifestyles.
1968, Nixon and after
But the Sixties were also rocked by violence and anger. The 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago was marred by police beatings of anti-war protesters that, shown on television, shocked America. Maraniss and Samuels recall this in Looking For America.
Unusually, the 1968 election was a three-way race. The Republican Richard Nixon romped to the White House defeating the Democratic vice-president Hubert Humphrey and the segregationist Southern Democrat George Wallace who ran as an independent.
Nixon was re-elected in 1972, routing the Democrat George McGovern, But he was forced to step down in 1974 after the Watergate scandal brought to light by the Washington Post. The newspaper revealed how his men had broken into the Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington, DC, in June 1972.
Nixon, for all his faults, and his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, will be remembered for their foreign policy breakthroughs. Nixon visited China in 1972 and ended American involvement in Vietnam with the Paris Peace Accords in 1973.
Who knows what the election this year will lead to?
Trump wants to “make America great again”. He despises the Washington Post, which has been critical of him. The Washington Post reporters Maraniss and Samuels, however, quote his supporters as well as his critics to cover both sides in their book, Looking For America. But they end with a quote from a foreigner who loves America.
Maurice Jones is a Welshman and retired sergeant major in the British army who saw action in Northern Ireland and the Falklands. He visits the Alamo every year as a fan of Davy Crockett. This is how the book ends, with a quote from him in Alamo:
Jones thought he knew America, until this year. (But he was now asking others) to explain the rise of Trump and the ruckus in the Republican Party. He knew about nationalism, and in fact said he would vote for Britain to leave the European Union. And like all Europeans, he certainly knew about the difficulties Western nations faced dealing with a flood of refugees and immigrants, although he thought the Britons were handling the problem more rationally than the Americans.
But “all the nastiness and name-calling on the telly from Mr Trump” – that was beyond him. And so was the notion that America was not great. “This is still basically the land of opportunity, is it not? If you work at it, you can still get on with it, can you not? It is a beautiful country. If I had to do over again, and I were a young lad, this is where I would want to live.”
By Simon and Garfunkel
Let us be lovers,
We’ll marry our fortunes together.
I’ve got some real estate
Here in my bag.
So we bought a pack of cigarettes,
And Mrs. Wagner’s pies,
And walked off
To look for America.
“Kathy”, I said,
As we boarded a Greyhound in Pittsburgh,
Michigan seems like a dream to me now.
It took me four days
To hitch-hike from Saginaw.
“I’ve come to look for America.”
Laughing on the bus,
Playing games with the faces,
She said the man in the gabardine suit
Was a spy.
I said, “Be careful,
His bow tie is really a camera.”
“Toss me a cigarette,
I think there’s one in my raincoat.”
We smoked the last one
An hour ago.
So I looked at the scenery,
She read her magazine;
And the moon rose over an open field.
“Kathy, I’m lost”, I said,
Though I knew she was sleeping.
“I’m empty and aching and
I don’t know why.”
Counting the cars
On the New Jersey Turnpike
They’ve all come
To look for America,
All come to look for America,
All come to look for America.