Bringing out the best in Americans

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 15 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 15 January, 2008, 12:00am

Why, in the end, do we perennial American critics so respect the United States? At times, it has been hard to - when its voters re-elected George W. Bush, for example.

It is because America has a soul. Its religious beliefs may get shaky, but Americans are more sincere than most of us. They do want to do what is right. Indeed, they read avidly more 'how to' books than the rest of us put together. It is just a pity that more of them don't read more deeply, either history or literature, and that their leaders can often be as shallow as the masses.

America does have moral limits. As Zbigniew Brzezinski, Barack Obama's foreign policy adviser, is fond of saying: 'Whilst America has power, it also has principles.' It also continuously gets rid of incumbent presidents at the ballot box.

Now we may be about to witness, this year, a great historical event without precedent - the possibility of a mainly white nation choosing a man of colour as president.

Can we who took part in the civil rights marches in Selma digest what is happening? Then, Martin Luther King, with his tremendous oratorical power, had to take white America by the nose and hold it face down in the Bible. Today, states like Iowa and New Hampshire with more than 90 per cent white populations believe, without being pushed and with a good range of other choices, that a 46-year-old black man can lead America away from the brink of world public damnation and back to being a respected society.

I know many readers will say: 'Yes, but. This is a mere cosmetic change.' Beneath the surface, the military-industrial complex, along with Wall Street and its legions of self-interested moneymen, will still rule. The voters barely have an influence on better schools let alone grander, more difficult issues.

Show me one society where it is different.

America can change under the democratic will and nothing shows it more clearly than the progress of black America. No one predicted in 1965 at the time of the Voting Rights Act that, by the end of the century, a black general would command all US forces or that the new century would see black bosses running some of the world's biggest firms.

Like Senator Obama, I know the awful content of American slums. Like him, I chose to live and work for a while in Chicago's West Side. A few years ago, the BBC sent me back, to see if things had changed for the better since Martin Luther King's aborted 'End the Slums' campaign.

I found it had, in many ways, but it still had a long, long way to go before life could be called pleasant and reasonable. But a national health care plan, serious educational reform and a massive job retraining programme could change a lot. Whoever becomes the Democratic Party's candidate - and, right now, it will be either Senator Obama or Hillary Rodham Clinton - will pledge to do such things.

Change in America can be painfully slow, but sometimes it can be speeded up. But to lead it well, one has to have the personality that brings out the best in Americans. Senator Obama appears to have more of it than Senator Clinton.

Jonathan Power is a London-based journalist