Coming Home to Find a Smug, Scared America

<i> Stanley Meisler, now based in Washington, was The Times' correspondent in Paris from 1983 to 1988</i>

You can hear the moments of boredom tick away whenever you tell Americans that no other industrialized democracy has the same dispiriting problems as the United States--not the crime, not the guns, not the homeless, not the unschooled, not the poor, not the racism, not the ugliness. Listeners may mimic interest for a short while, then their glances roll up and away.

They may not doubt me but, content in smugness, they do not care. After 21 years as a foreign correspondent, I returned home late last year to a country bristling with astonishing problems, most left untended. Yet many Americans persist in believing that their country has a divine mission on Earth, a model for all others.

Ignorance about the rest of the world seems total. Our son set off for high school the other day in a T-shirt emblazoned with a bust of Lenin. I jokingly warned him to be careful. “Don’t worry,” he said, cynically not jovially, “no one at school knows who he is.”


Few if any peoples can boast as much democracy and energy as Americans. These are wondrous gifts that foreigners can hardly fathom. Yet I often wonder now to what purposes they are put.

Fear of crime quickly makes a returning American feel the reality of home. On one winter night I walked across five dim, deserted Washington blocks wondering whether it might have been wiser to take a cab. There is no such fear in most cities of Western Europe and Canada. Almost all of downtown Paris, for example, bustles with carefree revelers at all hours before dawn. Crime does exist but if Los Angeles had the homicide rate of Paris it might consider disbanding its police force.

Americans, of course, are not oblivious to crime--they fume about it--but they do seem oblivious to the problems of poverty, education, unemployment, racism and inequality that spawn this crime. Instead, there are ever more cries for vengeance and ever more demands for Draconian punishment. These cries come even though the United States already keeps a higher percentage of its population in jail than any countries other than South Africa and the Soviet Union.

Although many countries fret over drug addiction, it is basically, as a Yale historian once put it, “an American disease.” The problem exists nowhere else in such intensity. Perhaps because the problem is smaller, Britain can look on addicts with humanity, treating them like sick people. The British have trouble understanding why Americans treat addicts as satanic enemies in a war on drugs.

At a recent symposium in Washington, Allan Parry, head of a Liverpool drug program, could not hide his fury at American attitudes toward addicts and the refusal of almost all American cities to hand out clean needles as a way of preventing the spread of AIDS.

“I find it very sad to see the people in the Bronx using the same needle and being criminalized and brutalized,” he said, words steeled in anger. “We used to send people to the United States to see how to do things. Now, people go to New York to see how not to run things. ‘ Let them die .’ The number of times I’ve heard that in this country. ‘ Let them die .’ It’s incredible.”

I took his words down, having occasionally felt the same kind of anger back home in America. The first images that struck me on my return, however, provoked only a troubling puzzlement. I saw an abundance that would astound the rest of the world and then an ugliness that might astound them just as much.


The cornucopia on a U.S. supermarket shelf, for example, numbs the sense of choice. A shopper searching for salad dressing must now choose among French, honey French, Italian, creamy Italian, zesty Italian, robust Italian, blue cheese, thousand island, Caesar, sweet & sour, ranch, buttermilk & herbs, celery seed & onion, dill & lemon and more.

There are at least 11 brands of dog food. Even bagels come in a host of flavors: garlic, onion, rye, pumpernickel, honey wheat, bran, sesame, poppy, cinnamon raisin--and plain.

Yet this dazzling display of abundance comes in enormities of shopping malls that proliferate around cities like pillboxes on guard against style and beauty. Such clusters of concrete existed two decades ago but never in such size and strength. They symbolize the sprawl and flight that make spiritless U.S. cities so different now from the vibrant, lovely towns of Europe.

No memory prepared me for the awfulness of American television commercials--almost every message loud, every scene frenzied. Any touch of subtlety vanishes with constant repetition. Only a masochist would sit through them with any pleasure, the way most people watch commercials in Paris. Sophisticates regard commercials in France as works of art; the best-known French movie directors make them.

No memory prepared me for the mindlessness of the 1988 presidential campaign. I had just covered the French presidential elections where the televised debate was sharp and meaningful, campaign speeches long and thoughtful, differences between candidates clear and philosophical. France allows no political spots on television. Campaign managers do not mold strategy around sound bites.

In 1988, French analysts kept moaning about the “Americanization” of their elections, meaning a decline of substance in favor of image. But a few weeks into the American campaign, it was clear that the French need not have worried; they were far, far behind the American model.


Television has created a vacuousness in American public life. Soon after arrival in Washington, I was entangled in several misunderstandings. While I thought I was arranging lengthy interviews with officials, they assumed I was setting up quick phone calls to catch pithy quotes. Television had instilled the idea that reporters needed no more than 15-second bites.

“You are an anachronism in American journalism,” said Marvin Kalb over dinner in Cambridge one night. The director of Harvard’s Joan Shorenstein Barone Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy explained, “You actually want to interview somebody.”

I have felt anguish about the irrefutable evidence of deterioration in America: Surveys rank U.S. schoolchildren at the bottom in math when tested against South Koreans, Canadians, Spaniards, Britons and Irish. Studies show the United States now has the 18th-worst infant-mortality rate in the world. Such reports make me feel I have returned to an America that feels good about tinsel and helpless before the scourges that matter.

Experience overseas taught me that no other people have the same control over their destiny as Americans. American democracy allows the people more rights than any other political system and more input--either through the power of public opinion or Congress--into government. In no other country could a legislature have denied a leader the choice of a secretary of defense the way the Senate rejected President Bush’s nomination of John G. Tower. In no other country could a peaceful expression of public opinion have denied Congress a pay raise the way it was denied here earlier this year.

Yet the despairing problems of America are neglected because Americans do not feel the need to face them. Bribed by tax cuts and soothed by Reagan years reassurances, they feel no urgency, content to accept the argument that “budget restraints” make it impossible to do anything--at least now. The fact that Western Europe and Canada manage these problems by imposing higher taxes and spending government funds heavily does not seem to impress anyone, if they even know about it.

Perhaps the problem is leadership. Leaders of most industrial democracies have a breadth of intellect and experience, a moral strength and commitment to reason that often seems lacking here. Perhaps the very power of our people undercuts leadership. U.S. leaders have to cater to the tastes and whims of the masses in ways that leaders in countries like France and Britain do not.


The differences in leadership are hard to explain. Since returning, only one American politician has truly impressed me--Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.). He breakfasted with reporters one morning and replied to all questions with impeccable logic, pertinent evidence, thoughtful analysis and reasonable conclusions. I had not heard that quality of political discourse since leaving Paris.

After the breakfast, I excitedly told everyone that Mitchell sounded just like a French politician. I meant it as a compliment; everyone else assumed I was putting him down.