THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
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Thank you so much for your time James. Our traditional first question, where in the World are you from?
I was born in northern Scotland and although I’ve lived in London since the late seventies, that’s undoubtedly where I’m from. Having a home in Edinburgh for the past ten years has reminded me of that. As Americans understand well, all parts of the UK are not the same. The Scottish story - historically, intellectually, emotionally - is enthralling and remarkable.
Your latest book, On The Road, looks back at your experiences of America over a 50 year period - what inspired you to tell this particular story?
The US is troubled as we all know, riven by poisoned politics, that challenge its belief in what it should be as a country. I first went there in 1970 as a student in the Vietnam era, so half a century on it seemed a natural moment to wonder what has changed, and what hasn’t. But the book isn’t meant to be a meditation on all that, just a piece of story-telling about what it has been like for me. People, events, places I love. A journey from Nixon to Trump, but the politics is only part of the story.
How did your first experiences of America differ from your perceptions of the country beforehand?
I was prepared for the thrill, but not for the richness of the tapestry. I realised, in that first intoxicating summer, how long it would take for me to get to know it properly and to learn. A job in a Borscht Belt hotel and then a long meander south and west certainly taught me that.
50 years is a long time in the States, and a lot has happened, but what do you think was the most extraordinary story from your experiences in the country?
Apart from 9/11,I think there have been two political events that were either misunderstood or underestimated on this side of the pond. Reagan seems to be the most misunderstood of modern presidents here. All the cue-card jokes concealed the profound political movement that grew in his shadow. And then Obama. The significance of that moment - I followed him through the Deep South in the days before his election - was hard for non-Americans to understand fully. But in the book I’ve tried to tell human stories too, like sitting with Jimmy Carter’s mother - Miz Lillian - as she watched Teddy Kennedy’s speech to the 1980 Democratic Convention assailing the president. ‘I sure hope nothing happens to that boy,’ she said after he finished.
How has America changed during those 50 years, and what has remained the same?
Its vitality and restlessness hasn’t changed. But the cultural mix has become much richer and more obvious to everyone, almost as if you were watching the changes in New York in the first years of the twentieth century. The public space is a different kind of place now. With that has come greater understanding of the different cultures in the country, but I fear that the problem of race - ‘the original sin’ - is, stubbornly, still there. Obama cracked the wall, but was never going to be able to pull it down. What remains is America’s native optimism. I don’t think that will disappear.
You mention the 'Special Relationship' briefly in the book - how is that relationship viewed differently in the US and UK?
Ah, the most misleading phrase of all. Cultural ties, of course. A shared language, sort of. A defence and intelligence relationship that joins the countries at the hip. All that, but America’s interests are now concentrated elsewhere, inevitably. A president still craves invitations to Windsor Castle, but I think the ‘special relationship’ is usually a thoroughly uncharacteristic piece of British overstatement.
I've read that you're a fellow of the British-American Project, so I wonder what the Special Relationship means to you?
It means a great deal. I cherish American friends, American books, New York and Chicago, country roads and wild places. Set me down anywhere in New England, for example, and I’m a happy man, by the sea or in the hills (and watching the Sox, in case you were to ask). That’s why when there are troubles - as when Donald Trump suggests that the network of relationships with Europe are disposable, like an out-of-date business deal - many people are sad. We’re bound together in so many ways, with all our differences, that we should only have grown-up arguments. And afterwards, celebrate our shared story.
You've worked in the media in both the US and the UK - is there a notable different in the way journalism works in both countries?
Yes. Let me cite two simple examples. The best American newspaper journalism has a history of rigour and public service that many British titles have never prized to such an extent. But I hope that in this country we never reach the point when broadcasting becomes an ideological playground, which I think has been one of the single most damaging assaults on the best of America’s political and social culture. The quality of writing in journalism? The two countries are different, stylistically and in outlook, but I think the culture of long-form journalism in the US, stretching back a century, is one we should envy.
How has reporting on American politics changed since you first started?
Some of it is very good, and some very bad. That hasn’t changed. But like most journalists, I worry that the simple qualities of veracity and integrity have been sacrificed on the altar of correctness towards the prevailing power (in this case, on the Right) and that these attitudes are worming their way into the system. Think of what was considered shocking in Watergate days (the President saying ‘Goddamn’ in the Oval Office!) and what now passes without comment. Fighting against that requires brave journalism. There’s a lot of it about. But we could do with even more.
You conclude the book with a sense that America is a restless nation, but one which retains a 'spirit' that encourages people to come back. Is the American Dream a resilient one?
Oh yes. ‘...boats against the current…’ and all that. The question isn’t whether it’s there or not, it’s whether or not it can be recoloured for the next generation. Anyone who assumes that it is inevitable is taking a big risk. Think of kids on Ellis Island, circa 1895, then think of the DACA youngsters threatened with deportation to a home they had never known (until the President was blocked by the courts). The growth of enlightenment can never be taken for granted.
Just one quick question about the 2020 Election! Just how unpredictable will it be?
Very. Is that enough? And on top of it all, the virus crisis is so uncertain that we can’t know its effect. Right now - in April - I would guess it will not help the incumbent.
On a personal note, what do you hope readers take away from your book?
A feeling for the allure of America for outsiders, and an enjoyment of the highs and lows in its public life. I hope, too, some shared fun with me about characters and events that I’ve been lucky enough to experience.
What projects are next on the horizon for you?
Radio programmes about the campaign, I hope. Writing another thriller. Listening to music. Waiting for Robert A. Caro’s last volume.
Finally, what's the best thing about being James Naughtie?
Not worrying about what the best thing is.
James Naughtie's book, On The Road, a story of his experiences of American from Nixon to Trump, is available to buy now from publisher Simon and Schuster.