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Jewish World Review Oct. 29, 2001 / 12 Mar-Cheshvan, 5762

Chris Matthews

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America: All we have

This column is the first of three articles serialized from Chris Matthews' new book, "Now, Let Me Tell You What I Really Think" which is out this week. Ordering this book, by clicking on the title, helps fund JWR. -- I LIKED the way President Harry Truman talked about us. He called us "this country." He didn't mean the government in Washington, but the American people in those splendid moments when we feel and act as one.

Some of those moments I have witnessed firsthand. I was a college freshman when Jack Kennedy was shot, in remote Africa when Americans crossed the star-filled night on their way to the moon. I shared this country's anger at Vietnam, Watergate, and the petty indignities of the Clinton era.

Through it all, I have watched the American spirit not only survive, but prevail. Where politicians have failed us, the country itself has always risen to the challenge, quickened at each new assault on its morale.

I write these words in the days just after the World Trade Center horror. I have just heard President Bush say at the National Cathedral that a country, like a person, "discovers" itself in adversity.

I expect we will discover the country of our birth. That first flag of the American Revolution showed a coiled snake and the words "Don't Tread On Me."

Japan learned that lesson in 1945, as did Adolf Hitler before him, as will those who attacked our homeland in 2001. This country is an optimistic, upbeat land. For 200 years, we have shown little ambition for foreign conquest, total interest in building and protecting our society here at home.

In the days following Sept. 11, 2001, the optimism of 200 years began shining through the wreckage. Rejecting the role of the victim, we gave blood, flaunted the flag and rooted for our new president to do what was right.

I think there's such a thing as an American ATTITUDE. It manifests itself in the candidates we like and in those we don't. Just as a human being possesses a soul as well as a body, this country has a SPIRIT as well as a geography. You're ill-advised to tread on us, our self-respect, or our Social Security.

This political assessment wasn't cultivated in a petri dish. It comes from 30 years that were divided roughly between working for politicians and covering them.

Even as an insider, I kept an outsider's attitude. When I wrote speeches for President Carter, my drinking buddies taunted me during the yearlong humiliation of the Iranian hostage crisis. When I worked as right-hand man for Tip O'Neill, I never forgot how much I had liked Ronald Reagan all those years on "GE Theater." But before all that, I grew up in the America I talk and write about -- in a family that, to use a discarded Clinton line, worked hard and played by the rules. Dad was intensely self-reliant. Mom was just as intensely suspicious of the country's cultural elite. My family background is as much a part of my political commentary as what I see in Washington.

It's what I know of this REAL America that fills these pages. The big fights today are not about economics -- we pretty much agree on things like balanced budgets and free trade. It's not even about the usual laundry list of issues the politicians mentally -- or literally -- pull out of their pockets when asked what the next election is all about.

It's about this ATTITUDE of ours.

When you think about it, we Americans ARE different. That word "freedom" isn't just in our documents; it's in our cowboy souls. We are the most freedom-loving people in the world. We'd rather have guns than live under a government powerful enough to collect them all. We regularly say "no" to a British-style national health system, fearing that it would mean a regime of long lines to see strange doctors. Many people with grave concerns about abortion would rather see women individually decide the matter rather than live under a government repressive enough to deny them the freedom to decide.

Nor are we Americans as cynical as some older cultures. After more than 200 years of existence in a complex world, we continue to see life as a battle between the good guys and the bad guys. That's one reason Europeans love looking down on us. Why can't we be more sophisticated, more worldly? Yet, it is that very good-guys-vs.-bad-guys mindset of ours that the same Europeans call upon when they face a real bad guy like Hitler, Stalin, Milosevic or bin Laden.

I know that mindset firsthand. My first job when I came to Washington three decades ago was as a .38-caliber-toting officer of the U.S. Capitol Police. Those were the old days, when senators and members of Congress used the police jobs as patronage. Some of the slots went to sons of political pals so that these fortunate fellows could go to law school in D.C. My 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. shift was payback for working in a U.S. senator's office writing speeches and answering letters during the daytime.

But the core of the force was made up of "lifers" from the military, enlisted guys who'd done long hitches in the Army, Navy, or Marines.

I'd spend hours hanging out with these guys. My favorite was Sgt. Leroy Taylor. He was one of those citizen-philosophers who instinctively grasped this country's real politics -- the kind that people live and are ready to die for. He and the other country boys would talk about how they would do anything to defend the Capitol. More than some of the big-shot elected officials, my colleagues in blue revered the place and what it meant to the republic. It wasn't about them, but about something much bigger.

I will never forget what Leroy once told me and the wisdom it contained: "The little man loves his country, Chris, because it's ALL HE'S GOT."

I have never heard a better rendition of what I see as our unique American attitude. Or a sharper measure of the distance ordinary people feel from the economic and educated elites. Or a finer explanation of why, even with last year's then still-booming economy as his trump card, Al Gore isn't in the White House. Or why, when a real political gusher blows in this country, the establishment's finest will always be the last to yell. Or why, thank G-d, a guy with a partisan rap sheet like mine has earned the trust of so many conservatives, independents, and liberals who, like me, know just what Leroy Taylor was talking about.

JWR contributor Chris Matthews is the author of "Now, Let Me Tell You What I Really Think". and hosts a CNBC show of the same name. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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