Schama Looks At History For 'American Future' The recent election, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and global financial crunch all feel historic. Simon Schama looks to the past for some context in his new book, The American Future, and concludes little of it is really new.
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Schama Looks At History For 'American Future'

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Schama Looks At History For 'American Future'

Schama Looks At History For 'American Future'

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Columbus, Ohio broadcasting today from the studios of member station WOSU. We've heard the word historic in many contexts over the past year: In the Democratic primary where an African-American competed against a woman for the presidential nomination, in the election of America's first African-American president and the two biggest issues of our last political campaign, the unfinished wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the deep and global financial crisis. Now, Americans face bailouts, bankruptcies, foreclosures, rising unemployment and foreign policy challenges from Beijing to Beirut.

And yet Historian Simon Schama points out all this while historic, is really nothing new. After George Washington's election, his secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, negotiated loans just to cut the salaries of the president and Congress. Abraham Lincoln took over a country just as it dissolved into civil war. Franklin Roosevelt moved into the White House amid the depths of the Great Depression. So, what can we learn from our past that will tell us something about our future? Later in the hour, we'll check in on VORTEX2, an ambitious effort to chase down and peer inside powerful tornados.

But first, what event, what person in America's past will most inform our future? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: You can also join the conversation on our Web site. Go to, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Simon Schama is a professor of art history and history at Colombia University in New York. His new book is called, "The American Future: A History." And Simon Schama, welcome back to TALK OF THE NATION.

Dr. SIMON SCHAMA (Professor, Art History and History, Colombia University; Author, "The American Future: A History"): Thank you for having me, Neal. It's great to be back.

CONAN: And there are four themes in your new book: war, religion, immigration and plenty. If I could start with that last one, if I could, we often think of ourselves, and describe ourselves in fact, as the most prosperous nation on earth. Do periods of deep economic uncertainly, like the one we're currently in, do they challenge that definition of success, that definition of ourselves?

Dr. SCHAMA: Well, there are two kinds of crisis actually, four full chapters to crisis: One is financial meltdown which, hello, we seem to be going through. Are we over it? Not yet, I don't think so. And there is an enemy of really considering this thing historically and that's called the business cycle, because cycle is something that goes round and round. And therefore the sense actually of financial meltdowns is that it will all get better, that the swing will come back. The stock exchange will get up off its knees and indeed it's doing this, at least is not completely flat out on the ground.

So, in some sense, if one's watching for the - to mix my metaphors, as I occasionally, am known to do - the swing of the pendulum going the other way, we think, well, this is just a way it is. But, of course - but - the reason why this is such a kind of bigger thing than a mere kind of blip on the business cycle is that there are these deep structural issues. For instance, from being the world's great creditor at the beginning of the 20th century, we're to world's great debtor, instead of pontificating to the Chinese about how they might better arrange their society, they, you know, have us in a corner because we're so dependent on the percentage of the bonds held by people other than Americans.

But - and lurking really beyond all that is the sense of - which Americans are very uncomfortable with and it's not part of the - we're not wired to deal with the dreaded L words and limits. There is a censor on limits to the American part of the - the economic part of the American dream, limits to natural resources. One of the chapters in the book and one of the films that we made at the same time is about water. And when the economic crisis right now is a distant memory, when the stock exchange is standing tall again, we will still have the problem that there is not enough water to go around in the lower Colorado basin. And at some point, 20 years in time, Albuquerque will simply turn the faucets off.

CONAN: And those are structural problems as you suggest. Nevertheless, you also argue that there is something in the American character - and I have to apologize, I've not seen the films on PBS, I've just read the book - but that there is something in American character…

Dr. SCHAMA: I forgive you. Don't let it happen again, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: …something in the American character that seems to emerge from times of desperation, going back as…

Dr. SCHAMA: The great glory about America, having lived here for 30 years, despite - and I'm sorry about the accent everyone out there, I'll try and do better. But the great thing about living in America is that it's a place of ideals, which are constantly tested by the execution of reality. Just because reality sometimes sits up and gives you a nasty blow to the nose, doesn't mean, say, you should jump any ideals. Now, in case of the - what I call - the expectations of abundance, America can-do, how-to, Benjamin Franklin-resourceful kind of America had spreading beyond the Appalachians, this gigantic continent made even more promising by the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. It was often referred to as something which God, providence itself, had bestowed on the American people in return for thrift, hard work and freedom. And if you just really stuck a hoe in the soil and you felt the sweat of your bow drip on the furrows, it would bless you with corn or it would bless you with oil, or would bless you with natural gas, or whatever. That was, you know, a kind of extraordinary fantasy really which seemed sort of never to end. But we've come to the end of what I call in American plenty, infinity. We have to now think of limits and how to share what resources we have.

It's been a feature of American life, I have to say, that along with the people who nourished this expectation that prosperity blessed by hard work would never end, along with those kinds of people, we had good conscientious stewards of the economy, of our natural resources, who said hold on a minute. It's not going to go on forever. The book talks about John Wesley Powell who was the first man to make it right through the Grand Canyon and the Colorado and everyone expected Powell to say, the arid lands of the West, if watered with intensive irrigation, could produce America's bread basket and so indeed for a long time they could.

But Powell turned into some - a 19th century version of Jimmy Carter, he kept on saying, wait a minute. There's not enough water to go around. We have to be careful. We have to prudent. And that sense of kind of prudent husbandry, prudent stewardship is another part of the American historical story. Barack Obama's task - and it's a stiff one, his entering it must be a nightmare - but his task is really how to steer America through to a different sense of coping in a rougher, tougher world, both inside and outside the country, without demoralizing people, without making them feel the American moment is over, which it most certainly is not.

CONAN: Indeed that was Jimmy Carter's problem. He may have understood some of the limitations we faced. Nevertheless, he could not get around that depressing problem and was thereby roundly defeated when he…

Dr. SCHAMA: Yeah, William…

CONAN: …chose to run for reelection.

Dr. SCHAMA: Right. William Buckley - naughty man, but brilliant - said after listening to President Carter deliver another sermon on television that he hadn't realized that God was a member of President Carter's Cabinet.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. SCHAMA: And the trouble with the Carter approach was he made us feel - you know, he made us feel just dripping with sin and that's not a way forward.

CONAN: We're talking with historian Simon Schama today about his new book, "The American Future: A History." What event, what person from America's past do you think will most inform us about our future? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email is And let's start with Kevin(ph). Kevin with us from Pawtucket in Rhode Island.

KEVIN (Caller): Hi, how are you?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

KEVIN: I would say the one person we need to look back to especially right now is actually Henry David Thoreau. We need to go back to the very simple version of simplify, simplify, simplify. We got into this whole mess because we took mortgages and exaggerated them to the point where no one could figure them out, whether you had a Ph.D. or a master's. The government now regulates everything, and this is coming from a pretty hard leftist that you can barely get past anything in life without having to fill out forms. We need to go back to just let's get rid of all these vanities in life, and let's go back to just enjoying it.

CONAN: And have our mothers deliver us dinner every evening in our cabin.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. SCHAMA: You're very naughty, Neal Conan. But I'm going to be even naughtier and say - Kevin, right? I love Thoreau. He's one of the great American writers, quite apart from the message of what he's saying. I mean, he's just - I get my students trying to just read him for the kind of romantic, bristling vigor of the way he writes. But Kevin, you tell me - and I'm very generous with my grades. At least I am today. How long was Thoreau living on Walden Pond?

KEVIN: Oh, it was only a few months, I believe.

Dr. SCHAMA: Yeah, well it was a bit longer than that, but it wasn't more than two winters. So, you know, the trouble is we can't be dealing with short-term utopias. I mean, you're right. In some sense, it's wonderful, because actually if part of the problem - it's a part of the problem we have now is our economic energy, our economic dynamism has been built on debts, has been built on consume, consume, consume, drive-through, buy-buy, eat-eat, you know, all of that.

Thoreau is really the other American voice, saying wait a minute. There are more important things in life. You know, there's the dew on the grass in an early morning in April. There is a random possum you might be able to take home and skin and fry or whatever Thoreau claimed to have done with it. But that's not the way we've built our lives. And you are right, I think, in saying simplify, simplify. It's so wonderful.

But, you know, our economy is not based on that. The government is betting to try and put a little bit more money in people's pockets, or at least not take so much out of it, in order that our consumption habits will somehow revive at the same time as making sure we're not massively indebted. People could do a lot worse than to read "Walden Pond" and Thoreau. I'm sure you're right about that.

CONAN: It's interesting - and Kevin, thanks very much for the call. Simon Schama, the writer, you do describe quite a bit in your book and portray him really in comparison to President Theodore Roosevelt, is Mark Twain.

Dr. SCHAMA: Yeah. You know, how can you, I mean, not admire Mark Twain? Here's someone - a difficult, complicated, often bitter and acidulous man, but one of the, you know, most extraordinary figures in American history, never mind literature. Thoreau was on an around-the-world trip at the end of the 19th century to try and pay off his debts. And he is - we don't think of - I don't know. Do we think of Mark Twain as a public intellectual, a pretentious phrase of which we all plead guilty? But he really was such.

He didn't really need trouble and strife in his life at that point. He'd had plenty of it. But he got very upset about American policy in the Philippines. Interestingly enough, when he was in Vienna, when he was abroad, he heard about the Spanish-American War, and he took it on good faith that we were involved in Cuba getting rid of the Spanish in order to deliver Cuban independence. And he was happy about that and defended that as a noble, American thing.

When it came to a very different war in the Philippines, when it came to the annexation of the Philippines, that turned Twain's stomach, and he entered into a kind of gladiatorial, knock-down combat with Theodore Roosevelt.

CONAN: Which Simon Schama writes about in his new book, "The American Future: A History." Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Columbus, Ohio. Simon Schama, our guest this afternoon. His book is called "The American Future: A History," a book that looks at the events of our past in order to tell us where we may be headed in the future. We've posted an excerpt at our Web site. That's at Just click on TALK OF THE NATION.

What event, what person in America's past do you believe will most inform our future? 800-989-8255. Email us: You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Let's see if we can get another caller on the line, and Christopher's with us, calling from San Francisco.

CHRISTOPHER (Caller): Hi, how are you doing?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

CHRISTOPHER: I'm going to have to apologize. I'm actually at work right now, and I'm losing my voice, so if you can bear with that.

CONAN: Well, we're glad you're at work, and sorry about the voice. But go ahead with your question.

Dr. SCHAMA: What are you, Christopher, an auctioneer?


Dr. SCHAMA: I'm trying to think of the job that's making you lose your voice, poor you. I'm wondering if you are an auctioneer.

CHRISTOPHER: Oh no, no. I wish I was an auctioneer. They sound like they make a lot of money. But no, I'm actually a bike messenger. So I'm (unintelligible) cabs all day.

CONAN: Well, go ahead. What's your point?

CHRISTOPHER: Actually, I don't really need to make a point so much as I kind of want to agree with some (unintelligible) was saying, and I definitely agree with the lack of understanding of limitations that this country needs to kind of realize.

You're talking about water conservation and, you know, trying to find other ways of coming up with revenues for the government and things like that, and I definitely think even on a personal level, you know, realizing your limitations is beneficial to yourself and kind of everybody else in your community, however, big that is.

CONAN: And to get back to the question we posed to you, Christopher, what event, what person in America's history do you think will most inform the future?

CHRISTOPHER: Well it's hard to say. There's obviously a lot of people in history, and I'm not a history major. I never went to school. So on the spot, I would say Barack Obama, but, you know, that's current events, you know what I mean? It's not really history.

I think your call-screener was asking me for another answer, and I basically said civil rights. I know that's not a person, but there's a lot of people involved with that.

CONAN: It's among the issues well within the great context of race and the American story, and Simon Schama, certainly the civil rights movement features prominently in your book. And it is interesting to me, as we all listened in the last presidential campaign, to a candidate speak the words of John Kennedy in the cadences of Martin Luther King, that the person you picked out from the civil rights movement that he most resembled was somebody you might not expect: Fannie Lou Hamer.

Dr. SCHAMA: Yeah, that's right. I mean, Fannie Lou Hamer was an extraordinarily brave woman who came from Rouxville, Mississippi in the delta. I came across her in the 1964 convention, when the civil rights movement, during the summer of registration, the long, hot summer of 1964, the civil rights movement in Mississippi were trying to dislodge the all-white and, under Senator Eastland, deeply racist delegation at the Democratic Party and replace them with a civil-rights-led delegation, if not completely. And Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey and the great kind of moguls of the Democratic Party were deeply embarrassed.

Fannie Lou was, as I say, a simple but morally very intensely engaged, impassioned, morally very smart person. And she'd been recruited in church to sort of lead her local people in Rouxville to try and get registered. It was incredibly difficult then, because the state deliberately set up the questionnaire, which these people had to fill out, which doomed, really, the possibility of registration.

She was undeterred by that. She was physically intimidated. There were gunshots fired through her window. And there she was in Atlantic City in the summer of 64 singing on the boardwalk. And those of us who heard it, you know, will never forget it. And eventually, she caused so much trouble that they let her actually make a speech in front of the Credentials Committee, and it was - the television stations went live with it, and it was, really, one of the most moving movements, I think, in American history.

And I do think although - somebody came to see - I think it was Senator Humphrey came to see Fannie Lou Hamer, and they were trying to bargain about how many - if we give one or two token seats on the delegation, would you please shut up and go away and not embarrass the coronation of LBJ? And Hubert Humphrey is said to have said to her, look, Mrs. Hamer, what is it you want? And she is said to have said back: Why, bless you, Senator Humphrey. I just want the kingdom of Jesus Christ.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. SCHAMA: And that was something even LBJ couldn't actually deliver at that particular moment, but it did affect him. You know, it did affect him. A year later, he would come to the television himself and speak to the nation on behalf of the Voting Registration Act, on the voting part of the civil rights legislation, and say I come to you tonight, my fellow citizens, to speak for humanity.

And it was one of - I think it was Dick Goodwin, actually, who wrote the speech. I'm not sure, but it may have been Bill Moyers. It was one of the most moving things about that rather blighted presidency really being shattered by Vietnam because, in effect - I'm not going to try and paraphrase the words -but in effect, LBJ said, we can have the world. We can be the richest, most powerful, most successful nation in the world, and it will do us no good if we actually continue to tolerate this atrocity in our midst, if we continue to dishonor the dream of democracy. And it was one of his great moments, really. And I like to think that Fannie Lou Hamer kept him up awake at night until he made that speech.

CONAN: A speech that was the product of - he was able to make it, of course, because of the compromise, by keeping the Dixiecrats, if you will, inside the party and gaining their votes and being elected president of the United States, one of a series of compromises on the issue of race that go back right to the formation of the country and the writing of the Constitution, something you describe in terms almost as the original American sin, among other things.

Dr. SCHAMA: I do. It goes back actually to the Declaration of Independence, Neal. Of course, it's our friend Thomas Jefferson who does this, who actually says the point of being America in the world is to create a new kind of commonwealth, a commonwealth of true democracy, which can honor the correct expectation that every man can enjoy life, liberty, pursuit of happiness. The almighty has endowed everyone with equal rights.

But this is, of course - as everybody has pointed out, correctly - Jefferson the slave owner who's saying that. And that sort of contamination of the ideal went on all through the Civil War, out the other side, into the Jim Crow segregation years. And it's not that racism is particularly, completely effaced from America, but, by God, it's taken a giant leap forward with the 44th president.

CONAN: Well, I was going to say, do you think we have expiated that original sin?

Dr. SCHAMA: I think we have in a sense in which - you know, one of the most inspiring things, if you went around - you probably did - you know, following the campaign as we did for the BBC, and you saw how many kids of all colors, actually, were - how much extraordinary grass roots mobilization in both - not just on the blogosphere and not just in the digital world, but those doors being knocked on.

We fell in with an absolutely fantastic called Mark Antony Green(ph) at Morehouse College, Martin Luther King's college. And he was just a kid. He knew the civil rights movement simply as a kind of family scripture. But, of course, teenagers can be very sick of being preached at in the name of long-dead saints, but not him and not, I think, his contemporaries.

And interestingly enough, some of his contemporaries were working quite as hard for Hillary Clinton. And so they were just mobilized into the system. There was no sense - and I say this with, you know, a certain sense of sadness watching the kind of meltdown of political life in my other home, in Great Britain. There was no sense, actually, in that summer and fall and early spring of 2008 of the kids being alienated from the political system.

Whether they would have felt the same way had not a Barack Obama been in the running is hard to tell. Probably not. But I do know that, you know, on the other side, on the side of those who wanted to run a more traditional campaign - principally, but not exclusively on the Republican side - the sense was oh, well, kids just make a lot of hot air. The blogosphere is just simply foam on the surface of the great waves of the electoral ocean, which is really run by television spots and money. And boy, were they wrong.

Think how much money came to the Obama campaign through the activities of the Mark Antony Greens of last year.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in. Mary's with us, Mary calling from Sonoma in California.

MARY (Caller): Good afternoon. Thank you for letting me be on your show. I don't think there's any question that a great British expatriate, Ayn Rand, who wrote "Atlas Shrugged," was an extremely prescient member of our history and someone that we should pay great attention to today because everything that that book described in the 1930s and the loss of the steel industry and the railroads due to the government overregulation and the jealousy of the masses and their need to have government intervention to prevent entrepreneurs from being profitable ruined, just as we're ruining our private industry. The auto industry, great example of how the government is going to do their best under this administration to screw that up.

CONAN: Mary, I have to make one slight correction. As a very young radio announcer, I used to have to introduce Ms. Rand every once in a while and ran into her one day in a recording studio and asked - I was very confused as to how to pronounce her first name, and she told me Ayn, as in shrine.

MARY: Okay. Well, thank you for that. I'm perhaps not as pedantic as you and your speaker. However, I guess that's pretty common for us conservatives out here.

But I do really think that if we don't stop this socialistic trend in this country and we don't get back to a system that honors and welcomes the entrepreneur who creates the majority of jobs in this society when they're unfettered by regulation and taxation, we are going to live out the monstrosity of what happened in "Atlas Shrugged," and we're going to lose this country.

CONAN: Do you perceive, Simon Schama, Ayn Rand as someone who informs our future?

Dr. SCHAMA: Well, I think Ayn Rand certainly has had an influence on the conservative movement, as our last caller makes absolutely plain. And, you know, with all due respect, I'm slightly baffled by the notion that the problem of - the problems that have mounted for the automobile industry have come about because of excessive regulation, or indeed the problems in our banks that have come about because of excessive regulation.

Some people think that it was the elimination of regulation embodied in the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act in 1999 and early 2000 which allowed commercial banks to behave as though they were investment banks and thereby created the monsters of credit default swaps and derivatives-led messes that we're at least partially responsible for obscuring what was really going on in the financial markets, to which Ayn Rand has absolutely nothing to say, I would have thought.

It's - but what is wonderful is that we've had, from both wings, really - I suppose what they share is a certain amount of - what should we call it? Libertarian enthusiasm. Henry David Thoreau on the one hand and Ayn, as you've told me - I wouldn't have known that, Neal - Rand on the other.

And what it does say is that I don't think we're in danger of looking like the Soviet Union in its last days as run by Leonid Brezhnev. I actually think of all the American futures, this one is probably not on the books, although some radio talk shows would lead you to believe otherwise.

But what is suggests is that the spirit of sturdy individualist optimism is still very much alive in the United States. Whether it's actually something which right now, at this minute, we should be paying heed to, is another thing entirely.

If we really believe, for example, that credit cards - credit card companies ought not have been subject to the regulations that have just today and yesterday been imposed on them should be free to actually write contracts which nobody can read unless they have, you know, fantastic 20/20 eyesight and should be allowed to lead consumers into deeper and deeper debt by usurious interest rates. That presumably would be something that Ayn Rand would approve of, but I don't.

CONAN: We're talking with Simon Schama about his book, "The American Future: A History."

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go now to Gregory. Gregory - excuse me - we're going to Marlina(ph), Marlina, with us from Wenatchee in Washington.

MARLINA (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Go ahead please.

MARLINA: I love your show and I love history, although I don't know enough about it as I would like, certainly not enough to write a book. My answer to your question is I think two of the political figures who not only are going to influence the future but clearly can be shown to influence our today are both John and Robert Kennedy.

And irregardless of what people think of the Kennedy empire and its beginnings, et cetera, the fact that Jack Kennedy really started the whole NASA project, which is ongoing today, and Bobby Kennedy's stance on nuclear limitations and civil rights - I just think that their influence has been enormous and continues to be.

You just hear on the news today that Iran has tested a nuclear - some kind of missile, and the whole thing about North Korea and their nuclear arms wanting to be stretched out and flexed. And I really do feel that the nuclear issue is still very huge in America today.

CONAN: And, Simon Schama, we tend to sweep it under the table sometimes, given the feeling that we're no longer at the flashpoint with the old Soviet Union.

Dr. SCHAMA: A very interesting point Marlina makes, actually. I would like to ask her whether or not then she wants Barack Obama to be a kind of resuscitation of the John Kennedy of the Cuba missile crisis, because I think a lot of people would actually have their fair share of anxiety about that. But it may well come to that. I mean, if…

MARLINA: I really don't support John Kennedy's, you know, his whole ramping up in Vietnam and all that. That's definitely beyond what I support. But in…

CONAN: And as the creator of the America's modern nuclear force, by the way.

Dr. SCHAMA: Right. You remember he ran on the nuclear missile gap, very ironically. He was accusing Nixon and Eisenhower of actually letting the guard down, actually, in the Cold War…

MARLINA: But the answer to your question, no, I didn't vote for Obama. I don't know that I would want him to be another Jack Kennedy, no. But I do think that Bobby Kennedy was really clear about wanting to limit nuclear arsenals and wanting to put civil rights and human rights at the very top of the - Jack Kennedy's agenda.

CONAN: Marlina, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

MARLINA: Thank you.

CONAN: And, Simon Schama, as you - we've not gotten to the subject of immigration. We just have a very few seconds left. But as someone who is a part of those who have come to this country, the promise of America to those overseas, is that still alive? Is that still part of the American experience?

Dr. SCHAMA: Oh, sure, it is. I mean, I said for all the gap between the promise of America to the persecuted and destitute of the world, all the ugly riots against the Chinese, all the hatred that's sometimes displayed towards, you know, Hispanic immigrants, all the difficulty of passing immigration reform, nonetheless, America does still remain a place, actually, where many, many of the world would love to be, actually, to escape from their own particular geopolitical version of hell.

CONAN: Simon Schama, university professor at Columbia University in New York, the author most recently of "The American Future: A History," joined us today from our bureau in New York. Thank you so much for your time.

Dr. SCHAMA: Thank you for having me, Neal.

CONAN: Coming up, professional tornado chasers. We'll find out why 100 otherwise sane people are hoping for a very close-up view.

Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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