On Becoming American

As we were waiting for the cameras to roll in a Washington studio just before Christmas, my faux bonhomme host, Pat Buchanan, inquired offhandedly as to my citizenship and residency status. I innocently told him that my paperwork for naturalization was in the system, but that Homeland Security had racked up an immense backlog of applications. Then up came the music for the next segment—which was to be about the display of religious symbols on public land—and before I knew it, Buchanan was demanding to know by what right I, a foreign atheist, could presume to come over here and lecture Americans about their Christian heritage.

Synthetic outrage is de rigueur in the world of American cable-TV news, and I was almost as surprised by the authenticity of my own fury as I had been by the extreme inexpensiveness of Buchanan's ambush. More than two decades in Washington—and all that time beseeched by Buchanan to be a guest! Three children born in the country, and all three as American as the day is long! An unblemished record of compliance with boring correspondence from the IRS! As the blush of anger left my cheek, however, I dimly realized that I was not resentful of Buchanan's abuse of his own hypocritical hospitality. Rather, I felt that my very own hearth was being profaned. Don't be telling me to go home, big boy. I am home.

Seething a little more in the limo that bore me away, I understood why I had not even thought of one possible riposte: "Don't you take that tone with me, you German-Irish fascist windbag. I don't have to justify my presence to riffraff like you. Tell it to Father Coughlin and Charles Lindbergh—and meanwhile, don't stab our boys in Iraq in the back." Had I said that, or anything like it, I would truly have been sorry, at the time as well as later. (On the other hand, I shall always covertly wish I had said it—though had I done so, the prefix to "bag" would not have been "wind." One hopes to keep one's well of meticulous English pure and undefiled; but then again, there's no demotic abuse like American demotic abuse.)

In writing a biography of President Clinton, who was our contemporary at Oxford, my English friend and colleague Martin Walker had some success with a book titled The President We Deserve. The volume was also published in London, with the no less eloquent title The President They Deserve. I had just completed work on a short biography of another president, Thomas Jefferson, and had found myself referring in the closing passages to "our" republic and "our" Constitution. I didn't even notice that I had done this until I came to review the pages in final proof. What does it take for an immigrant to shift from "you" to "we"?

No loyalty oath, no coerced allegiance, was involved. In the course of writing thousands of columns and making hundreds of media and podium appearances, many of them highly critical of the government of the day, I had almost never been asked by what right I did so. My offspring were Americans just by virtue of being born here (no other country in the world is or has ever been this generous). As soon as I got my green card, immigration officers started saying "welcome home" when I passed through. Moreover, as one who is incompetent to do anything save writing and speaking, I stood under the great roof of the First Amendment and did not have to think (as I once had to think) of the libel laws and the other grand and petty restraints that oppress my craft in the country of my birth.

But this wasn't my thinking. Anyone who has read this far may already be muttering, "Easy for you to say. English-speaking. White. Oxford-educated." Semi-consciously, I had been thinking the same way. You're lucky enough as it is, and anyway who will ever mistake you for anything but a Brit? Yet osmosis was at work somehow, or so I must now suppose, and when it came to a critical point, it did so in the form I would most have wanted to resist: namely, that of a cliché. For me, September 11, 2001, really did "change everything." In exploring the non-clichéd but most literal forms of that observation, and its ramifications, I began to read the press—the American press—as if it were held up to some kind of mirror. Each time I was instructed that such-and-such a fatuity was the view of "the Europeans," I decided not that my Anglo-Celtic-Polish-German-Jewish heritage was being parodied (though it was) but that someone whose claim to be "European" was at least as good as M. Chirac's should assure his American friends that they need not feel unsophisticated or embarrassed. Au contraire

One cannot hope or expect to keep such a feeling—which I claim is of the mind as well as of the heart—within bounds. I had lived in the nation's capital for many years, and never particularly liked it. But when it was exposed to attack, and looked and felt so goddamn vulnerable, I fused myself with it. I know now that no solvent can ever unglue that bond. And yes, before you ask, I could easily name Arabs, Iranians, Greeks, Mexicans, and others who felt precisely as I did, and who communicated it almost wordlessly. I tried my hardest in 2001 to express it in words all the same. The best I could do was to say that in America your internationalism can and should be your patriotism. I still rather like the clumsiness of what I said. In finishing my Jefferson book I concluded more sententiously that the American Revolution is the only revolution that still resonates. I suppose I could narrow this a bit and add that the strenuously nativist and isolationist Pat Buchanan still strikes me, as he always did, as chronically un-American.