There aren’t many writers who can pull off the high-wire act that Newsweek’s Howard Fineman has attempted here, combining a rational and even intellectual discussion of political history with an analysis of current politics, all seen through the lens of the author’s own journalistic experience.
Many may know Fineman only through his seemingly ubiquitous appearances on MSNBC. He’s also a regular on Chris Matthews’s Hardball, but that shouldn’t be held against him. There’s a reason he came to be Newsweek’s senior Washington correspondent, and this book provides ample evidence of what that is.
In the beginning of the book, Fineman tells a wonderful anecdote about flying over Kentucky in a twin-engine airplane. When Hugh Sidey was alive—and in many ways the counterpart at Time to what Fineman would become at Newsweek—he invariably would write about America from the perspective of looking down from an airplane. When I was a cub reporter in Mississippi and later in Florida, I had similar experiences in small aircraft with crazy pilots. If the Mississippi River was flooded or covered with ice, you didn’t just stand on the edge and talk to the people in houses. You went up in the airplane where you could see it all.
In The Thirteen American Arguments, Howard Fineman lifts readers above the fog of modern politics—ironically, a muddle that his pals on cable TV have largely created—and offers a unique vantage point from which to see that the debates that shape American politics are timeless and profound.
As if he were a pilot flying high above history, Fineman moves effortlessly between comparisons between Barack Obama and Abraham Lincoln, both of Illinois. From a discussion about immigration to the meaning of faith in politics to free speech and war and the enduring debates over trade and protectionism, Fineman successfully mixes history with the present.
You won’t always agree with his conclusions, and occasionally the observations on which they’re based are themselves open to debate. For example, Fineman writes that 2008 Republican presidential nominee John McCain is an “Arizonan, which was appropriate since you could almost see the geological forces of American politics wearing him down like a desert mesa.”
Fineman can really write, but in his own book John McCain says that until he married his wife, Cindy, and moved to Arizona to run for office, after being a Naval attaché in the Congress, he hadn’t lived in Arizona. The lines in his face were carved in a Vietnamese prison, not a Tempe golf course. He says himself that knew virtually nothing about the state. While Fineman calls him a “Goldwater man,” McCain’s own account tells how Goldwater for years distrusted and disliked him, precisely because McCain didn’t share the older politician’s authentic Arizona heritage.
In a sense, it’s arguments over such things that make this book so enjoyable. Like the 13 American arguments themselves, there’s plenty—both big and small—in Fineman’s account to argue about. And that, he believes, is really the essence of American democracy. Perhaps that’s why so many of our presidents have been lawyers rather than businessmen.
Constant debate over what America stands for is a guiding principle of democracy. Thank goodness that in the United States we now largely just attack each other with words. It wasn’t always so in many parts of this country, and today in much of the world it doesn’t stop there.
The abiding success of American democracy is that, in our system, those who lose an election accept defeat until the next ballots are cast. But while we may cede political power for a term or two, our steadfastness in our positions about the major issues that divide America keep getting rehashed until they eventually come back in vogue.
And so regardless of who wins and loses next November, Fineman says, “let the American Arguments begin—again.” Undoubtedly, they will.