America's 'Golden Age' through European lens

July 21, 1996|By Joseph R. L. Sterne | Joseph R. L. Sterne,SUN STAFF

"The Day Before Yesterday: Reconsidering America's Past, Reconsidering the Present," by Michael Elliott. Simon & Schuster. 292 pages. $24.

Since the days of Tocqueville, Americans have learned to understand themselves better and see themselves clearer through the eyes of foreign observers.

Michael Elliott is not a passing visitor. Like Alistair Cooke, he came to this country from England, settled here and has been fascinated ever since by the American phenomenon. This book is a summary of his impressions as former Washington bureau chief of the Economist and as current editor of Newsweek International.

It is Elliott's thesis that Americans in the mid-1990s are an unhappy lot yearning futilely for a return to what the author repeatedly describes as "the Golden Age" - a period stretching from 1945 to some indeterminate date in the late-1960s or early 1970s.

He sees the "Golden Age" as a time when Americans grew more prosperous, became more unified, emerged more powerful militarily and were more self-contained economically than ever before.

The Cold War provided an external enemy. The interstate highway system knit the country together. The South emerged from its backwater as regional differences lessened.

It was all there: mushrooming suburbs, good manufacturing jobs, a higher education explosion, television's debut, immigration's decline and a Depression-rooted belief in a benign federal government.

Elliott believes that this "Golden Age" America was a "freak" - a "false yardstick to measure our [current] discontent." Americans are "whiners" because they keep hoping for the re-creation of a period that, in reality, was an aberration in the nation's experience.

This is an interesting construct but a flawed one. Elliott did not come to this country until 1974. He did not live here through his "Golden Age." He acknowledges the nuclear threat, Korea, McCarthyism and racial turmoil in the 1950s. But he seems unable to capture the intensity of these strains and describes a scene that was never as happy and triumphant as he depicts.

Elliott contends the messy, chaotic state of America today is a throwback to conditions that prevailed right up to the dawn of his "Golden Age." But history is not circular. It flows linearly, ups and downs and detours notwithstanding.

Elliott charts the downside of what came after his "Golden Age," - Vietnam, Watergate, racial inequality, drugs, downsizing, inner-city problems, the loss of world economic dominance, disapproval of a debt-plagued federal government, the stagnation of middle-class wages and the growing disparity between rich and poor.

No one can dispute these ills. But things were not as shiny bright as Mr. Elliott thinks they were in the "Golden Age" nor are they as bad as his comparisons suggest. On the contrary, most Americans today live in bigger houses, own more cars and television sets, travel more often to enjoy greater leisure than ever before.

The author ends on an optimistic note about America's future, but the contradictions imposed by his "Golden Age" hypothesis mar an otherwise useful work.

Joseph R.L. Sterne has worked at The Sun since 1953. He has been editorial page editor since 1972. Before that he worked as a local reporter, a foreign correspondent, in London, Bonn and Africa, and a national correspondent in the Washington Bureau from 1960-1969.

Pub Date: 7/21/96

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