'Pursuit of Happiness': appreciating the essence

November 30, 2003|By John Muncie | John Muncie,Special to the Sun

The Pursuit of Happiness in Times of War, by Carl Cannon, Rowman & Littlefield. 331 pages. $24.95.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness."

Those ringing words from the Declaration of Independence are the backdrop to a meditation on American political philosophy by longtime political journalist Carl Cannon. The meditation's genesis was a Forbes magazine assignment that came to Cannon in the spring of 2001. The idea was to ask all the living presidents what the phrase "pursuit of happiness" meant to them. But then came the events of 9 / 11 and, in the aftermath, something bigger seemed called for.

The resulting book still targets the phrase "pursuit of happiness" for presidential comment but also delves into the notions of Life, Liberty, Equality and Unalienable Rights. The result is a kind of chatty civics lesson in which Cannon concludes that Tom Jefferson and the other Founders were pretty damn smart and the revolution in political thinking they began 227 years ago is still valid today.

OK, Carl, so what else is new?

Well, not much. The Pursuit of Happiness does little more than more reaffirm that the underpinnings of the United States are brilliant and powerful and universal. But in the wake of 9 / 11, and especially in the wake of our invasion of Iraq, reaffirmations are particularly called for. Who doesn't want to be reassured that our actions are based on sound, historically tested, fundamental truths? The book touches on presidential reactions to most of America's major traumas -- revolution, civil war, foreign war and the struggle for civil rights. To do this, Cannon has consumed a vast quantity of material and distilled it into what is essentially an extended newspaper op-ed piece.

The structure is a bit fuzzy and the reader is whipsawed back and forth chronologically (a paragraph about George Washington can be soon followed by a quote from George Bush or John McCain). But Cannon has filled Pursuit of Happiness with lots of tasty details that make the broader lessons about politics and presidents go down easily.

Some of these details are directly relevant, such as the infamous "Zimmerman Telegram," a breathtaking miscalculation by a German foreign minister that practically assured America's entry into World War I. (Cannon quotes the telegram completely in a footnote.) Some are interesting asides, like a brief look at the Civil War anthem "Battle Hymn of the Republic." Some are just fascinating tidbits: Did you know that Calvin Coolidge was the last president never to have flown in an airplane?

One of the book's strengths is that Cannon quotes the participants of history at some length. One of them is former President Jimmy Carter. Of the Declaration, Carter once said in a speech: "This vision still grips the imagination of the world. But we know that democracy is always an unfinished creation. Each generation must renew its foundations."

That's where Pursuit of Happiness fits in. If it doesn't add greatly to our knowledge of America's history and ideals, it does add to our appreciation and thus becomes an important part of the process of renewal.

John Muncie is former arts and entertainment editor of The Sun. He has been travel-books columnist at the Los Angeles Times and assistant managing editor for features at The San Diego Union Tribune. His first novel, Thief of Words, was published this spring, under the name John Jaffe.

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