On the Road: American Adventures from Nixon to Trump

James Naughtie

Simon & Schuster, £20

Review by Rosemary Goring

Was there ever a more misnamed nation than the United States of America? Gore Vidal thought it better suited to the United States of Amnesia such, he reckoned, was his countrymen’s capacity to forget.

The phrase was coined during the presidency of Ronald Reagan whom Vidal dubbed “the ancient Acting President and his ‘Administration’.” It was, he reckoned, a “bizarre” episode in American history but even he at his most cynical surely could not have foreseen what was looming. If Reagan was “but an indolent cue-card reader”, how would he have described Donald Trump and the cult he inspires? How would he explain the depth to which America has sunk and the disastrous decay of its youthful democracy?

James Naughtie mentions Vidal on a couple of occasions in On the Road. The first recalls an encounter he had with him when Vidal told him “in unfortunate detail” about a sexual experience he had with Jack Kerouac, the title of whose most famous book Naughtie has cheerily purloined. The second is a mere namecheck, Vidal being one of those writers – Gay Talese, Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe are others – who helped him get under the skin of a country that has fascinated him for decades and which he loves rather more than he loathes.

It was while he was a student at Aberdeen University and thereafter at Syracuse that Naughtie first encountered American literature. Scott Fitzgerald remains a lodestar. He remembers how in The Great Gatsby Nick the narrator muses: “It never occurred to me that one man would start to play with the faith of 50 million people – with the single-mindedness of a burglar blowing a safe.”

This new book follows Naughtie’s own peripatetic career as a journalist, first at the P&J in his native north-east then at the Scotsman and the Guardian before enlisting at the BBC. He is happiest when on the move, talking face to face with people, be they somebodies or nobodies. He has a geekish interest in politics and an acute ear for scuttlebutt. His style is breezy, chatty, sometimes lyrical, and he relishes anecdotes as much as Trump does the burgers and hot dogs which may yet do him in.

Starting in the 1970s with Richard Nixon, who turned the presidency “into a byword for chicanery”, we criss-cross the country with our genial companion, through the tenures of Jimmy Carter, Reagan, Bush père et fils, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Finally, we come to Donald Trump, the least likely person ever to pitch up on Capitol Hill.

Throughout one senses enthusiasm tempered with dismay. How has a place that has so much going for it, with such wealth, inventiveness and sheer get up and go, become a celebrant of ignorance, where no one listens to the other side of the argument, where common decency is lost in bellicose muck-spreading, where tweeting is the preferred mode of discourse. It’s as if the entire population is wearing noise-cancelling headphones.

Nixon, of course, was a bad man, but America had seen plenty like him in the past. His misfortune was to get caught. Carter was a better man but feckless operator. Naughtie attended the Democratic Party Convention at which he won the nomination. Carter’s staff, drafted in from his native Georgia, were unfamiliar with the ways of Washington. At a banquet, his well-oiled chief-of-staff peered down the dress of the Egyptian ambassador’s wife and announced, “I can see pyramids!” This is not how you solve the crisis in the Middle East.

Naughtie first saw Ronald Reagan in the flesh in 1981, the year he became president. By then, he was doing a stint at the Washington Post, fabled for its part in the Watergate affair. While he goes along with Vidal’s depiction of Reagan as a cue-card reader, he believes there was more to him than that. “The depth of the change he brought to Washington was consistently underestimated abroad by the people who focussed on his limited capacity.” At least Reagan was a charmer and, for all his avowed outsiderness, he surrounded himself with grown-up politicians and administrators who knew how to run government.

Naughtie skates over George H.W. Bush’s tenure, perhaps in his eagerness to introduce the Clintons. Bill’s election was the first he covered from start to finish. Though bedevilled by scandal, Clinton contrived to oust the elder Bush and after 12 years of Republicanism put a Democrat in the most powerful position on the planet. His resilience, notes Naughtie, was remarkable to behold. Even when the media was hyperventilating over the Lewinsky revelations, Clinton had the ability to remain cool.

But the damage Clinton did to his office and the subsequent effect he had on his wife’s two failed runs for the White House was considerable. One of the threads running through this immensely readable and perceptive book is that the public was beginning to appreciate the contempt in which they were held by their leaders. They were either taken for granted or treated like the victims of a snake oil salesman.

Dubya may have squeezed past Al Gore but the collateral damage of his suspicious win again showed a system and ethos close to collapse. Bush junior’s reign was notable for how close to power he allowed “f***ing crazies” like Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Richard Perle (“the hawk of hawks”) to get.

Barack Obama arrived brimful of hope but, as Naughtie acknowledges, he was “hobbled from the start”, his whole spell in office overshadowed by the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the calamitous financial tsunami that followed. It was yet another example of a system in dire need of reform and proper policing. Obama may have promised change, in particular in health care, but he found it difficult to achieve, such were the formidable forces ranged against him.

And so to Donald Trump. In an effort to explain his phenomenon, Naughtie roves around states, talking to the “forgotten”, to those who will doubtless vote for Trump come November. He was going to “drain the swamp”, make America great again, though how is unclear. He’d open new coal mines, ban Chinese imports, build golf courses. Members of the cult carry guns because they can and believe climate change is a myth. For them, Trump is the Messiah.

What he has done is turn America against itself. This is the president who insisted there were “very fine people” on both sides when civil rights campaigners confronted white segregationist and nationalist groups at a ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville. This is America now, deeply divided, amnesiac, choleric, ignorant, purportedly god-fearing but as uncharitable as it has ever been.

Naughtie travels by train from north to south and solicits views of passengers and find little cause for optimism. Venturing into a land where there are proper swamps he finds disillusionment, depression, resignation, disenchantment. Among the last people he meets is Aaron Sorkin, creator of The West Wing. Could he write a drama about the Trump presidency? We will never see Trump as a character on stage or screen, predicts Sorkin. Why? Quite simply, because he has no conscience, which is another way of saying he is a sociopath. “Lock her up!” was his cry during the campaign against Hillary Clinton. Would that she’d replied: “Put him in a straitjacket!”