Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America: A Recent History

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On the Oldest Road: U.S. 1, Robert Kramer, the Buick, and Me

Six Sidewalks to the Moon

In early 1981, while Ronald Reagan was getting settled in at the White House, I quit my job as a newspaper reporter and drove my lipstick-red-and-black 1954 Buick to the top of Maine. When I got to Fort Kent, which looks out across the St. John River at the deep forests of Canada, I made a U-turn and began the 2,446-mile drive down the length of highway U.S. 1, a journey that would deposit me and my Buick six months later at “The End of the Rainbow,” as the sign proclaims in Key West, Fla., where the road runs into the sea.

Seven years later, as Reagan’s presidency was winding to a close, the avant-garde filmmaker Robert Kramer retraced my tire tracks in the company of his friend Paul McInnis, known as Doc, who had spent the previous 10 years practicing medicine in Africa. Though Kramer, Doc, and I literally covered the same ground, and though we seem to have been driven by similar compulsions, we produced two works that could hardly be more different. One of the few things they have in common, it turns out, is their shared fatal flaw.

Kramer’s trip resulted in Route One/USA, a four-hour documentary that’s almost as exhilarating and exhausting as the long drive down America’s oldest road. My trip resulted in a 348-page nonfiction manuscript that attracted the interest of a New York literary agent but failed to sell. The typescript then crawled into a box in my closet, where it slept for nearly 40 years—until I heard that Film at Lincoln Center was streaming Route One, with a wider virtual video release coming soon. Watching Kramer’s movie for the first time, I realized our projects formed mismatched bookends to the Gipper’s presidency.

Like Kramer’s best-known works—Ice, The Edge, Milestones, and Doc’s Kingdom—the unscripted Route One is a willful repudiation of conventional filmmaking. His early work won praise from aficionados of experimental film but failed to attract a wide American audience. Frustrated, Kramer moved to France in 1980, where he was highly esteemed and able to win funding for new politically tinged projects.

With money in hand, the expat decided to come back home in the late 1980s and go “looking for America,” as he put it in an interview. Like John Steinbeck, Robert Frank, Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac, and countless others before and since, Kramer decided there’s no better place to go looking than the open road, that endless blank slate where it’s possible to connect with the essential American impulses—disaffection, curiosity, the itch to move on, and the perverse habit of despoiling the natural world in the pursuit of so-called progress and convenience. I hit the road in 1981 for similar but slightly different reasons. After cranking out newspaper copy for the previous five years, I was dissatisfied with my daily contributions to what I had come to think of as “the conventional wisdom,” the media’s canned view of American life that obeyed one unbendable commandment—Thou Shalt Not Offend—and had to be delivered in language an eighth grader could understand. I itched to write longer and deeper stories about people who were not considered newsworthy, and I decided the open road would be the best place to find them.

With so many roads to choose from, why did Kramer and I settle on U.S. 1? I have a hunch he was attracted to the tidy narrative arc the road provided—to my ears, “from Canada to Key West” sounds like it was made for a movie poster. My attraction was a bit more complicated. The road runs “from frost belt to sun belt,” as I wrote in my book’s introduction, “through some of the wooliest wilderness and grubbiest ghettoes known to mankind.” But just as important as its variety, this road offered the kind of historical serendipity that has always been irresistible to me. My Buick rolled off the assembly line in April of 1954, a few weeks before Vice President Richard Nixon unveiled President Dwight Eisenhower’s plan to build a nationwide network of “interstate” highways. It was to be the most ambitious public works project in human history, an achievement of such magnitude that it sent bland bald Ike into an uncharacteristic fit of poetry. As he put it in his memoirs: “The amount of concrete poured to form these roadways would build 80 Hoover Dams or six sidewalks to the moon. To build them, bulldozers and shovels would move enough dirt and rock to bury all of Connecticut two feet deep.” Cars of the ’50s like my Buick, with its mammiferous chrome bumpers and fire-breathing V-8 engine and two-tone paint job, had outgrown America’s patchwork roads, including U.S. 1, which follows one of the three original Post Roads that connected New York and Boston during colonial times and would become the most heavily travelled road in the world by the 1930s. This disconnect between the cars of the ’50s and the pre-interstate roads they travelled on was intriguing to me, and it was captured with acid precision by Richard Yates in his masterpiece Revolutionary Road. Yates’s 1950s suburbanites had many misgivings—about their marriages, their jobs, their kids, and their “foolishly misplaced” homes. “Their automobiles didn’t look right either,” Yates wrote, “unnecessarily wide and gleaming in the colors of candy and ice cream, seeming to wince at each splatter of mud, they crawled apologetically down the broken roads that fed from all directions to the deep, level slab of Route Twelve. Once there the cars seemed able to relax in an environment all their own, a long bright valley of colored plastic and plate glass and stainless steel – KING KONE, MOBILGAS, SHOPORAMA, EAT – but eventually they had to turn off, one by one, and make their way up the winding country road…”

Yates had found his metaphor for postwar America in his fictional Route Twelve. Kramer and I found our own 1980s surrogate: the real Route One.

America’s Lust for the Hideous

For all their differences, Kramer’s movie and my book do have some overlap. Both works set up shop in the margins of American life, where the malcontents, the paranoids, and the fever dreamers dwell, apart from the mainstream operators who wind up on the front page and the six o’clock news. Kramer filmed Doc talking to a gallery of these marginalized people, including a coven of witches, abortion clinic protesters, newlyweds, Penobscot Native Americans, supporters of the televangelist Pat Robertson, Haitian immigrants, soldiers, a rabid minister, refugees from the civil war in El Salvador, and a journalist investigating murders connected to white supremacists. Doc doesn’t so much interview these subjects as he tries to make them comfortable enough to open up, and he’s good at it. Like all skilled reporters, he’s curious and nonjudgmental. Though they do visit some postcard places—Walden Pond, for one, and the Tragedy in U.S. History Museum, which features the Jayne Mansfield death car—Doc and Kramer stick mostly to unremarkable spots, such as housing projects, soup kitchens, army bases, and wedding chapels. Hovering over the trip like a fog is the scourge of AIDS and the Reagan administration’s dilatory response to it. The result of all this is a fragmented mosaic rather than a coherent portrait of a nation. The overall mood is one of melancholy.

My trip took place just before the AIDS scourge descended, but the people I met were not unlike the ones Kramer encountered: an itinerant Boston stripper working the back-road bars in Maine, a former NHL hockey star in the twilight of his career, people living uneasily in the shadow of New Hampshire’s Seabrook nuclear reactor, a Vietnam vet who actually missed the war, a Guardian Angel organizer in a Providence housing project, a gaggle of sozzled prosecutors at a convention of North Carolina district attorneys, the rockabilly singer Robert Gordon, the stock-car king Richard Petty, a Vietnamese refugee, a tattoo artist, a newspaper publisher, an immigrant activist in Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood. Rather than melancholy, I sensed a pervasive mood of drift. After enduring the Vietnam War, Watergate, the Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown, and the Iranian hostage crisis, most of the people I met felt unmoored, hungry for something they could believe in and cling to. Which went a long way toward explaining why sunny Ronald Reagan had just won the presidency in a landslide.

One of the highlights of my trip was a long hot day in Edgefield, S.C., hometown of segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond, where 2,000 activists, including Rev. Jesse Jackson, gathered at Strom Thurmond High School to rally against Thurmond’s proposal to let certain provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 expire. Most of the white townsfolk I talked to were not thrilled to have a couple thousand black people descend on their sleepy town on a Sunday morning and turn it into the wrong kind of national news.

After Jesse Jackson warmed up the crowd at the high school, I decided to skip the four-mile march into town. As I drove slowly past the long line of singing, chanting marchers, I realized they were outnumbered by cops—in marked cars, unmarked cars, a hovering helicopter. When I passed the marchers and accelerated toward town, the cops pulled me over and swarmed around the Buick, rifling through my trunk looking for weapons, grilling me about what I was doing in town, why I had a collection of out-of-state license plates, where I was going. After they let me go on my way, I would write: “They were just doing their job. No matter how many quiet years have passed, these men have not forgotten the blood and the ugliness that can spill out of afternoons like this.” The encounter with the cops was unnerving, but it was the exception that proved the rule. More times than I could count, my Buick was an ice-breaker and conversation starter, an entrée to worlds that would otherwise have been closed to me, an enabler of small grace notes. One of them happened on the afternoon I reached New York City. As I wrote:
You know you’ve crossed into the Bronx when you start noticing cars with no tires parked on their roofs. At a red light, a Chrysler Imperial glides up beside me. A girl is sitting on the front seat beside her father – grandfather? – slurping an ice cream cone. The man leans over and calls out: “That Buick a fifty-four or a fifty-five?”
 Fifty-four.”
“We use to have a fifty-six.”
“I’ve heard that before.”
He laughs. The girl, unfazed, slurps her ice cream. The man says, “That Buick’s worth a lotta money.”
“You haven’t driven it.”
More laughter. The girl looks over at me – not at the car, at Me – to see what her grandfather could possibly be so excited about. She goes right back to her ice cream cone. The light changes and immediately horns start blaring behind us. This is New York City, all right. The man takes one last long look at the Buick and waves goodbye and punches his Imperial down Boston Road.
By the time Kramer and I made our trips, of course, I-95 had turned U.S. 1 into a string of traffic lights through forgotten backwaters and the occasional big city, an afterthought, a scarred and unloved service road. I can’t speak for Kramer, but this was part of the point for me—to travel on 1954’s idea of a major highway while steering clear of the crushing monotony of the interstates. Surely there would be flecks of local color, maybe even archaeological relics from Yates’s roadside palaces dedicated to KING KONE MOBILGAS SHOPORAMA EAT. Other writers have had the same idea. In 1960 John Steinbeck climbed into a retrofitted pickup with a poodle named Charley and set out “in search of America,” driving a 10,000-mile counterclockwise loop around the edges of the lower 48 states, avoiding Ike’s new interstates as much as possible. “These great roads are wonderful for moving goods but not for inspection of a countryside,” Steinbeck wrote. “No roadside stands selling squash juice, no antique stores, no farm products or factory outlets. When we get these thruways across the whole country, as we will and must, it will be possible to drive from New York to California without seeing a single thing.” And in 1982, the year after my trip, William Least Heat-Moon published a bestseller called Blue Highways, his account of a trip around the lower 48 states. Heat-Moon’s mix of reportage and historical vignettes was guided by his determination to stick to back roads and shun interstates, cities, and fast food. While neither of us discovered any roadside stands selling squash juice, our very different trips did have a fleeting moment of connection. “I knew U.S. 1, stretching from the Canadian border to Key West, was capable of putting a man in an institution,” Heat-Moon wrote as he drove out of Maine toward Boston on my chosen road. “The highway was still a nightmare vision of the twentieth century, a four-lane representing (as Mencken put it) ‘the American lust for the hideous, the delight in ugliness for its own sake.’”

When I read those words, I knew I had chosen my route well.

The End of the Rainbow

Which brings us, finally, to the fatal flaw shared by Kramer’s movie and my book. The flaw is that road trips like ours are, by definition, built on the need for constant motion, which tends to result in a string of snapshots rather than deep dives into people’s lives. Indeed, one of Kramer’s stylistic tics is to string together a series of still photographs—a river gorge, the rings in a tree stump, dock ropes, a sunset—usually shown over dirge-like cello music. Establishing a mood of melancholy takes precedence over developing a narrative arc or a coherent view of the people Kramer meets. “Route One never explains itself,” as J. Hoberman wrote recently in The New York Times. “One thing simply follows another.”

It occurs to me only now that maybe Kramer was trying to make the point that there’s no time for patience in America, this land of restless, hopped-up go-getters who are always looking ahead to the next big score. My book didn’t try to make such a point. My urge to keep moving was partly motivated by economics—I needed to make it to Key West before I ran out of gas money—but mainly I was eager to see what waited around the next curve in the road. After my trip I found myself wondering if staying in one place might have yielded richer results, the way David Simon and Edward Burns spent a year observing the drug bazaar at the intersection of Monroe and Fayette Streets in West Baltimore in The Corner, or the way Richard Price dug like a dogged anthropologist into the lives of a cocaine-dealing crew in a New Jersey housing project in Clockers.

In a final irony, Kramer and I had one last thing in common: neither of us bought into Ronald Reagan’s Morning-in-America, feel-good, trickle-down horseshit. We had no way of knowing that our trips bookended the presidency that was the beginning of the nation’s seismic shift to the right, the beginning of the four-decade campaign to limit voting and abortion rights, to reduce environmental regulations, to free corporations and their lords to grow astronomically rich at the expense of the lower and middle classes. That shift from democracy to plutocracy is just now being understood and dissected in such books as Kurt Andersen’s Evil Geniuses and Jane Mayer’s Dark Money. America, in Andersen’s telling, has come down to this: “everybody for themselves, everything’s for sale, greed is good, the rich get richer, buyer beware, unfairness can’t be helped, nothing but thoughts and prayers for the losers.”

The seismic shift began amid a national mood of melancholy and a sense of drift, the smoky things Kramer and I did our best to chronicle on our trips down U.S. 1. The shift hasn’t slowed down since, and it has, finally, landed America in the mess it’s in today: the rich getting richer, nothing but thoughts and prayers for the losers: the end of the rainbow.

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