BILL MOYERS: We're hearing the word "historic" over and over again as we near the inauguration of our first African American president. But there is something else historic as well about this moment, and that's the convergence of issues our country faces. Our economy is in freefall. Our government is in shambles. We're at war in two other countries. And our foreign policy has produced one fiasco after another.
Some people even say Obama should actually consider himself fortunate to be taking over at a time like this, because there's nowhere to go but up. Maybe, but as we used to say in East Texas, no situation is so bad it can't get worse. The truth is there's nothing new about freshly inaugurated presidents inheriting a mess.
When George Washington took the oath of office at Federal Hall here in New York he was taking over a newly independent collection of squabbling states so penniless that Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton had to negotiate a bailout just to cover the salaries of the president and Congress.
And Lincoln. When Abraham Lincoln was sworn in on March 4, 1861, his hand on the same Bible Barack Obama will be using, the Union was dissolving into Civil War. Jefferson Davis had already been inaugurated as president of the Confederacy two weeks earlier.
Lincoln's bumbling predecessor, James Buchanan, told him, "If you are as happy on entering the White House as I am on leaving, you are a very happy man indeed."
CHIEF JUSTICE CHARLES EVANS HUGHES: You, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, do solemnly swear...
BILL MOYERS: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, of course, became president as the country was shivering and starving through the fourth winter of the Great Depression. Twenty-five percent of us were unemployed, stocks had plunged seventy-five percent after the Crash of '29 and new investment and industrial production were non-existent.
So it has been throughout America's stormy past: two steps back for every three forward, periods of boundless optimism countered by times of fear and desperation.
That's the background that prompted me to want to talk to our guest on this broadcast.
Historian Simon Schama has spent eight months traveling across America to take stock of our nation's character. Exploring our experience with war, religion, prosperity, and race.
MAN: I don't think any white person can really understand what it is to be a Negro in America.
BILL MOYERS: This legacy now awaits Obama on the doorstep of the White House.
The result of his travels is a television series premiering on BBC America next week, during the inauguration, and this upcoming book, The American Future: A History.
Simon Schama is an art and literary critic who since 1990 has written and presented more than 30 documentaries as well as such best-sellers as The Power of Art and the three-volume A History of Britain. He teaches history and Art History at Columbia University here in New York, and he still looks at America with the eye of the curious and intrigued visitor — the traveler who helps us see ourselves as others see us — and as, perhaps, we really are.
Welcome to you.
SIMON SCHAMA: Thank you for having me.
BILL MOYERS: Some time ago when we talked, oh, I think it was '05 or '06, you said to a group of us you thought the election in 2008, in that election we would finally confront our demons. Did we?
SIMON SCHAMA: Oh, I think we did actually. I think, or maybe even if we were demurring about taking stock of the magnitude of the many disasters besetting the United States, history in the shape of massive economic trouble happening at the time of a difficult and indeterminate war, made sure that we would. It's not just a question, Bill, I think of a number of policies that went wrong or even a question of a government that really, put it mildly, hadn't lived up to its billing.
It's been this extraordinary sense of a sinkhole at the center of our authority. That somehow all the nostrums and wisdoms and optimistic clichés, if you like, that have sustained us really since Ronald Reagan's Morning in America could not cope with trouble in manufacturing, could not cope with a sense of loss of grip about why our sons and daughters were dying abroad. Because America, you know, it's the reason I did this, both the series and the book. America is not impervious to these great moments of philosophical self-examination. We think of it all as sort of TV slogans and spin, the creatures of opinion management. But there have been moments over and over again, Watergate and the aftermath of Kennedy, when we've said we are a great democratic experiment. What has become of us? And I did think this would be another of those moments.
BILL MOYERS: Obama himself said last week in a speech on the economy that, you know, it's very late in the game. He didn't sound as certain as he might have about what can be done.
SIMON SCHAMA: No. He better sound a bit more certain in the weeks and months that are coming. What was actually a little disappointing about the end stages of his campaign is having promised us, really, a debate about a return to mutual purpose. He was really playing, as one must, I suppose, pragmatic politics and didn't exactly make the speech for me that I was hungering for, saying times are tough, but we're in this together. There were little whispers of that because of the nervousness really about rocking the boat too much before the election itself came along.
Now he has a really different task. He does indeed have the kind of Franklin Rooseveltian task of making Americans face up to the magnitudes of disaster. Maybe they don't need to be educated about this without utterly demoralizing us collectively, sapping our energy. It's a tough thing. So the catch-up is to say, for Timothy Geitner and all the rest of them, how much state power ought we be using without actually killing the animal we're supposed to be bringing back from sickness; namely, American capitalism? It's a tricky one. You can only feel your way day by day, week by week, I suspect.
BILL MOYERS: My sense is that the movement that was out there, that the longing for a new American story after the last eight years found Obama in one very strong sense. If you —
SIMON SCHAMA: Yes, but it takes a guy with really shrewd nostrils to smell the way the wind is going.
BILL MOYERS: And you were writing in September of last fall, two months before the election, that the next president would be the most compelling storyteller.
SIMON SCHAMA: Yes, I did.
BILL MOYERS: Why?
SIMON SCHAMA: Well, I'd read Dreams from My Father. That is a book about his own life, but it is also a book about the possibilities of American life, be it from the Great Plains, from Kansas, or his father's rather hapless, tragic story of the Kenyan who comes to Hawaii and then leaves his family to go to Harvard. It was almost like reading Steinbeck actually. The moment in that first book of his where I thought, this is an American story, is when his mother, in Indonesia, wakes the little boy, Barry, up at four o'clock in the morning to get extra lessons which he barely understands because she's worried about him getting not enough education in Jakarta or wherever it was. And we were threatened with losing a sense really, especially, you know, in the minority community he became aware of in South Chicago...
BILL MOYERS: Right.
SIMON SCHAMA: ...that education above all is empowerment. That's such an American story. That's why I came to America, Bill.
BILL MOYERS: That's why you make the case that his story, the story he tells about himself, is implanted in the American DNA.
SIMON SCHAMA: I think he's so good because he's actually very honest. When he gets to Chicago after a very moody, alienated, odd period, after he graduated from Columbia as an undergraduate, he wandered around, did some work as a consultant for a business corporation. Led a lonely life way over in East Harlem. And then just was hungry for some sort of connection. This is someone whose mother had left him with his grandparents in Hawaii, whose father had disappeared, someone whose whole life has been about reconnecting with some larger group.
And actually what was very odd, was when he was accused by Sarah Palin in particular of never running anything, that he didn't say it was no picnic going to Altgeld Gardens and Roseland in South Chicago, we're talking about asbestos removal. We're talking about fundamental, you know, making sure sewage doesn't back up, making sure electricity isn't cut off. He had early contact with a very hard education, all those empty damp church halls where he tried to get four or five people to come, twenty-five people to come, fifty people. That's what community organizing means. It doesn't mean some kind of lofty piece of editorializing. It means getting rid of the asbestos.
BILL MOYERS: So you think he appreciates or at least understands what you write about in the book, this dark underside of the American DNA, the American Dream, where for every Barack Obama, there are legions of young black men still experiencing racism, violence, and alienation, as you describe this?
SIMON SCHAMA: Yes. He is —
BILL MOYERS: You think he really appreciates —
SIMON SCHAMA: His strength and his weakness is that he does. Precisely because he is the skinny intellectual with a kind of, oh, so-so jump shot, jumped into the rough life of South Chicago. As I say, he's very wry about his unpreparedness for that. But there's no question. There's another passage he's written that he was headed for drugs. He liked to kind of cultivate this sort of cool attitude. His great strength is that he does know all these worlds. The question, really, was whether he knows too much. Whether he has too much experience of all these worlds to be able to say enough of input really. Time for a decision. We have no idea if he's any good at that. We're about to find out.
BILL MOYERS: Do you have an intuition about that, looking at both his story and America's story?
SIMON SCHAMA: I think —
BILL MOYERS: — for the moment?
SIMON SCHAMA: I think he's going to start by kissing up to too many people. And then I think there'll be a moment maybe about two months down the line and the kissing's going to stop. I rather hope so.
BILL MOYERS: So here Obama with this story is coming to take the Oath of Office next week. If he reads your book — which I most certainly hope he does, quite frankly — if he reads your book, he will find that he's standing at the convergence of four powerful forces in American life that you have identified and organized your work around. War, religion — what you call American fervor, I love that term, fervor — immigration, and abundance, or plenty. Tell me briefly why those four themes commanded your attention.
SIMON SCHAMA: The views that America's had historically about those seem to me to gather together into the exceptional American character. For example, it was really only in America that an intense debate was played out about what the place of the military was going to be in American life.
BILL MOYERS: We have an excerpt from your series, let's take a look at it.
SIMON SCHAMA: And like the soldiers of Gettysburg, the veterans of World War II have become an emblem of the good American war. Like thousands of young men, Epifanio Salazar signed up after Pearl Harbor. At seventeen, he was too young, but he lied about his age. Salazar trained as a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division. Two days after D-day, he made his first jump, behind German lines in Normandy. No one doubts that if ordinary Americans like Salazar had not made that jump into the fire, the world might now be a very different place.
EPIFANIO SALAZAR: We landed in some fields, they were waiting for us. They had machine guns and everything. I got shot by a German in the knee, and here, in the shoulder. It was awful.
SIMON SCHAMA: You had one hell of a tough war.
EPIFANIO SALAZAR: Oh, it's to hell and back.
SIMON SCHAMA: What do you think — do you think about the wars that America is in now, and compare?
EPIFANIO SALAZAR: I think the war in Iraq is not so good. It's a political war is what I think. Because in World War II it took us five years to win, completely win. And now it's five years, we haven't done anything.
SIMON SCHAMA: Salazar had invited me to join him at a gala to honor him and his fellow veterans. I guess I'd assumed that the atmosphere of shared ordeals, remembered wounds and deaths would preclude any hint of debate. But I was wrong. General Ricardo Sanchez, who had served as commander of American forces in Iraq, gave a speech. I was expecting him to deliver a call to arms. Instead, we got something more authentically American — a call to vote.
GENERAL RICARDO SANCHEZ: We are now into year six of Iraq, and if we disagree with the policies, then there are mechanisms for us to express that. When you're in a time of leadership crisis, what better time for you to mobilize yourselves and make a statement than during a presidential election year? Whether you support a Republican or Democratic candidate is irrelevant. The point that I'd like to leave with you is that the entire American community must mobilize itself, get involved in this tremendously critical year and make a statement. We have to send a message to Washington, because the future of our country is at stake.
BILL MOYERS: What were you thinking, sitting there?
SIMON SCHAMA: How wonderfully American a moment that was. I was completely dewy-eyed. I was thinking of all those men with medals organizing the destruction of democracy in some South American republic or the military junta in Burma or places where the authority of the uniform has given you permission to kill democracy because it's such an inconvenience. Pervez Musharraf, for example.
I was thinking there is Sanchez who had every reason to represent himself as the wronged general, wronged by civilian command of the war. And, in fact, he bared his heart to me about, actually, what a disaster he thought the immediate post-invasion administration had been. But the message he wanted in public about that supremely military occasion, when military sentiment was the kind of communal bond, was, "the first thing we are is a democracy." That's only in America, you find.
BILL MOYERS: You open one chapter with a quotation from Vice President Dick Cheney. "America has never been a warrior culture." When you heard that, what went through your mind?
SIMON SCHAMA: Well, the next sentence is, "Just because Dick Cheney said it doesn't necessarily make it untrue." I thought this is rich coming from — but then my second thought was, you're right. That's absolutely true. Of course you and I agree that the temptation to bullying — Theodore Roosevelt was high on the sound of a bugle, as we all know — has always been there, and it's often been succumbed to. We've gotten into all sorts of wars in American history, not to mention genocide of Native Americans, the Mexican War, certainly a war of choice. Nonetheless, there is some sense that the founding fathers would have been proud of Ricardo Sanchez in saying that there was an exceptionally strong element inside American life which is about the only decent war, the war worth spilling the blood of our sons and daughters is the war of last resort.
BILL MOYERS: I wonder if Obama understands the extent to which that early movement that we have talked about was inspired by the desire to end war, the war in Iraq and whether he knows today that he could betray the kind of trust and inspiration that we're invested in him because people were opposed to the war?
SIMON SCHAMA: Well, it'd be a shocking thing if he didn't. He went out on a limb when nobody else, you know, was actually prepared to deny the government's view about weapons of mass destruction, called it the dumb war, and so on. The danger is, of course, actually there was an incoming president, especially at 47 — or was it 48-year-old president — however smart, will succumb to those who say, "You're very bright but you must understand the art of state power. Enough with the soft, sentimental, sappy stuff. It's a hard world out there." Whether he goes, you might say, grimly Hamiltonian. And that will indeed be a betrayal.
If you ask me a prediction, Bill, I think he won't. I think actually he brings us to, you know, fervor. I think he is very invested on America's right to flourish being conditional on its survival of the moral community. I think that's a very important part of what America means to him.
BILL MOYERS: The Founding Fathers, as you point out, struggled with the moral underpinnings of military force. Do you think those moral underpinnings are still in place today after Iraq?
SIMON SCHAMA: Well, I think actually the difficulties in Iraq and our terrible overextension and years of chaos and violence and the worry about whether after we leave it'll descend into sectarian violence again, make the case that if you actually don't fight a war, as in the Second World War in which you're completely morally invested, it does you no good in terms of your own national security. The rest of the world whom ultimately you need to help you in this campaign, especially against global terrorism, will desert you, will treat you as someone who's caught the infection of military enthusiasm to a shocking degree. And they will not be there, especially when economic times are hard. So it's sort of in your interests to actually fulfill America's original mandate to fight wars in which you're morally un-occluded about.
BILL MOYERS: You were also in Texas to explore the second great theme in your book that you say converges at the time of Obama's inauguration and that is immigration. Let look at this excerpt from your visit to Houston, Texas.
SIMON SCHAMA: Texas, where a third of the city is Hispanic, and where some white Texans get hot and bothered about being swamped by a Latino tide.
VOLUNTEER BORDER PATROLMEN: Pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
SIMON SCHAMA: These volunteers gather every week to protect the kind of America they want to live in. The group is run by Curtis Collier, a pest exterminator.
CURTIS COLLIER: There's an estimated thirty to forty million people in our country illegally. And when you start multiplying that by just a few dollars, if forty million people only cost you just one dollar, it'd be costing you forty million. But it is estimated that a single illegal alien costs taxpayers somewhere in the neighborhood of four thousand dollars a year. As far as America needing the laborers to do the work that people here won't do, what happens is, these people coming to this country actually keep wages down.
SIMON SCHAMA: Their targets are the Mexican migrant workers who stand at the roadside waiting to be offered a day's work.
WORKER: I don't mind "One Nation, One Flag, One Language," that's right, I think that's right. But over there, they got cardboard with the words, "Nail 'Em and Jail 'Em." But these guys, all of us, we are just feeding our families.
PATROLMAN: You're all very illegal.
WORKER: No, everybody legal.
PATROLMAN: Show us papers and we'll help you get work.
WORKER: You have no authority to —
PATROLMAN: We got authority, we're citizens.
WORKER: Why? I'm citizen too.
WORKER: A lot of guys, we have family here, born here, many of us are citizens.
PATROLMAN: What about the ones that aren't citizens? What about the ones standing here that are invaders? What do you want to do with them?
WORKER: I - I - I guess that's right.
PATROLMAN: "I - I - I" — you need to get the invaders to go home.
WORKER: But jail 'em? I don't think that's fair. We're humans.
PATROLMAN: Illegal invasion is illegal.
WORKER: Right, but we're humans.
PATROLMAN: I don't give a care what you are, if you're not an American citizen you ain't got the right to be in America, get the hell out.
PATROL WOMAN: They're not in our country legally, they're not paying taxes. They're bringing in numerous diseases, they're raping and killing people. If they don't find a job, they go out and steal and rob. They even say that Texas belongs to them. They said that we stole it from them. And I know, I had relatives that came down from Tennessee and fought for the Republic of Texas and won it, fairly and squarely. And now they're saying, this is our country, y'all stole it from us, which is not true.
BILL MOYERS: You quote a woman in your book from 1854, "She regarded the Mexicans 'not as heretics or heathens to be converted...but rather as vermin to be exterminated.'" And I thought what an old story you're telling here. What explains this paradox that we, as you say, call ourselves a nation of immigrants but we resist all the newcomers when they arrive here? And that's an old strain. What is it that accounts for that, Simon? Is it that those of us who are here fear losing our identity in the bubbling melting pot?
SIMON SCHAMA: Yes. How does one put it without sounding too highfaluting? But I'd say an anthropological neurosis, oddly enough. Franklin, who I quote in the book actually —
BILL MOYERS: Benjamin Franklin.
SIMON SCHAMA: Benjamin Franklin, 1750, is terrified about the Germans in Pennsylvania. For Franklin, this was going to be an empire of the free but only if you're maybe Scots, maybe Irish or English. He wrote, of course actually, he was aware of German journalism and so on. But he fought bitterly against the possibility that the Germans would overrun Pennsylvania. The notion is: there's always the next wave. They're not going to be ready or right or, in some peculiar biological way, compatible with democracy. The Irish weren't going to be compatible. The Italians weren't going to, but time takes its own. We were talking earlier about the amazing power of education. And, you know, that has the capacity somehow magically over the generations to make all these people just fine as Americans.
The jump which we're seeing now, however, is what Chuck Alaman in Dearborn, Michigan, says at the end of that film, talks about with great pride, says, "I'm not an Arab American. I'm an American who happens to be a Muslim. I'm as American as apple pie." And we are seeing, if Obama's elected, the coloring of America. And you gave me an article to read in the Atlantic Monthly which was sort of about how white America is ending. And I thought, yes. But am I missing something here? But what exactly is the problem?
BILL MOYERS: Well, the problem is this historical memory that you write. I mean, if Benjamin Franklin, as you say, you call him the founding father of American paranoia.
SIMON SCHAMA: Right.
BILL MOYERS: And he anticipated the day that —
SIMON SCHAMA: Andrew Jackson, whose praises we are singing far too much in my view actually.
BILL MOYERS: Because? Because?
SIMON SCHAMA: Because Andrew Jackson was responsible for the first great exercise in ethnic cleansing, actually, who removed the Cherokee over the Mississippi in an act of absolutely horrifying cruelty and brutality.
BILL MOYERS: You call what Andrew Jackson did in removing the Cherokee the most morally repugnant moment in American history.
SIMON SCHAMA: Jefferson actually had been the first to make this deal. He said, look, Cherokee, if you can become American — in other words, if you learn English, you open schools, maybe you'll become Christian, if you accept our laws, if you turn the Cherokee Nation into a little New Hampshire or something, of course you could stay. You'll be thrifty farmers.
They do that. Their chief is called John Ross, you know, he's part Scottish but mostly Cherokee. They do that. And it's when they've actually accepted the American deal that Jackson says, "Uh-oh, they've actually fulfilled their side of the bargain only too well. But we need Georgia because gold has been discovered in Georgia. Get rid of them. We want them to vanish."
But what I wanted to say, Bill, was that this election is an astonishing moment in that respect because Americans were asked to vote on who they thought would be the more authentically, patriotically competent commander-in-chief between a decent, decorated, genuine American white hero and someone who looked and sounded like Barack Obama. You can't make the case that an African American somehow is incapable of embodying American values when every word that falls out of that man's mouth sounds as though he'd written the Constitution. I'm being a little too nice to Obama now.
BILL MOYERS: There's something else, too. Immigration, which has been a fierce strain in American nativism and opposition to the newcomer, fierce strain, did not cut as deeply, was not as hot an issue last November as most people expected it would be. Have we, in effect, with Obama's election, settled the issue?
SIMON SCHAMA: I suspect not. The credit belongs both to actually the president, to George Bush, and to John McCain. Their view, which puts them firmly on the left of the Republican Party, was that there ought to be a way for illegal immigrants to become citizens actually. And so John McCain started to make tremendous noises about the security fence and so on. But it's true, it sort of fizzled and disappeared. Simply there seems to be more urgent things on people's scanner I believe.
BILL MOYERS: Does Obama's election mean we can finally put race behind us?
SIMON SCHAMA: The race problem will not go away, not least because when times are tough actually those who are, in any case, economically disadvantaged, who have less schooling, are likely to be those who are most, alas, disposable in terms of the possibility of unemployment. So we're going to expect I think trouble in the cities. Not I think trouble like 1960s.
But you asked, of course, the historical question. That is profound. America begins with an act — and you know, I'm deeply sentimental in my enthusiasm about the beginning of the American experiment. But it begins with an act of profound bad faith. Jefferson writes the Declaration of Independence in which liberty and equality are offered as the defining principles that make you American, while he is himself a slave owner. And then the Constitution is made at the moment in which African Americans are defined as three-fifths of a human in order to give the South enough clout to perpetuate slavery.
And, you know, Lincoln's conversion coming up to the Civil War and then during the Civil War, from someone who found it morally loathsome but pragmatically had to be kept that way, to someone who, for whatever reasons, to win the war or not, was responsible for the Emancipation Proclamation, was an enormous change.
Lincoln, simply in the end, found it unbearable to hold up his head as an American and keep that act of bad faith going. But then we had a hundred years of Jim Crow and we had the civil rights movement. So this moment, it does seem to me to finally wipe clean that original sin, that profoundly repellent act of bad faith at the very beginning.
BILL MOYERS: You give valuable time in this series and in the book to religion. How come?
SIMON SCHAMA: I thought particularly religion is especially outside America misunderstood as a kind of captive of the conservative right. So that it's become almost a synonym for wanting to kind of rant and rave about what is right and what is wrong about the abortion debates and when life begins and so on. And there seems to be a much older and grander and nobler tradition.
I was particularly taken with Roger Williams, who's extremely undisciplined, sort of unorthodox Protestant for whom the regime in Massachusetts was a form of theocratic tyranny. Well, we're back in the 1600s now and he founds Providence Plantation that becomes Rhode Island in order that anybody of any kind of faith could practice without being persecuted by the other. The American bet was taken that belief would flourish exactly to the degree in which you could never be prosecuted. You could never be turned into a criminal for believing or praying to the wrong god. And that was a bet that's paid off. So in some sense, the religiosity of America has been tied up with tolerance and freedom always.
I mean, Jefferson, that old deist. Can you imagine? Jefferson did not believe that Jesus was son of God. Do we imagine someone actually running for higher office is prepared to say, "Fine school teacher. But, you know, virgin birth, give me a break." Really, I mean, that's unlikely to happen. But Jefferson, that sort of skeptical deist who believed in the creator, he did believe in a creator but thought the New Testament was essentially a kind of a nice fairy tale about a good, moral teacher. Jefferson gave America a great gift in saying that we cease to be Americans once we start to institute religious injunction in our laws.
BILL MOYERS: Your travels took you to the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. Let me show the audience what happened there.
SIMON SCHAMA: It's Easter Sunday in Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where Martin Luther King preached his gospel of liberation.
REVEREND RAPHAEL WARNOCK: People dare to ask, why we ain't — two hundred and forty-four years of slavery, and you dare to ask me why in the world are black people so angry?
SIMON SCHAMA: Like most black congregations in the country, Ebenezer has a new hero, Barack Obama. They consider him one of them, a man whose political convictions owe an enormous debt to his faith.
Obama's background in the black church, the church of slave rebellions, comes with political risks. The sermons of his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, dominated the talk that Easter weekend. He made some incendiary remarks that were instantly picked up by the American media. But here, the media attacks on Wright were seen as an attack on all of them.
REVEREND RAPHAEL WARNOCK: For two weeks now, the talking heads have been engaged in a yellow journalistic prosecution of the black church. Jeremiah Wright may be the subject, and Barack Obama may have been called to testify, but in a real sense, the black church is on trial.
SIMON SCHAMA: Reverend Warnock was not shy about taking his fervor right into the political fray.
REVEREND RAPHAEL WARNOCK: The truth may get you killed, the truth will get you crucified. Sometimes on a cross, sometimes on CNN.
SIMON SCHAMA: So much for Jefferson's hope that politics and religion might be kept apart.
REVEREND RAPHAEL WARNOCK: For me it's a question of social justice. And justice is not simply a political issue, it's a theological issue. The prophets of the Old Testament spoke about the God of justice. They said, "Woe unto you who crush the poor." So when I speak to public policy issues, I am being faithful to the Gospel.
Martin Luther King, Jr. said the judgment of God is upon America.
I would argue that the black church was born fighting for freedom. The freedom struggle is the black church's very raison d'etre, its reason for being. It is the one thing that really makes the witness of the black church distinctive in America, and it has been part of the black church's gift to America.
BILL MOYERS: What did you think, the son of Jewish refugees, sitting there in Ebenezer Baptist Church?
SIMON SCHAMA: I thought it was just grand, really. There's no doubt that as an historical statement, the Reverend Warnock was saying exactly how it is. That's to say the moment really when slaves were able to form a community out of sight and out of control of the overseer and the plantation owners were in the so-called steal-away churches or the hush harbors. The slave owners had a decision to make. Is life going to be more difficult for us in keeping our population of slaves docile with or without Christianity? So they decided that was the answer.
But that involved teaching slaves often to read or write so they could read the Bible, bringing their own white preachers in. Once they got the bard of the gospels, they decided to do something about it themselves. And the film and the chapter in the book really traces this one extraordinary place of freedom before the Civil War, especially among your lot, among the Baptists where blacks could really have their own government. By the 1870s and '80s, deep into Jim Crow years, W.E.B. DuBois, who himself is not a particularly religious person, is awed by this extraordinary establishment of what he calls the temple of African American life. So it's so important. And it was something that did not come naturally to Obama, of course.
BILL MOYERS: You were reporting and writing this at the time of the controversy...
SIMON SCHAMA: Right.
BILL MOYERS: ...over Jeremiah Wright...
SIMON SCHAMA: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: ...of which Pastor Warnock talked.
SIMON SCHAMA: When Obama decided on March the 18th, I'm sure it was actually, to give that great speech, the greatest speech he gave in the entire campaign, in Philadelphia. And he said, "I want to explain to you the relationship between religion and being an African American in America. I want to explain to you, however much you like or dislike it, the nature of black anger. And then you'll understand why Jeremiah spoke as extremely as he did."
BARACK OBAMA [GIVING SPEECH]: For the men and women of Reverend Wright's generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away; nor has the anger and the bitterness of those years. That anger may not get expressed in public, in front of white co-workers or white friends. But it does find voice in the barbershop or the beauty shop or around the kitchen table. And occasionally it finds voice in the church on Sunday morning.
SIMON SCHAMA: I thought, he has gone down in flames. I thought that day when I read it, I thought this is a noble speech which has destroyed his candidacy. He's decided to grasp two violently struggling snakes with his hands. And he's had it, really. But he will know when he loses the nomination, I thought, my power of clairvoyance deserting me, that he went down for a good cause. But, of course, it was that moment where actually engaging an issue of morality in American life only did him good. It only did him good.
BILL MOYERS: You describe America as a place of everlasting optimism. And yet one of the most haunting scenes in your work is of you walking into an abandoned house in the Great Plains and find yourself standing "inside the dead and broken body of the dream." What are you experiencing there?
SIMON SCHAMA: Oh, it was the death, as I said, of the little house on the prairie. That was a house that had been abandoned during the Dust Bowl and somehow miraculously had actually sort of stayed that way. And it — America was — the sort of spirit of can-do America is balanced by tragic illuminations like that.
There was a wonderful man we talk about in the film called Hugh Bennett, who became Roosevelt's sort of conservation person. And it's an extraordinary scene really where he stands talking about what's the desire for immediate greed by churning up the short grass prairie which gave you two generations maximum of high-yield crops, what we did was destroy the entire ecosystem of the grass that bound together the soil surface. So when the winds blew and there was a drought for many years, lo and behold, the dust storms. And he's standing there on the floor of the Senate. And the dust storm, the one dust storm that was horrifying, I believe it's 1935, that actually darkened the skies over Washington, that had blown east. And Bennett says, "This is what I mean. There goes Oklahoma." And he was listened to. He was listened to by the government and he was listened to by Congress. So America is this — for me it will always be this most moving poetic place, does that surprise you, Bill? — in the world to be. Because it is actually about innocent ebullience followed by tragic illumination. And it's a change of course. I do still believe we'll change course. But we'll change course and still be America.
BILL MOYERS: You have said that no one is ever elected president in this country by talking about limits.
SIMON SCHAMA: Right.
BILL MOYERS: And yet we're entering a period in which Obama has to cope with limits, right?
SIMON SCHAMA: He does. But he's been smart and I think true about this. I don't want to give him a pass on everything. But actually talking about renewable sources of power, by talking about new technology, wind power, solar power, and so on, it does sound a bit like a kind of green sermon. But he's right. Investment in those enables him to deploy the one thing that we're not running out of in my view and that's American technological ingenuity. That little piece of Benjamin Franklin's legacy is alive and well. We see it every day on the web. If you could somehow actually translate that deep well of ingenuity then you feel, indeed, that what you're talking about when you talk about limits is different. You can't have Hummers the size of Rhode Island anymore barreling on the freeway. But you can have a new way, cars will go on. They'll just be different kinds of cars.
BILL MOYERS: But one reviewer says, "I was left feeling rather chilled by Schama's take on the U.S. and its prospects. This may be the end of an empire as we knew it. And one can only wonder what it will mean for someone like Obama to preside," and here's where your historical convergence arrives on the scene, "to preside over its dismantling or its transformation."
SIMON SCHAMA: That's the challenge. That's typically dark European view. But it's the challenge. You can either be — it's an extraordinary thing, this convergence of catastrophe and euphoria. Euphoria at the president we have and the heap of trouble we're in. Either the heap of trouble will do him in and there'll be a terrible dark backlash of disappointed expectations, or he'll flip it. It won't be easy. The flipping won't happen overnight. But he can actually turn it to an extraordinary vindication of the American experiment. I rather hope he will.
BILL MOYERS: Have you learned something about the American character that surprised you, that enables you to project where we are going as a people, the soul of America?
SIMON SCHAMA: There are moments in our history, some of the ordeals of the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, that Americans were called on to sacrifice, during the New Deal and during the Second World War. We are indeed going to go through a kind of test of that order. But in each occasion really America has emerged with an essential characteristics altered, but intact.
BILL MOYERS: And that is?
SIMON SCHAMA: I think freedom, ingenuity, and justice.
BILL MOYERS: Those you think are the bedrock of American character?
SIMON SCHAMA: I do. I do. And as I say, I think actually equality and justice were a dark joke so long as racism remained embedded in the institutional fabric of the United States. That's changed.
BILL MOYERS: So we're a country of great paradox.
SIMON SCHAMA: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: But you find us also a resilient people.
SIMON SCHAMA: Yes, absolutely.
BILL MOYERS: Simon Schama, thank you very much.
SIMON SCHAMA: You're welcome.
BILL MOYERS: There's more information about The American Future, the series, the book and DVD, on our website on pbs.org.