Special Report

An American in Washington

Tim Russert and the culture of dreams that is American exceptionalism.

By 6.24.08

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Tim Russert was an American.

I'm not using the term in its patriotic sense, although he certainly was not just a patriot but an unabashed one at that.

No, Tim Russert was an American in that very particular fashion that makes Americans the most distinctive breed of humans on the planet. He was an American in precisely the cultural sense that causes European elites -- and all too frequently our own -- to grind their teeth and look down their noses with such haughty disdain at the one population on earth composed of the entire world's rejects, refugees and descendants of same.

What is an American?

As it happens, I have a friend who has spent a great deal of his professional life studying the subject and made himself fabulously successful in doing so. If you own or have ever seen the Chrysler PT Cruiser, then you should know the design of what became one of the most successful cars in automotive history was the result of the work of Dr. Clotaire Rapaille. A Frenchman who was first introduced to Americans as a child when American soldiers rescued his family and his countrymen from the Nazis, Rapaille was so taken with the idea of America that he vowed he would someday become one himself, which he has now done. He has spent decades developing the startling notion that every human being acquires a "silent system of Codes" growing up in a particular culture. These "Culture Codes" are in fact what make the French French, the English English, the Germans German and so on, country by country, around the world. They are what makes an American so very distinctively American.

Understanding these codes has enabled Clotaire Rapaille to become a major consultant to fifty Fortune 100 companies as well as a personal adviser to many of their CEOs, helping them to recognize the hidden clues in every country that can help them better design and sell everything from cars like the PT Cruiser to cheese, coffee, perfume and appliances. Wearing a set of Rapaille's cultural "glasses" it isn't hard at all to understand either Tim Russert or his success in life -- and perhaps most importantly the tidal wave of affection for him from his fellow Americans that has tellingly startled some of his Washington colleagues in the wake of his tragic, sudden death.

HOW DO AMERICANS see Americans? While he writes about this in his book The Culture Code, in person Dr. Rapaille, an American by choice, always laughs when he begins by saying that Americans are perpetual cultural adolescents, with rebellion a trademark characteristic of adolescents. The country was founded by people in rebellion against various kings and political or religious authorities, and eventually the USA itself came to be in an act of rebellion against a king. We not only love to question authority (which is exactly the job description of the host of Meet the Press), we are proud of our adolescent streak. What, after all, is represented by American inventions from Coca-Cola to Nike shoes to fast food, football, blue jeans and rock and roll other than an instinctive attachment to the "trappings" of adolescence?

Americans are so in love with the idea of the "new" that we are constantly building and renewing, much preferring to tear down than preserve. Even our place names reflect this instinctive yearning, from New England to New York to New Orleans, not to mention every product in the supermarket that has the word "new" emblazoned somewhere on its, yes, "new" packaging.

The very physical size of America itself has made Americans masters of what Rapaille calls the "macro-culture." This "sense of size" shows up everywhere. We love our SUVs as before we loved the big Chevy's with fins. We love our big houses, Big Macs and, of course, big goals and big ideas. Go to the moon? Hey, no problem. Set the deadline and let's get at it! Beat the Japanese and the Germans both and win World War II? Let's roll up our sleeves and get it done.

We're also big on diversity and unity, and Rapaille most certainly doesn't mean the first in the politically correct sense of the term. He cites the physical features and culinary tastes of America that any American child becomes aware of as he grows up, even if he hasn't seen or tasted them all in person. The rocky seacoasts of New England, the skyscrapers of Manhattan, the Everglades of Florida or the plains of the Midwest or the redwoods of California vary as radically as lobster does from thick steaks, Texas barbecue, a vegetarian menu, or pecan pies and ice cream. Yet as an American moves about in his own country he knows he can be in Scranton or Sacramento and still find the ubiquitous sameness of a Holiday Inn or a Starbucks, a physical reminder of America's unity in diversity.

All of this -- the adolescence, the rebellion against authority, the passion for newness, size, diversity and unity -- forms a permanent cultural "imprint" on an American child as we grow up. It is the stuff of our cultural DNA. It is just as lasting as an encounter with a hot stove, which permanently impresses the concept of "hot" in a child's brain.

Into this mix as well is the imagery of American symbols that is seamlessly absorbed by young American children. The gliding of an American eagle, the welcoming of the lady with the torch held aloft in New York harbor, the fluttering of a flag over a ballpark or a monument -- all of these images and so many more silently create a perpetual message to Americans of "who we are meant to be." Decades of research with average Americans has repeatedly produced telltale stories for Dr. Rapaille that he says are filled with "powerful and poignant imagery." They talk of images of an astronaut planting a flag on the moon, of the majesty of Lincoln sitting in his marble temple, the shining hope in the eyes of kids at a 9/11 candlelight vigil, the sadness at seeing an image of the Statue of Liberty buried in the sand at the end of the film Planet of the Apes, and they remember the stories of America passed on from older family members.

Time after time Rapaille's subjects would use optimistic, positive phrases like "everything we should be trying to achieve," "it sounded big and that meant a lot to me," "I saw hope," or "greatness dancing in my head." Combined with his own experience that drove him to leave France and become an American citizen, the astonished Dr. Rapaille realized that for Americans there was an almost "mythological dimension" to their country.

The Culture Code for America, he realized, was "dream."

LISTEN AGAIN TO WHAT has been said about Tim Russert these last several days. He was the son of a garbage man. He dreamed of going to college. He dreamed of going to law school. He dreamed of politics. He dreamed of journalism. To borrow from the old Everly Brothers' hit, Tim Russert's life was Dream, Dream, Dream. He was completely and utterly "on Code" as an American. He would have his dreams -- more than one - and then, quite instinctively as every cue in his surroundings told him to do, he would go out and make them happen. His almost child-like excitement, whether at explaining things political from "Florida Florida Florida" on national television or meeting the Pope or at his pinch-me realization that he was in the Oval Office with the President or simply being with his son Luke is nothing if not the purest of American reactions. The American prizing of a "sense of size" surely makes it no accident that Russert's beloved Dad is nicknamed "Big Russ," or that Russert himself had a huge appetite for everything from friends to food to good stories to just lots and lots of time with Luke. He married "feisty" writer Maureen Orth, famous in her own right for profiles of rebellious souls ranging from Madonna to the Irish Republican Army's leader Gerry Adams to Harrod's owner and the burr of the British establishment, Mohamed Al Fayed.

To be an American is exactly to be a dreamer. To know with conviction what it is you dream of doing, then simply, joyously -- doing it. Taking action. It doesn't mean there will not be challenges or roadblocks along the way. That's life. Yet dreams are the tell-tale cultural code of America that link the Founding Fathers to the pioneers and the astronauts, that connects Ben Franklin to Walt Disney and Disney to Steven Spielberg. It is the cultural DNA that can be traced in a straight line from the Wright Brothers to the space shuttle astronauts, that connects the dots from Lowell Thomas to Rush Limbaugh. It has nothing to do with being famous, either. American dreams have created everything from family farms to small businesses to entire military, legal or medical careers, all of them run with the deepest of satisfaction and pride well outside the spotlight of People magazine. Every day of his working life, Tim Russert's Dad was not the guy whose son was on TV -- he was just the garbage man. But he was a garbage man with dreams -- of family, of work, of country. And he made those dreams come true.

There is a disconnect in this country between Americans as embodied by Tim Russert, and many in Washington who simply don't understand the America with which Tim Russert never lost touch. There are far too many people on all sides in Washington who are gussied up in Washington's transactional friendships. They care for others only in the sense of who's in and who's out, who holds which title and who no longer matters, campaigning on principles abandoned in the name of holding office, happier in white tie than white T-shirt. This is a Washington that not only has lost its understanding of the men and women who are the exceptional people of America -- the garbage men, small business owners, family farmers, religious leaders and all the rest who were represented in Russert's life by a Big Russ or his nun Sister Lucille -- but looks down on them to boot.

Does anyone really think that if those in the nation's capital who conduct themselves in this fashion should die tomorrow they would elicit even a fraction of the spontaneous outpouring across the country that greeted the news of Tim Russert's death?

IT IS A CURIOUS thing to say, but sitting well outside of the Beltway these days, physically removed from the insider business, gives one a clarity of vision that is frequently lacking when living in Washington. There is no care whether one gets invited to this party or that, no sense that an invitation lacking somehow spells doom for one's career, all of which is a considerable if invisible pressure on those who have made it a life to fight their way to the top of some imagined pecking order.

So too is it with Americans. They -- we -- simply go about our everyday business in our self-created culture, busily dreaming our dreams and making them come true. Paying no attention whatsoever to those who insist "it can't be done." A 55-year-old Englishman responded to a question from Dr. Rapaille asking how the British see Americans by remarking with irritation that Americans "seem like a bunch of bounding children." After other condescending remarks along the same line, he puzzled out loud a question that he could not answer: "If they are beneath us, though, why have they accomplished so much? They seem to understand something we fail to understand."

That "something" Americans understand is the power of dreams, dreams in our personal lives and most particularly in our life as a nation. Right from the start, generation after generation has believed that America is different from the rest of the world. It is why millions of people want to come to America, not leave America. It is why we get up in the morning and ride garbage trucks or sell insurance or raise crops or invent software or make movies or do any of the unlimited things humans are capable of when living in a society that understands the direct connection between freedom and the imagination.

This is what makes America "exceptional." It is why Americans believe so deeply in "American exceptionalism," and why they simply will dismiss those elites in both the media and Washington whose senses have been dulled to the power of dreams by the lure of insiderdom, or in the case of non-American elites, plain old-fashioned envy.

Tim Russert understood instinctively the power of dreams because he was a dreamer himself. He understood in his gut that the strength of America was not in Washington but in the dreams of Buffalo and all the Buffalo's around America. In that very real sense, this is what made him a genuine American in Washington. He was decidedly incapable of becoming one of the media or political pooh-bahs who have long since surrendered their dreams for invitations to cocktail parties in the salons of Georgetown. He was that rare creature in Washington who understood the real meaning of his favorite phrase: "What a country!"

Amen, Tim.

Thanks.

Jeffrey Lord is the creator, co-founder and CEO of QubeTV, a conservative online video site. A Reagan White House political director and author, he writes from Pennsylvania.

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.