Not a Trivial Pursuit

To journalist and author Carl Cannon, the pursuit of happiness remains an unalienable right.



The well of the Senate in Baton Rouge is a precious place to launch a book, as Carl M. Cannon learned last month. The White House correspondent for the National Journal had come to the Louisiana Book Festival as a featured author, promoting The Pursuit of Happiness in Times of War, newly released from Rowman and Littlefield. Cannon was part of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team that covered the 1988 San Francisco earthquake for the San Jose Mercury News. As a member of the Washington bureau, covering national politics, Cannon made several swings through Louisiana. In 1991, he spent a leisurely Sunday afternoon in the governor's mansion watching an NFL football game with a select few including the detached incumbent, Buddy Roemer, who should have been out campaigning for reelection. Cannon says he was not surprised when David Duke knocked Roemer out of the runoff, nor when Edwin Edwards prevailed in "the race from hell."

"My friend Carl Cannon has a theory that journalism suffered after Watergate by the infusion of a new kind of journalist -- those who imagined they could achieve the fame and wealth of Bob Woodward," writes Raymond D. Strother in his recent memoir, Falling Up: How a Redneck Helped Invent Political Consulting. "The desire to be a star instead of an objective observer can have a corrosive effect on journalists. ... Cannon also believes that, by and large, the young reporters arriving in the profession today are smarter, better educated, and better writers than their counterparts a generation ago."

Cannon is one of the smartest reporters in Washington. He has written for the Atlantic Monthly, New Republic and other magazines. Last year he coauthored Boy Genius, a biography of Karl Rove, the chief political advisor to President George W. Bush. Cannon is not a journalist stricken with star fever, and showed as much in his presentation that Saturday in the state capitol.

People were taking seats in the chamber where senators normally do business. Someone told Cannon of that ignominious moment in 1994 when then-Senate President Sammy Nunez doled out $2,500 checks from a casino owner to a clutch of colleagues for campaign expenses. A trace of wonder marked Cannon's brow. "The senator gave out money on the floor of the Senate," he replied. "That's pretty bold."

He gazed at the marble columns, brass railings, and 50-foot high ceiling. "I'm not used to speaking from a spot like this," he murmured -- his place was in the aisle, writing about politicians at the podium. The remark suggested an adherence to that old line of demarcation between politicians and the press, a division fast blurring in the star culture: politicians compete with journalists to become talk show hosts, celebrities try to get elected, both sides have a vested interest in fame.

The Pursuit of Happiness in Times of War, explained Cannon, "began as a freelance assignment from Forbes magazine in the spring of 2001. The editors wanted an article on what that phrase from the Declaration meant to the living presidents." Cannon began casting lines to both President Bush and his father, along with former presidents Bill Clinton, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.

The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks cancelled the assignment. Cannon knew people who died in the Pentagon that day, and as he told the Baton Rouge audience, he still mourned the loss of his friend Michael Kelly, the Atlantic Monthly editor and columnist who was killed while on assignment in Iraq. Yet as the war on terrorism intensified, Cannon found himself unable to let go of the phrase "pursuit of happiness." So he set about to investigate an idea. He began calling historians and visiting libraries and archival collections. He read the letters of long-buried soldiers and presidents, drawing a bead on how the unalienable right of pursuing happiness has animated political thinking since the nation's founding.

In his speech, Cannon mentioned Bush's visit to a 2001 World Series game a few weeks after 9/11. "Bush wanted people to see one another out doing things -- to show that life must go on," he said. Mayor Rudy Giuliani delivered a similar message to traumatized New Yorkers "by telling people to go to restaurants, enjoy a night at the theater," as a way of demonstrating that terrorism could not destroy the assumptions of daily life. Comments such as those sent a signal of how freedom has became entwined with prosperity -- the rewards of work -- in the American identity.

"The main theme of the [Declaration of Independence] was not unity; it was justice," Cannon writes in his book. "The Framers were making the argument ... that the purpose of the Revolution was not to seize power from a duly recognized sovereign government. Rather, it was to reclaim political powers that the colonists possessed as their birthright."

Alexis De Tocqueville's Democracy in America provided Cannon with a thematic touchstone: "Americans believe their freedom to be the best instrument and surest safeguard of their welfare; they are attached to the one by the other."

People on both sides of the slavery issue drew on the notion of an invested happiness in America's wrenching experiment with democracy.

Jefferson, author of the notion that all men are created equal, owned slaves, as did Washington. In the long buildup to the Civil War, writes Cannon, abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison despaired of the Declaration for idealized language that failed to confer its own meaning on those enslaved. But for the ex-slave and crusader for liberation Frederick Douglass, the seminal documents were vital precisely because they put the nation on record with an ideal and a theoretical foundation that advanced the cause of abolition from slavery: "Would you have me argue that man is entitled to liberty? That he is the rightful owner of his own body? You have already declared it."

The book quotes from soldiers and elected officials on both sides of the Civil War in underscoring how the "pursuit of happiness" had a dual meaning across the chasm of slavery. Both sides cited the phrase to justify their position. A century later, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. used the language of the Declaration in some of his most stirring speeches.

Presidents have rallied popular support for war by defining the national interest not just in terms of fighting the enemy but in casting freedom as a way of life. During World War II, Franklin Roosevelt's fireside chats on radio soothed a nation beleaguered by the Depression and fears for young men gone to war. Roosevelt, writes Cannon, "with all the weight of the free world on his broad shoulders, a man who'd lived since his thirty-ninth year with paralysis and in a marriage without physical intimacy, impressed his own White House aides with his capacity for unwinding at the end of another harrowing day. ... Roosevelt would mix the martinis himself. ... Trading funny political stories, telling jokes, gossiping about politics -- such banter kept Roosevelt sunny and sane."

Cannon had no privileged access to the current president, who has given few press conferences and is less accessible to journalists than Roosevelt or Clinton. But exposure to Bush's public appearances gave Cannon abundant insights. Other commentators have focused on how Bush, as an evangelical Christian, draws on religious rhetoric in casting the Islamic militants as "evildoers," but Cannon takes a different slant, focusing on the president's interpretation of freedom. He quotes from a speech at the White House: "They hate the idea that anybody can buy a home. They hate freedom. That's what they hate. They hate the fact that we worship freely. They don't like the thought of Christian, Jew and Muslim living side by side in peace. ... I want to thank the choir for coming, the youngsters for being here. I just want you to know that when we talk about war, we're really talking about peace. ... I also want the young people to know that this country -- we don't conquer people; we liberate people, because we hold true to our values of life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

Any number of critics would seize on "when we talk about war, we're really talking about peace" as a textbook example of George Orwell's theory in his essay "Politics and the English Language" that ideology articulates something to mean its opposite. But issues that roil the Democratic opposition -- did Bush lie to the nation in saying that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction or distort intelligence on the perils of postwar reconstruction? -- barely register in Cannon's pages.

"The notion, advanced subtly by antiwar critics, that Arab culture is unready for democracy also strikes Bush as fundamentally illiberal," writes Cannon. "He displays no patience for the ideal that there is anything about Arab culture, or Islam, that is incompatible with this desire."

He continues: "Inside the United States it seemed that there was an inverse relationship between how much people favored Bush's invasion plans and how close they themselves had ever been to living under tyranny. At one extreme there was the cabal of cloistered Hollywood millionaires who denounced Bush as a menacing warmonger. At the other end of the spectrum were the working-class Iraqi-Americans living in their Detroit-area enclave who took to the streets in celebration at the news that the U.S. Marines crossed the Kuwait border into Iraq."

Cannon may well have hit on the driving force of Bush's popularity. Yet the nation is closely divided over the administration's agenda with deep doubts over what exactly the war is about. Cannon gives little scrutiny to the rage in radical Islam toward U.S. policies that support corrupt oil monarchies, the image of America that we send out on commercial television, and our role in the Israel-Palestine conflict.

"I was an agnostic about this war, although I tried to keep those misgivings to myself," Cannon writes about the period before the invasion. "But I am not agnostic about it now: The invasion took place; the only good result would be for Iraqis to embrace democracy, and to accept a Constitution that guarantees all of the people of that land the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

As the reelection campaigns gear up, the war will be one issue, and it's a fair assumption that social issues -- the politics of the body -- will be another. Near the end of the book, Cannon writes that Reagan and George W. Bush "have said that they believe the concept of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness should -- and will -- eventually be extended to unborn children. This vision ... has probably not been given its due in the intellectual discourse of the nation. I suspect Reagan and Bush will be proven right."

Does Cannon believe that Bush appointees on the Supreme Court might cause a reversal of Roe v. Wade -- or does he foresee a more substantial shift in public opinion on abortion? "I certainly wasn't making any prediction about what judges will do, or even any prediction in the short term at all," Cannon responds in an email interview. "I was ruminating about the likelihood that in the long term the great truths of science, religion and mainstream political thought will coalesce around a rough consensus that the unborn have rights that ought to be discussed and respected, and that this realization will ultimately lead to laws and customs that make abortion much, much rarer than it is today."

On the topic of another controversial social issue, Cannon says that he believes gay rights advocates to be "well within the spirit and the letter of Jeffersonianism when they cite the rights to 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness' as argumentation to change public opinion in their favor. This, I believe, they are doing -- gradually." For this reason, Cannon says, gay marriage is inevitable. "In time, American society will accept it," he says. "And I think the logic of the promise of the Declaration is one reason why."

Finally, critics of the current administration have charged that it is culturally chauvinistic for American policy-makers to try to graft ideals of freedom -- including free elections and free speech -- onto other countries.

"Well, that's the question of our age, isn't it?" asks Cannon. "I don't know the answer, but as I said in my book, if the rights that the Founders enumerated are indeed "unalienable" (and "self-evident") it seems to me that the philosophical corollary is that the yearning for them is universal. That is my belief, and it clearly is the belief of President George W. Bush.

"I don't know that he is correct; I do know that the kind of arguments offered by today's liberals -- that Arab culture is different, that Islam is still evolving -- are the same kind of arguments made in the 1940s about Nipponese culture and "the Teutonic mind" -- why Japan and Germany weren't ripe for democracy. The doubters were wrong then; Bush believes they are wrong today. I guess time will tell, but when this president says that freedom is not America's gift to the world but God's gift to mankind, he sounds as Jeffersonian as can be."


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