(Real Clear Books & Culture) – The distance travelled from Elvis to Trump is a lifetime. Which, like all history, is best appreciated in retrospect, and most rewarding when gleaned from first-hand accounts – provided these are forthright and, above all, well-written. These requirements Eric Rozenman’s From Elvis to Trump, Eyewitness to the Unraveling; Co-Starring Nixon, Warhol, Clinton, The Supremes and Obama! satisfies beyond reproach. Despite an unwieldy title that practically doubles as a trailer, the book is a wonderful record of his own lifetime on rewind. His contemporaries will find it nostalgic, their children intriguing, and no one will dismiss it as boring.
It all begins in hope and patriotism, jazz and gyrations, innocence unknowingly (as yet; but in retrospect, clearly) flirting with its loss. Then comes the reverse metamorphosis. The observer-author watches the butterfly of his generation’s volatile psyche turn inward into a narcissistic cocoon to contemplate its own navel while high on something. Once inside, it gradually begins rejecting Amerika and the work ethic, dreaming of Fidel, Ho, and Che, and swords morphed into plowshares. Increasingly clueless, before long it is back to being a worm, and claims to be finally woke. Now merely crawling, incoherently babbling that the world is coming to an end, what he really wishes is that he could begin again from scratch. Except that once rejected, innocence is farther from reach than ever. The secret is not to lose it in the first place. Is the unravelling irreversible?
Maybe, or maybe not. Fortunately, a few stray butterflies somehow manage to drop out of the proverbial lemmings’ convoy trudging along History’s presumed right side, meaning left. Stopped to tie their metaphorical sneakers, they sneak out to snicker. One of those merrily levitating descendants of Isaac (Yitzhak, יִצְחָק, meaning “one who laughs”), Eric Rozenman ended up watching History from the inside anyway. Funny just by being himself, as he records his adventures, even he is surprised by the gravity of his message. But isn’t that what has always saved the Jews, who come prepared with a chuckle whenever the apocalypse becomes too close for comfort. Rozenman didn’t mean to be a Cassandra; the times turned sour even if he didn’t.
That he became a journalist should not be held against him. It used to be a perfectly respectable profession, long before it came to rival the oldest in everything but remunerative potential. Also a talented novelist, Rozenman blends bits of memoir, celebrity vignettes, and shards of U.S. history from 1956 to 2020, to achieve something unique. The book is, by his own description, “an often wry, quirky but substantive answer to the question how did we get here and where are we going.” A tall order, but Rozenman delivers. Because instead of a tedious philosophical treatise (too often, even if not necessarily, a redundancy) he illustrates. Through self-described Zelig-like coincidences, this Woody Allen of the printed word has offered an eyewitness’s impression of an improbable odyssey – America’s own, for the past 65 years.
This Jewish Ulysses from Napoleon, Ohio, has been serially newspaper reporter, congressional press secretary, AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) lobbyist, magazine editor and Washington director of CAMERA (Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting). Spending most of his career in Washington DC, he inevitably crossed paths with the famous and infamous, both ordinary and extraordinary crooks, and even many decent folks. Each revealed a crucial facet of this best of all possible nation-states. Which may not say much for the species, but ask any immigrant and he’ll tell you, it’s a blessing.
Growing up in a small midwestern town, hence spared both the toxic arrogance of the average New Yorker, who can’t help imbibing it alongside the city fumes, and the gullibility of the average Joe trying to make a living, Rozenman gravitated to journalism out of sheer curiosity. He asked questions, observed, recorded, cutting through platitudes: “For the Baby Boomer multitude and the legacy and burden, tangibles and intangibles, it lays on its successors – the Generation X’ers, the Millennials and the other pop-sociology cohorts – remember, it all started with Vietnam. Even when it didn’t.”
Indeed, the roots of today’s malaise – and who doesn’t accept that description, whatever one’s ideological plumage? – goes far deeper. Rozenman knows because he was there. Not at the “very” beginning, whatever that might mean (Plymouth Rock? Mount Sinai? Eden?), but certainly in 1956, when he witnessed “the incandescent arrival and impact of Elvis Presley and rock n’roll on American and international culture.” It was all about charisma, narcissism, and unplugging from reality, which led to the substitution of ideology and simplistic antinomies – us vs. them – for ordinary observation. And the accompanying paranoia that breeds demagogy.
He would see it manifested in presidential campaign rallies for the racist Democratic Alabama governor George Wallace in 1968, and later for leftist Democrat/Independent/Socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders, who seemed to have taken a page from the mid-century demagoguery of Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Both were emulated by The Donald, whose party affiliation seemed mostly a question of expediency. They were all practitioners of what progressive historian Richard Hofstadter called “the paranoid style in American politics” in his famous essay of that title published by Harper’s Magazine in 1964. Hofstadter chose the term “simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy” found mostly in “profoundly disturbed minds. [But] it is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant [because] … frequently linked with movements of suspicious discontent.”
Suspicious discontent is surely too mild a term for the racism and antisemitism flaunted with impunity in broad daylight by the infamous Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, whose lifelong leitmotif has been “the Satanic Jews control everything and mostly everybody.” In 1984, he had said “the Jews don’t like Farrakhan, so they call me Hitler. Well, that’s a good name. Hitler was a very great man.” He had not changed his tune even in June 2018, when denouncing “Satanic Jews who have infected the whole world with poison and deceit.” He meant the whole lot of them, but American Jews in particular.
Two months later, a widely-circulated news photograph showed four men seated on the altar at singer Aretha Franklin’s funeral. Two of the four individuals facing 4,000 mourner-celebrants were Rev. Jesse Jackson and Rev. Al Sharpton—who helped incite the antisemitic and deadly 1991 Crown Heights riots and 1995 Freddy’s Fashion Mart killings but went on to host an MSNBC-TV program, advise President Obama and deliver widely-publicized eulogies at the funerals of Trayvon Martin, George Floyd, Daunte Wright and other blacks killed by police or security guards. The other two were former President Bill Clinton and Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan. Two months after that, in October, a man posted on social media that Jews were the spawn of Satan and intent on destroying white America. He then massacred 11 worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.
None of which is to deny that suspicious discontent is an equally-opportunity pathology, fear and hatred reified, the curse of the brother who kills. Racism of any stripe simply masks pure evil.
History’s relentless ebb and flow—is it an arc humans bend toward justice or that broken corkscrew we use repeatedly to pull up meanness and sorrow? Or both, simultaneously? If both, then the direction of movement must depend on the relative strength and motivation of Viktor Frankl’s two post-Holocaust “races.” Frankl, the young Austrian psychiatrist who survived Nazi death camps and went on to write the best-selling Man’s Search for Meaning, asserted that the only meaningful way to separate races is by dividing decent humans from their opposites.
The author readily admits that his book had begun “whimsically.” And yet, as he recalled events and people along the unexpected landmarks of his life, moral clarity was emerging almost against his will, defying his hostility to oversimplification. Patterns, he knew, are seductive, error too easy. It took considerable effort; for “in our allegedly post-truth Internet era – ‘narrative’ trumping facts – distinguishing freedom’s defenders from its enemies, the right side of the barricades from the wrong, can be mind-bogglingly difficult.” Consider, after all, how easily “the banner ‘Black Lives Matter!’ obscured the reality of social unraveling in predominantly black neighborhoods across the country, … [so too] on Jan. 6, 2021, self-imagined defenders of democracy attacked the legislative center of that democracy.”
His final conclusion is disarmingly simple. “[I]f the past 65 peculiar years said anything comprehensible, it must have been this: Be a free, responsible individual. Be a mensch. It’s all anyone can do. And the most.” By that standard, Eric Rozenman has done it.
Juliana Geran Pilon is a senior fellow at the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization. Her latest book is The Utopian Conceit and the War on Freedom. She has taught at the National Defense University, the Institute of World Politics, American University, St. Mary’s College of Maryland and George Washington University.