The much-anticipated TV series “Pan Am” premiered a few weeks ago. It recreates a time when America was on the rise, the sky was the limit and the future was ours. It’s the year 1962. John F. Kennedy is President, we’ve committed ourselves to landing on the moon and Detroit is turning out cars with tailfins. In the promotional material, four stewardesses in little pill hats, scarves and Don Loper dresses sit happily on the wing of a Pan Am 707 and wave to the camera.
Personally, I think this show can’t miss. Here we are, half a century later, we’re damn near bankrupt, we’ve abandoned our space program, everybody has to go through a body check to get on an airplane, New York is no longer King of the World, the biggest atom smasher is now the one in Switzerland, there hasn’t been a tennis or heavyweight boxing champion from America in years and 1.4 billion Chinese are about to take over as Numero Uno on the planet. It’s nice to sit here in America and watch a time when everything was on the up and up.
Recently, I spent a night at the Harvard Club in Manhattan. The walls of this club are festooned with mementoes, photographs and framed newspapers and theatre programs from over the last century and a half the club has been in existence. One of these photographs, taken on the occasion of a speech given to the club by the first Harvard Man to walk on the moon back in 1972, is a framed photo of him actually walking there after planting another of those stiff American flags. And under it, in longhand, is this inscription from the speaker.
“To the Harvard Club of New York. In hopes that I am not the last, but only the most recent Harvard Man to visit another planet! Harrison H. Schmitt.”
In fact, Harrison Schmitt was the LAST man to walk on the moon.
So my question is, how in the world do we get used to being #2? Is not the American flag, as just noted, still on the moon? (It will be there until, perhaps, the Russians decide they will remove it.) We have a precedent. It is, or was, called the British Empire, and it ruled the world for a century until we came along.
It had only been a few years before 1962 that Winston Churchill, elected once again as Prime Minister of Great Britain, looked out to Asia and Africa where the British colonies were, one after another, declaring independence, and had this to say.
“I did not become Prime Minister again to preside over the dissolution of the British Empire.”
So that’s one way. Denial. It took about 15 years for the Empire to crumble. By that time, Churchill was gone, having written his memoirs, five books of them, so readers could relive the triumphs of the days of yore.
In fact, the British, who thrive on denial, good manners and self-denigration, have all the necessary tools for this approach. In the scheme of things, they got smaller and smaller and ultimately tucked themselves in right behind America as a little destroyer following a battleship and bringing up the rear. It is not hard to remember Prime Minister Tony Blair toadying and smiling as he happily endorsed George Bush’s invasion of Iraq. Blair today is no longer Prime Minister either, but I am sure he regrets not a minute of it.
Denial, however, is not for America.
I think America should try marketing. Americans love marketing. And America is good at it. Get the ad agencies working on this problem.
“There are 174 countries in the world. Guess who is #2?”
It’s also possible, with marketing, to stretch out our decline by showing facts that prove our #2 designation has not happened yet.
“China may have surpassed us in Gross Domestic Product. But the comparison is deceiving. Their population is five times ours. So per capita their GDP is just a fifth of ours.”
We can also take advantage of the American propensity to root for the underdog.
“We may be #2, but we’re #1 in lovability.”
Another way to handle this is to reminisce. We really did have a wonderful run during the 20th century. It was true we ran everything. After all, SOMEBODY had to run everything. And on balance, we did a pretty good job of it. We never went out and conquered anybody, or if we did it was only to fix up a government and after it was fixed, walk away. We never became a dictatorship during our run. We espoused the rule of law and the dignity of Democracy.
I think we did pretty good.
I think the Chinese should give us a medal. And they should do it at the end of every episode of “Pan Am.”