The Thirteen American Arguments: Enduring Debates That Define and Inspire Our Country

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9781400065448: The Thirteen American Arguments: Enduring Debates That Define and Inspire Our Country

"The Thirteen American Arguments is a thought-provoking, engaging study of the great American debate, and a highly worthwhile read."–

“Insightful and enjoyable . . . . In The Thirteen American Arguments, Howard Fineman lifts readers above the fog of modern politics . . . and offers a unique vantage point from which to see that the debates that shape American politics are timeless and profound.” --The Washingtonian

Howard Fineman is one of our best-known and most trusted political journalists. Mixing vivid scenes and figures from the campaign trail with forays into four hundred years of American history, Fineman shows that every debate, from our nation’s founding to the present day, is rooted in one of thirteen arguments that–thankfully–defy resolution. It is the very process of never-ending argument, Fineman explains, that defines us, inspires us, and keeps us free. At a time when most public disagreement seems shrill and meaningless, Fineman makes a cogent case for nurturing the real American dialogue.

Shouting is not arguing, Fineman notes, but often hot-button topics, media “cross-fires,” and blogs reflect the deepest currents in American life. In an enlightening book that cuts through the din and makes sense of the headlines, Fineman captures the essential issues that have always compelled healthy and heated debate–and must continue to do so in order for us to prosper in the twenty-first century. The Thirteen American Arguments run the gamut, from issues of individual identity to our country’s role in the world, including:

· Who is a Person? The Declaration of Independence says “everyone,” but it took a Civil War and the Civil Rights and other movements to make that a reality. Presently, what about human embryos and “unlawful enemy combatants?”
· Who is an American? Only a nation of immigrants could argue so much about who should become one. There is currently added urgency when terrorists are at large in the world and twelve million “undocumented” aliens are in the country.
· The Role of Faith. No country is more legally secular yet more avowedly prayerful. From Thomas Jefferson to Terri Schiavo, we can never quite decide where God fits in government.
· Presidential Power. In a democracy, leadership is all the more difficult — and, paradoxically, all the more essential. From George Washington to George W. Bush, we have always asked: How much power should a president have?
· America in the World. Uniquely, we perpetually ask ourselves whether we have a moral obligation to change the world — or, alternatively, whether we must try to change it to survive in it.

Whether it’s the environment, international trade, interpreting law, Congress vs. the president, or reformers vs. elites, these are the issues that galvanized the Founding Fathers and should still inspire our leaders, thinkers, and citizens. If we cease to argue about these things, we cease to be. “Argument is strength, not weakness,” says Fineman. “As long as we argue, there is hope, and as long as there is hope, we will argue.”

Praise for The Thirteen American Arguments
“A spectacular feat, a profound book about America that moves with ease from history to recent events. A talented storyteller, Howard Fineman provides a human face to each of the core political arguments that have alternately separated, strengthened, and sustained us from our founding to the present day.”
–Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of Team of Rivals

“With a marvelous command of the past and a keen grasp of the present, Howard Fineman expertly details one of the great truths about our country: that we are a nation built on arguments, and our capacity to summon what Lincoln called ‘the better angels of our nature’ lies in undertaking those debates with civility and mutual respect. Few people understand politics as well as Fineman does, and this work is an indispensable guide not only to the battles of the moment, but to the wars that will go on long after this news cycle is long forgotten.”
–Jon Meacham, author of Franklin and Winston

“In an impressively thought-provoking original approach, Fineman revisits the great defining arguments that will deepen your understanding of America.”
–Newt Gingrich, author of Real Change: From the World That Fails to the World That Works

“Howard Fineman proves that few things are as compelling as a well-argued debate. This book offers a thought-provoking way to look at America, its history, and our evolving public discourse.”
–Arianna Huffington, author of Right Is Wrong

“A perfect antidote to the old horse-race political journalism–a timely (and timeless) reminder of what’s really at stake in the race for the presidency.”
–Jeffrey Toobin, author of The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court

“Howard Fineman guides the reader through the controversies that have haunted this nation since its inception. In the process he creates a fresh context for making sense of the 2008 campaign. Both scholars and students of politics can learn much from this book.”
–Kathleen Hall Jamieson, co-author of unSpun: Finding Facts in a World of Disinformation

“A stimulating book that should be read by anyone who cares about the idea and arguments that made this country great, and which are critical to our future direction.”
–David Boies, author of Courting Justice

"America is “The Arguing Country, born in, and born to, debate,” claims veteran journalist Fineman in this
brisk look at 13 debates that have driven (and riven) the nation from its inception, and continue to do so
today. Arising from fundamental questions like “Who is a person?” or “What can we know and say?” or
“What does it mean to pursue a more perfect union?” these 13 debates are perennial, undergirding each of
the nation’s political controversies, and they are constitutive, defining nothing less than America’s national identity. If American political discourse frequently runs hot, it is because Americans are as passionate
about these fundamental questions as they are different in their answers. Knowing that Fineman is an
occasional guest on MSNBC’s Hardball, it is perhaps tempting to read this book as a particularly eloquent
and historically informed apologia for the fiery point-counterpoint duels often seen on cable news
channels. Yet Fineman openly acknowledges that the media sometimes hinders open debate, and it would
be more accurate to describe Fineman’s work as itself an argument, urging perspective and optimism amid today’s overheated debates."–Booklist

"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.

About the Author:

Howard Fineman is Newsweek’s senior Washington correspondent and columnist. His “Living Politics” column appears regularly in the magazine, on, and on An award-winning writer, Fineman is also an NBC news analyst and a regular on Hardball with Chris Matthews and Countdown with Keith Olbermann. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The New Republic. Once a regular on CNN, Fineman now reports exclusively for NBC, and has appeared on most major public affairs shows, including Nightline, Face the Nation, Larry King Live, Fox News Sunday, Charlie Rose, and Washington Week in Review. Fineman lives in Washington with his wife and two children.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:


God in His infinite wisdom must have designed Tennessee as
the ideal place in which to argue the role of faith in public life.
In what sometimes is still called “the buckle of the Bible Belt,”
locals favor “strong preachin’,” but also the evangelism of a secular gospel
called Jacksonian Democracy. Nashville is home to the abstemious souls
of the Southern Baptist Convention, but also to country singers keening
over lives ruined by drink and dissolution. In 1925 the mountains of east
Tennessee were the site of the infamous Scopes Trial, in which a teacher
was sent to jail for teaching the science of biological evolution. Yet those
same rugged mountains are home to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory,
a leading center for advanced science, and to two nuclear power plants
that operate on the physics venerated there.

So Tennessee was the appropriate launching pad for the political career
of Senator William Frist, M.D.–and also the appropriate place for it to
crash to Earth. In Tennessee, the senator had to fly through the crosswinds
of cultural conflict, between the theories and demands of Bible Belt religion
and of ivory tower science. The bumpy ride ultimately reduced his image
from that of an idealistic, Grey’s Anatomy—style “superdoc” and presidential
possibility to a hopeless political hack. The trajectory of his public life illuminated
the power of an essential American Argument. We are a prayerful,
Bible-believing country, yet that same trait causes us to constantly
fret–and argue–over the extent to which our faith should influence decisions
about education, research, welfare, and other government activities.

Frist rose to prominence on the secular, science side of the argument.
His first calling card was medicine. His father and uncle were prominent
Nashville physicians who had made a fortune assembling one of the nation’s
first HMOs. He was a brilliant, meticulous student, excelling at
Princeton, at Harvard Medical School, and in internships at Massachusetts
General Hospital.

Frist had a need to exhibit his knowledge in dramatic circumstances.
He became a renowned cardiothoracic surgeon famous for steely nerves
and clinical derring-do, “cracking open chests,” as he put it, thrusting his
hands into thoraxes to remove diseased hearts and lungs. He owned a
plane, which he kept gassed up and ready to fly so he could ferry in replacement
parts–living hearts–for his patients. He piloted the plane, of
course. He was forever experimenting with new surgical techniques,
studying logistics, puzzling over the social consequences of the on-the-fly
triage necessary to match salvageable patients with salvageable hearts. A
committed runner, lean as a whippet, and blessed with an ability to concentrate
in an operating theater, Frist slept only three or four hours a night.

He used the wee hours to educate himself by writing medical tracts.
As he launched his campaign for the Senate in 1994, his religious faith
was not a visible part of his public profile. He rarely talked about his
standard-issue Presbyterianism, the denomination of choice among the
Southern business establishment. Rather, he advertised the healing power
of medicine. On the wall behind his desk, he tacked up a picture of a picnic
he had organized and attended earlier that year. He was surrounded
in the photo by a cheerful-looking throng of more than one hundred.
Who were they? “Those are my former transplant patients,” Frist said
proudly. “I feel a deep bond with those people,” he said. “I can’t express it
in words.”

Even after he became a senator, Frist did not abandon his medical pursuits.
He was an unofficial doctor-in-residence in the Capitol. After the
9/11 terrorist attacks, he used his late-night study vigils to produce a
picture-and-text guide and instruction manual on how to treat injuries
and contaminations that might follow a chemical or biological assault. He
insisted that his full title be emblazoned on press releases and in brass on
his office door: Senator William Frist, M.D.

When he began fashioning his political career, Frist had little contact
with the Other Tennessee, the one controlled, or at least defined, by the
Southern Baptists. The state’s largest denomination, they had always set
the tone politically, but not always directly. In pioneer days they were a
liberating political force, opposed to hierarchical authority, especially an
“established” church, of any kind. They promoted democratic ideals by
insisting that man had free will, and by insisting that the route to salvation
lay in the simple, straightforward act of reading and believing the
Bible. Baptists had grown mighty on America’s frontiers, where settlers
had needed a portable, independent faith, one that validated their sense of
freedom but also gave them confidence that they were doing the Lord’s
work in the New World.

At first, Baptists and their brethren wanted nothing to do with direct
involvement in government, however, which they tended to fear (given
their history in Europe and in much of colonial America) as an instrument
of theological oppression. That attitude changed somewhat in the
1920s, as rural Americans came to feel themselves under assault by a new,
metropolitan modernity. The battle was joined in Dayton, Tennessee,
where a teacher named John Scopes was brought to trial for violating a
state law against the teaching of evolution. Clarence Darrow, the most famous
courtroom lawyer of his day, teamed up with an equally famous
journalist, H. L. Mencken, to make a national laughingstock out of the
law’s chief defender, William Jennings Bryan, the “prairie populist.”
And yet it was Bryan’s side–the Bible-believing one–that won the
case at trial and on appeal. In New York City, textbook authors were
forced to delete evolution from their newest manuscripts. The Tennessee
law remained on the books, banning instruction in “any theory that denies
the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible” or that
suggests “man has descended from a lower order of animals.” Similar
laws existed in fourteen other states until the U.S. Supreme Court, in
1968, firmly and finally ruled that they were an unconstitutional imposition
of sectarian dogma in secular classrooms.

The national ridicule engendered by the Scopes Trial drove two generations
of Baptists out of the political arena. Despite their legal early
“victory,” the Southern Baptist leaders increasingly downplayed fundamentalist
teachings, even if their congregants did not.

But by the time Frist was thinking of running for office, a new generation
of hard-liners–more media-savvy and sophisticated, but no less dedicated
to Scripture–had reasserted control of the denomination. Luckily
for Frist (at least it seemed lucky at the time) the Baptists’ leading political
figure in the early 1990s was Dr. Richard Land, who had close ties to Karl
Rove, an ally of the late Lee Atwater’s and the emerging kingmaker of the
Southern-based Republican Party. Land headed the Southern Baptists’ political
and grassroots organizing arm. He was theologically devout, but
had a doctorate from Oxford and enjoyed jousting with the Other Side.
And maybe the Lord had a hand in bringing him to the campaign: Like
Frist, Land was a Princeton man. He could educate Frist in the political
ways of the Word.

It was a slow, careful process. In Frist’s first campaign, in 1994, Land
did not press his fellow Princetonian on faith issues. It wasn’t part of the
GOP’s national game plan. Instead, the Republicans ran coast-to-coast on
Newt Gingrich’s determinedly secular “Contract with America,” which
studiously avoided social and theological issues and instead focused on
anti-Washington themes: tax cuts, spending reform, and the iniquity of
the new Clinton administration and the Democrats who had ruled the
House of Representatives for forty years. Frist was anti-abortion–just
about everybody in the new GOP was–but otherwise had felt little need
to talk much about “the social issues.”

Frist’s focus changed once he arrived in Washington, especially after
George Bush became president, the GOP took control of the Senate, and
Frist, with a behind-the-scenes boost from the White House, became majority
leader. Suddenly he was the man in the middle of an American Argument.
Stem-cell research was the specific issue. Baptists and other
fundamentalists joined with the Vatican hierarchy to oppose the use of
human embryos in such research, even though many frozen embryos
were being discarded by fertility clinics and most scientists thought research
using cells from that source held great clinical promise in the
search for cures to disease.

Frist proceeded to ambush himself on the issue. In 2001, he supported
the president’s decision to limit federally funded research to cultures from
existing embryo “lines.” But under pressure from his erstwhile colleagues
in the medical community–not to mention former first lady Nancy Reagan,
who saw stem-cell research as the route to a cure for Alzheimer’s
disease–Frist reversed course. Now, he said, he considered the existing
“lines” inadequate, and would support the use of embryos that would otherwise
be discarded by clinics and perhaps other sources as well. Since he
was a doctor and potential presidential candidate, Frist’s 2005 switch was
major national news. “It’s an earthqu...

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