In Losing Our Way, former New York Times columnist Bob Herbert produces a wide-angled appraisal of an America in decline. He sees it in the 2007 collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis, in our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in our anemic recovery from the Great Recession. “As I traveled the country … I couldn’t help but notice that something fundamental in the very character of the United States had shifted,” he writes. “There was a sense of powerlessness and resignation among ordinary people that I hadn’t been used to seeing. The country seemed demoralized.” His goal is to “show what really happened, how we got into such a deep fix, and how we can get out of it.”
Herbert mixes explanatory passages on infrastructure decay, joblessness and other contemporary woes with narrative interludes to illuminate said woes. He introduces us to Mercedes Gorden, who miraculously survived her Ford Escort’s plunge off I-35 into the Mississippi River but was left disfigured by severe injuries. In the book’s most powerful section, Herbert introduces us to Dan Berschinski, who as a 24-year-old Army lieutenant lost his legs to an IED in Afghanistan in 2009 and learned to walk on his prosthetics, maintaining inconceivably high spirits throughout.
So compelling are some of Herbert’s characters that one wishes he had spent more time with them. (Or even had focused his book entirely on returning veterans, who clearly provoke the most passion from him.) We get only fleeting glimpses of the formerly middle-class couple in suburban New Jersey who spent an entire summer without gas or electricity, or the man in suburban Atlanta who went from being a Pfizer sales rep making $150,000 to running the Jumbotron at Falcons games while his wife went to work as a school lunch lady.
As Herbert jumps from one realm to another — from our unpreparedness for Hurricane Sandy to the machinations of corporate education reformers — he never fully explains how he sees this patchwork being linked together. Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan left fewer resources for nation-building at home, but the two realms are not coterminous. Inequality and middle-class wage stagnation were worsening long before Dick Cheney set his eyes on Baghdad, and the wars would have been ruinous even if we had avoided the financial crisis of 2008.
The one obvious connective thread among most of the ills described by the book is a partisan one: the tax cuts, wars and public disinvestments deplored by Herbert have been primarily the work of Republicans. Herbert’s as liberal as they come, but he makes the partisan point far less explicitly than he could, perhaps to keep the book from being branded as another lefty lament. He’s after something larger here, an attempt to capture an enervation that spans the political spectrum.
Bob Herbert appears at 12:30 p.m. Sunday in the Chapman Conference Center at Miami Dade College.