Richard Reeves

Seeing America Whole and Big

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- Nice town. Nice people. I was here last Wednesday because my 17-year-old was making a ritual admissions visit to Brown University, which left her old man with time to catch up on the newspapers in his briefcase and on the stands here.

The last time I was here was more than 20 years ago when I was on my way to Newport to begin retracing the American travels of Alexis de Tocqueville for a book on the making of the great man's "Democracy in America." Tocqueville began his nine months here -- and his studies of the American character -- in 1830 and 1831 when his ship from France to New York was blown off course by the winds of the day.

Well, he found us a proud, if somewhat illogical bunch -- a little nutty, actually. He predicted we would run the world, which we are doing. And, judging by what I read Wednesday, we're getting nuttier.

There were four big stories back in Washington:

-- Reading his morning paper, the president discovered that his appointee as chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, Harvey Pitt, had appeared before Congress and asked for a raise and for his agency to be raised to Cabinet status. This Pitt is the pits. He made his name as a lackey for Wall Street and is sure to be forced to go back there sooner or later.

-- The White House, which has been claiming victory, pacification and democracy in Afghanistan for months, announced that the commander in chief was assigning American soldiers as personal bodyguards for the country's new leader. That's our boy Karzai, the one with the great capes. Great puppetry by the world's only superpower, even if Afghanistan is not a country, never has been and never will be.

-- At the United Nations, the United States was in the process of voting against the enforcement of international treaties against torture. It seems we're afraid that foreigners might check on whether we are torturing the people we captured in Afghanistan.

Those three were wacky enough, but the fourth was a topper:

-- The State Department announced that the number of applicants for the Foreign Service was way up after Sept. 11. New patriots were eager to serve their country. But most were unwilling to go to countries where there might be trouble. No Afghanistan or Pakistan or Saudi Arabia. In fact, the most desirable place to go to was the consulate in Sydney, Australia. (Our embassy there is in Canberra, the capital.) Well, I want to go to Sydney, too, which makes me a real American.

Locally, the news in The Providence Journal was almost as crazy. Nice as his town is, Providence's mayor, Vincent Cianci Jr., probably would prefer Australia -- as opposed to prison, which is where he seems to be headed after corruption convictions.

But local scandal was easily topped by the Boston Herald's story under the front-page headline: "Obesity problem growing in Bay State." The headline on the story's continuation on page 19 was better: "Report says Mass. residents putting on more and more mass."

It seems the state's Department of Public Health said that 64 percent of the state's men are overweight and so are 42 percent of Massachusetts women. Eighteen percent of the men were considered "obese" and 16 percent of the women were obese, too.

What are we to make of all this? Is it possible that the average American doesn't care who tortures whom in this world, and is yearning to be fat in Sydney, protected against the locals by the 82nd Airborne? Is this a great country or what?

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