Patriots. Harried by highbrows. Taunted by trendies. Reduced to wearing "Nuke Iran" buttons. It's been a tough decade.
Rep. Bud Shuster has been through it, gritting his teeth most of the way.
Right now he's climbing the steps of the Jefferson Memorial, where he's come to talk about being a patriot full of certainty in a generation of doubt, to talk about the Fourth of July.
"Two hundred and seven years ago, this man created our independence." Shuster says softly amid the swarm of tourists. "We've done so much in such a short time; we have a lot to be proud of."
He reaches the memorial's cool inner chamber and looks up to greet three Park Service tour guides. "How ya doin", fellas?" he calls out with a broad smile and a wave. Sometimes you'd think the six-term Republican would like to trade in his blue suit and briefcase for a ranger hat and a gang of cub scouts. He'd lead a great field trip.
"We have to look to the future by looking to the past," Shuster explains, pointing not only to the statue of Jefferson but to the neighboring monuments. "Jefferson created our independence, Washington secured it. Lincoln preserved it. That's our challenge today, to recreate our independence in the mold of the 20th and the 21st centuries."
Patriotism! He is dead serious about his spiel and about persuading the rest of us to be proud of ourselves again -- so serious that he recently published his collected enthusiasms about the title "Believing in America."
"Believing" is a 268-page self-help manual for Americans who have come slightly unhinged after 15 years of domestic recrimination, foreign antagonism and pervasive cynicism.
Bursting with Norman Vincent Peale-style positive thinking, the book delivers a truckload of handy facts that in Shuster's eyes prove that "by virtually any standard one chooses, except Utopia, America shines." On this sunny day, with a breeze nudging wavelets across the Tidal Basin, he'd probably throw in Utopia.
Shuster, 51, lives the American Dream that produces a lot of conservatives. With a firm grip on his bootstraps, he hauled himself out of Pennsylvania coal country, through college on a scholarship and into the thick of the infant computer industry. There he made a fortune by selling his company to IBM, got out by age 40 -- all according to a predetermined game plan, mind you -- and won a House seat.
"A driven man," says Sen. John Heinz (R-Pa.).
"One of those upbeat people," says former Reagan transportation secretary Drew Lewis, chuckling at his considerable understatement.
Shuster avoids New Right sanctimony and scoffs at Nixonian paranoia. Known for his expertise, on transportation legislation and leadership in the House Republican policy caucus, he nevertheless stays skeptical of partisan politics. The reason, he says, is that Republicans and Democrats constantly compete to paint the grisliest picture of imminent national disaster.
This is exactly what he's fighting against, he says.
Back in his Capitol Hill office, unremarkable but for the presence of no fewer than eight flags, Shuster explains the need for his first book: "About five years ago, it struck me that all we seemed to be hearing was an incessant drumbeat about all that was wrong with America. I said to myself, "Wait a minute: we may have our problems here, but we're still the greatest country on earth. Someone had to say it."
He enrolled in a creative-writing seminar at George Mason University and got down to work. The first instinct of the former college debate champ was to lay a foundation of "cold, hard evidence" -- all the statistics and charts you'd ever need to illustrate American preeminence in everything from medical care to education to number of telephones per 1000 people (742, more than nine times the Soviet rate).
Here are some reasons why, as Shuster subtitled the book, "You can feel good about your country and yourself":
In addition to telephones, we've got more steaks, more cars, more toilets, more years in our average lives, more bridges and more houses in more pleasant suburbs than anyone else around.
"Affluence has clouded our perspective," he argues. "When we look today at economic or social problems, we forget how far we've come." He recalls his own childhood in coal dust-shrouded Glassport, Pa., 14 miles south of Pittsburgh: "We had gone through the Great Depression and then World War II -- awful times. It's almost embarassing, in comparison, when we look at our problems today and complain."
His own kids are no exception. "We had an opportunity a few years back to buy a 1957 Pontiac in good shape for $400. I said, "Hey, buy it." But it's just sitting up there [at his home in Pennsylvania]. The kids say, "I'm not going to be seen driving an old car like that."
"If I'd had that car when I was a teen-ager, I'd have thought I had died and gone to heaven."
Bud Shuster has met more West Europeans who admire the United States than ones who want to tell us where we can stick our cruise missiles.
"We are free today because of America," Shuster says a young German minister told him during a 1980 House of Representatives junket. "Free not only because American troops liberated our village in 1945, but also because today America provides the umbrella of security for the entire western world."
Take heart, concludes Shuster. It's only the "tiny minority" who stone the limousines of visiting American officials and buy Moscow's line on East-West relations.
West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl himself told Shuster so. During an emotional dinner meeting on the same 1980 jaunt, Kohl, then conservative opposition leader, described his own introduction to American generosity after World War II. The congressman recounts Kohn's remarks in "Believing":
"We had nothing to eat, and America put food on our table. The first suit I ever owned was a used American suit that came out of [a] CARE package. I shall never forget what America did for me and my family."
Politics aside, life is a heck of lot more cheerful on this side of the Iron Curtain. Shuster's been through Checkpoint Charlie at the Berlin Wall and "would like to take every American there to see it." Wheeling back and forth in his large office chair, he recreates his own trip: "West Berlin is a bustling, vibrant, vital city. The other side is a totally decrepit slum. The streets are empty, they are dirty, people are shuffling along, there are 1940s-vintage cars on the road. Individuals don't get rewarded for being productive and energetic. Therefore, they're not."
Shuster writes: "Communism preaches prosperity and produces scarcity." But nurtured by capitalism, "most Americans find satisfaction in their daily lives." Here Shuster relies more on instinct than statistical analysis: "For Americans, dreams become the images of future realities, the essence of what might be if one adds mind and muscle to hope."
Watergate may have gotten you down about American government, but it brought out the best in some politicians.
Bud Shuster takes himself, for example.
Elected in 1972, he won the honorary presidency of his GOP freshman class, only to be caught in the crossfire that followed revelations of the infamous "third-rate burglary."
Enticed with lavish-presidential attention, including an evening with Nixon on the presidential yacht, Shuster says he tested himself and came away clean.
"It sounds kind of dumb, but here I was studying the Constitution, staying up nights, just trying to figure the whole thing out -- what was right."
He refused to speak out in support of the sinking administration and eventually accepted the need for impeachment or resignation. The book includes a vivid scene in which a tearful Gerald Ford informs a group of Republican legislators in August 1974, "It's all over. The president may resign today."
Unlike many members of that freshman class who went down with Nixon in 1974, Shuster easily won reelection and hasn't faced a serious threat since.
Even in an age dominated by corporate high technology, you can still chuck it all and recreate the family homestead.
Shuster did just that, rediscovering his roots in Pennsylvania's rural Bedford County after a dazzling business career in the Washington area.
"I've been up to my knees in cow manure many times," Shuster says, explaining that as a boy he had spent summers on relatives' dairy farms. "I take great pride in plunging into the work of the farm."
He won quick acceptance among his new neighbors despite vast socio-economic differences.
"When he first ran," recalls Steve McCahan, the Shusters' family druggist in Everett, Pa., "he went door-to-door like crazy. People seemed to like that, and it didn't matter dollarwise. He proved he could be one of us."
Shuster defeated a heavily favored state senator in the Republican primary, who, he says, everyone assumed "had the thing signed, sealed and delivered."
Shuster "is conservative, but he pulls in the Democratic vote, too," marvels the Rev. Robert Sweet, a former Bedford County Republican chairman.
Sweet and McCahan report that Shuster's book, now in a third printing, has enjoyed a wide readership in the area.
"Sure, we've got a copy right here at home," says McCahan. "It's positive stuff, something we need. Coming from a small town, we've seen a drop in what you'd call your basic patriotism.This is not a cure-all, but it's got to help."
That's exactly what Bud Shuster, aspiring tour guide to the nation, has in mind.