A Galaxy Is Born

The phenomenon of documentary TV series and book tie-in has given rise to a new line of stars, the latest, most successful example of which is Simon Schama. His latest production, about contemporary America, is irresistible.

"The American Future: A History" by Simon Schama, Ecco, 416 pages, $20

Anyone who saw Sir David Attenborough appear in his 1979 television documentary series "Life on Earth," about endangered species in Africa, will never forget the huge, scary gorilla that sat beside him and looked into the camera with amazement. That represented the great breakthrough of TV documentaries - decisive proof that what was then a new medium could educate, fascinate and make money. And at that same moment, the idea that a non-fiction series could have a "hero" was born.

Indeed, many people around the world may have learned all they know about the Jewish people and Israel from watching the late Abba Eban, a former Israeli foreign minister, in "Heritage: Civilization and the Jews" (1984) and "Israel: A Nation Is Born" (1992). It may be hard to believe, but Eban became a TV star after years of working to achieve an influential position in Israeli politics. In any event, what began as a product of one medium, a book, very quickly became an extremely sought after-item in another medium. And what seemed at first to be a surprise success quickly developed into one big package deal, with a variety of spin-offs: a movie, a book, a record and so on.

Gorillas and herds of galloping zebras are therefore not the only subjects that look good on TV, and a new breed of small-screen stars has emerged over the years: prominent and especially well-to-do historians. These days, perhaps the greatest TV historian is Simon Schama, a British professor at Columbia University in New York, who began his career in the 1970s researching the history of the Rothschild family in Palestine. Already years ago, Schama possessed the right characteristics to be a TV star: He is brilliant and he "shines." The scope of the various fields and topics that he has dealt with, and the resulting books and popular series, is huge, including the French Revolution, Rembrandt, the slave trade between Africa and America and the world's great empires - and that's only a partial list.

His latest book, which is accompanied by a TV series, focuses among other things on the rise of Barack Obama. Indeed, Schama is a natural candidate for telling the world about the United States on the eve of its great transformation. He has already proven his capabilities in front of the camera, with his two-way British-American and American-British style. In short, he is someone who can observe developments in the United States and arrive at conclusions that a common observer is unlikely to reach. Schama knows how to tell stories about the past, examine them in light of the present, and do what mortal and meticulous historians usually avoid: predict the future.

Mixing fire and water

Thus, Schama and a film crew set out to visit America as it prepared for a new era in its history and, as expected, he was brilliant. He already made his mark with the title of the series and the book: "The American Future: A History." Only he knows how to mix fire and water and emerge unscathed. Don't even give the title a second thought. It won't help you.

Schama knows his readers want him to explain Iraq, the conduct of George W. Bush, and what seems to be a bout of unprecedented American imperialism. Essentially, he does not promise the Americans, or other viewers around the world, a better future. America's current conduct constitutes a continuation of behavioral patterns and of a sort of character that have been discernible since the country's early days. Whoever was surprised by president Bush's violent conduct in Iraq or Afghanistan should consider the figure of Teddy Roosevelt, for example, who tried to reconcile Japan and the United States, and who wrote books about peace and preached mutual understanding, but was also a great imperialist - a president who rode on horseback and did not hesitate to wield his big stick and mercilessly hit anyone who dared to disobey the United States and oppose its imperialistic desires - be it Cuba, the Philippines or Mexico.

Schama was asked to cover an election year and probably no one was happier than he that this also provided him with the opportunity to shed new light on great and admired U.S. presidents of the past. Obama might be considered an heir to the legacy of Franklin Roosevelt or Abraham Lincoln - or, more likely, the person who shaped the presidency as we know it today, the "lion" of the Democratic Party: Andrew Jackson.

Indeed, Schama has much to say about Jackson. This revered president was the Indians' great liquidator: He did not hesitate to push them off their land, deport them or torment them to an unbearable extent - all in the name of America's greatness and on behalf of the country's pioneers. The author describes, at length, the means used for expulsion and the American Indians' pain, before he hurries on to the Chinese. They, too, suffered from heavy-handed, white American racism. And when Schama describes the distress of the Chinese miners and laborers, people who helped make California bloom and built the railroads crossing the huge country, he manages to greatly move his readers and, even more, his viewers.

Schama is not one to miss a good story when he encounters one, and he knows how to excite people when telling it. When he meets an American general who returned from Iraq agitated about what he had experienced, for example, Schama gets him to talk. Not necessarily because this particular officer has a special story to tell, but rather because Gen. Montgomery Meigs has a splendid family history. His grandfather's grandfather was Gen. Montgomery Meigs, one of the most important figures in Abraham Lincoln's Union army during the Civil War. The Meigses are among America's founding fathers, a source of national pride and glory - and apparently they have never ceased fighting. They have another thing in common: The legendary figure and his descendant both graduated from the West Point military academy, and Schama seeks to make a point by mentioning that institution, a point that fits in beautifully with stories about the past, present and future, which teaches who the lords of that land were (and are), and where and how they were educated. There are layers of fascinating stories to relate and Schama knows how to do it.

The author also uses the current credit squeeze and the shaky situation of the high-tech sector as a backdrop for describing the horrors of the Great Depression. Across America he found the sons and grandsons of vagabonds who were hungry and desperate in the 1930s - their present-day descendants who have been hurled into anxiety, unemployment and fear for the future.

The United States is huge and beautiful. It has everything, but it is also extremely cruel. For whoever falls by the wayside, beaten, weakened, degraded - there is no succor. His murderous society will not save him. This was so in 1932 and it was also the case even when a new and promising president entered the White House after the last elections.

I could not put this book down. Schama is a terrific storyteller and at times his writing borders on poetry. Meanwhile, TV has promoted him as it has other bright historians that have shone in recent years, like Niall Ferguson. Thanks to the tube, they have reached many homes. For a quite a number of people, Schama is the sole authoritative source of information concerning certain aspects of the history of mankind.

Those exposed to his two media - books and TV - may ask themselves where Schama's radiance is the most powerful. I personally prefer the former: Schama the author represents the concise and refined essence of the revolutionary changes that modern technologies have created in some of the traditional professions and fields of human knowledge.

Prof. Eli Shaltiel is a historian, and the editor of the Ofakim series from the Am Oved publishing house.