Most of our trips back to the United States involve long discussions with friends and family about activities of one’s children and grandchildren, what one does – or does not do – during retirement, travel plans and the amazing places – Siberia, New Zealand mountains, Antarctica, etc. – where they have been. “If we don’t do this now, when in God’s name will we do it?” seems to be a common refrain among the 70-year-olds. This time was different. It didn’t take 30 seconds for the conversation to turn to the one topic riveting America – the incredible spectacle of Donald Trump in the White House.
Granted, our travels were through the Bluest of Blue areas of New York and New England. But every conversation quickly became a series of “Have you heard the latest?” tales of stupefying behaviour by Trump and his close circle. Even perfect strangers get into the act. As our bus rattled down 5th Avenue in New York past the Trump Towers the elderly couple sitting behind us started muttering about the ‘embarrassment’ in the White House. “Can you believe that clown,” they exclaimed in loud tones to no one in particular. “Whatever happened to the dignity of the Office of the President?”
One old friend who has been active in fund raising for senior Republicans at the national and state level could only shake his head in dismay. “Wanting a change from the Big Government trend of Democratic administrations is one thing. But the sheer incompetence and nonsense coming out of the White House are quite another. These guys have no idea what they are doing.” He took another healthy slug of wine before reiterating the familiar litany of juvenile behaviour – daily Tweets replacing policy making, indefensible claims of illegal voters or Obama wiretapping, fixation with inauguration crowds, the travel ban fiasco, and many others. “His school yard antics are destroying whatever legislative agenda he may have had,” he said.
Another said there were two possible approaches. “Look,” he said, “the guy is the president of the United States. And we have to help him succeed for all our sakes. Just hold our noses and try to help.”
But, he hastened to add, no one in the Trump circle seems open to such help. “The better option,” he admitted, “is to have Trump realize he is in way over his head and leave office as soon as possible for a return to television and real estate. To this end, I have prepared a lot of Pence in ’17 bumper stickers.”
Politics aside, what struck us the most about the entire Northeast region was the sheer vitality, the obvious prosperity, the focus on the future. Tradition is what you had for breakfast.
New York and Boston have had their ups-and-downs, and I have lived through some pretty depressing economic times in both cities. At one time, I remember that a taxi medallion cost more than a seat on the New York Stock Exchange. The head of the Off Track Betting operation took out large billboards claiming investors had better odds at the race track than on the stock exchange. He wasn’t wrong. Now, signs of an economic boom – from construction activity, crowded museums and restaurants, bursting show rooms – are everywhere. Despite the general frustration and sheer embarrassment with Trump, the people we met were generally optimistic about the economy.
I grew up in northern New England and spent several years in and around cities like Boston and Providence at a time when traditional industries like textiles, shoe manufacturing, or small highly skilled machine shops were leaving for cheaper labour in southern states. We used to call it the Revenge of the Confederacy. All that remained were the massive, empty shells of factories and warehouses. To add insult to injury even the Navy pulled out of several locations.
Now, I scarcely recognize places. Construction programs throughout the region underpin an economy already buoyed by high value-added elements like education, health care, finance, and high tech. A once run-down section of Cambridge has been turned into a global research center feeding on the talent from universities like Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A short walk along any of the streets in Cambridge or Boston reveals the utter foolishness of Trump’s fear of immigration. We couldn’t count the number of languages we heard just ambling among the buildings and laboratories. He may not like it, but cutting down on immigration would be like cutting off the blood flow to America’s brain.
Despite the hustle-and-bustle of big cities, visitors can still find charming traditional New England towns desperately trying to slow down the remorseless clock of progress by rebelling against certain aspects of modern life. For example, cell phone reception in these towns is spotty at best because locals don’t like the intrusion of cell towers. In Woodstock, Vermont, visitors from the U.K. will feel right at home in a wonderful B&B run by a British couple who offer a breakfast designed for homesick guests – complete with Marmite, the ‘full Monty’, or a bacon ‘butty’.
Another unforgettable ‘charm’ of New England is rapid variation in weather. Mark Twain had it right when he said, “If you don’t like the weather in New England wait a few minutes.” Within the space of 24 hours the temperature dropped from a relatively balmy +15˚C to -15˚C – which was actually much colder with a roaring northerly wind. Nice to be reminded that nature pays absolutely no attention to ephemeral things like politics.