Archive for Sunday, February 12, 2006

Interstate anniversary spurs poetic thoughts of progress

February 12, 2006

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Americans celebrate an anniversary this year of what may be the most significant domestic development of the last century, a political moment and cultural marker that affected our language, our arts, our dreams, our history, our work patterns, our leisure activities and our daily lives more deeply than perhaps any development since the telephone and the television. It's the 50th anniversary of the nation's highway system.

Listen to the way we talk: We're on the road again. We're going down that long, lonesome highway. Listen to the songs we sing: "Truck Driving Man," "Highway of Love." Look at the movies we watch: "Easy Rider," "National Lampoon's Vacation." Consider the phrases we use: Information highway. My way or the highway. Think about what we read: Arizona Highways magazine, "On the Road." (Aside to our eighth-grade readers: Remember that poem about the moon being a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas and the road being a ribbon of moonlight, over the purple moor? It had absolutely nothing to do with any of this. Alfred Noyes, who wasn't even American, wrote "The Highwayman" in 1906.)

Right now the American highway system is regarded as one of the great engineering feats of history, the greatest public-works project in history, the most enduring heritage of the Dwight Eisenhower era, and the physical expression of one of the most ancient American impulses, expressed by Tom Rush and Joni Mitchell when they spoke of the urge for going, and not only when the meadow grass was turning brown.

Americans have always had the urge for going, and that is why there is an America in the first place. Even the earliest Americans likely came here from somewhere else, and the white colonists and conquerors who followed came here because they were searching for riches, a second chance or new freedoms, which, when you think about it, is pretty much what America is anyway, even today. The thing about the highway system is that it allowed Americans, at a moment's notice, to scratch that itch for going, both when summertime was closing down and when winter was closing in.

A road runs through us, and its pavement is the canvas on which we sketch our lives. It is the legacy of one of our least poetic presidents. Dwight David Eisenhower was a plain man, a master of the military (and, we increasingly recognize, the political) arts. But in many ways he was the last Everyman president. So he left an appropriate gift, a way for everyone to do what Americans do: Get where they are going, and fast. By the time he left the White House and relinquished office to John F. Kennedy, 10,440 miles of American highway had been laid down and opened to traffic.

The formal name of the highway network was the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, and it was, like Germany's Autobahn, conceived as a matter of national security, not as a metaphor for the national sense of searching that animates American life. Eisenhower had long worried about the difficulty of evacuating major American cities in the event of a nuclear attack; four-lane highways were a good answer to that problem.

But the interstate highway system was also conceived to move military hardware and personnel; Eisenhower himself had been on the very first transcontinental military convoy, in 1919, and later, during World War II, he moved American military units briskly along the roads that Hitler had built a decade earlier. Good fences make good neighbors, said Robert Frost ("I have come by the highway home," he wrote, though long before the Eisenhower years), and good roads make good mobilizations. It was Jimmy Carter who came up with the idea of moving MX missiles around the country on truck convoys, though that is maybe not exactly what Joni Mitchell had in mind for the highways.

There was, to be sure, a certain incongruity between Eisenhower's views of fiscal prudence and minimalist government and his vision of what he called broad "ribbons across the land." He squared the philosophical problem by seeing this huge public-works undertaking as a project with a purpose, not just a public-spending program like much of the Works Progress Administration projects. And since the work could be speeded up or slowed down as economic conditions warranted, the highway-building project could be revved up when unemployment was high and toned down when it was low.

"By advocating a highway program on a gigantic scale, Eisenhower was putting himself and his administration within the best and strongest tradition of 19th-century American Whigs," wrote Stephen E. Ambrose, an Eisenhower biographer. "John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay and the other great Whigs had all been advocates of internal improvements paid for by the federal government." The spokesman for the administration was the vice president, Richard M. Nixon.

Today the interstate highway system is 46,876 miles long and, in concert with Republican values, is owned by the states, not by the federal government. But the ethic of the road is owned by us all, and it is the heritage of us all.

We have a highway culture because we're a mobile people and because so much of our lives involve, in reality and in metaphor, getting from one place to another. Or, as we sometimes put it, going somewhere. (When we succeed, we've arrived.)

Whether road warriors or someone who lives by the side of the road (determined to be a friend to man), we're all highwaymen come riding, up to the old inn door. The American character is what makes that unavoidable, but it is the highways that make it possible.

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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