Rupert Cornwell: Back in the USA

In 1997, Rupert Cornwell left the US, where he had lived for six years. This month, as The Independent's new Washington correspondent, he returned to find a country that he hardly recognised
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The moment I knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I was back in America was the next morning, as I searched for the Test score. Yes, I know masochism becomes insanity when an Englishman travels 3,000 miles only to be consumed by a desire to learn the extent of his country's latest humiliation by Australia. But, to borrow the closing line of Some Like It Hot, nobody's perfect.

And so the search began. The removers had taken the computer, so no internet. First, I culled the television, but 70 channels yielded not a single clue. Then I went out to get the papers; surely The New York Times, that journal of record to the universe, would carry a tiny line or two, buried at the bottom of a sports page. After all, admittedly with the help of a decent magnifying-glass, you can keep up with major league baseball in The Independent. But even the NYT could not oblige. I had learnt anew the great lesson of America, as if I were starting from scratch. We Brits think we know it. We are swamped by its news and its culture. But it isn't swamped by ours. From here, you survey the outside world, as through the wrong end of a telescope, as mostly irrelevant and occasionally tiresome. This is as foreign a country as they come.

In my case, of course, as older readers of The Independent will know, I wasn't learning from scratch. I worked here for six years until 1997. I have an American wife; I visit the US regularly. No London resident can have wasted as much of his employers' time these past four years in perusing the Baltimore Orioles website (a sin doubly unforgivable in that the Orioles are playing baseball even more unsuccessfully than England are playing cricket). But that is the joy of returning to America. Each time is a new beginning, in a very strange land indeed.

Some things, of course, never change. It's "triple H" weather again – hazy, hot and humid – the summer steaminess of a capital built on a malarial swamp, which in the 19th century led the Foreign Office to classify Washington as a diplomatic hardship post. Then, just as when I first came to work here in early 1991, there's a fellow called George Bush in the White House. Above all, there's that inimitable buzz of just being in America: the thrill of size and scale, the lure of unlimited landscapes just over the horizon. I felt it the first time I set foot here as a tourist, at the relatively advanced age of 34, and it's just the same now. Since then I have lived and worked in several countries – Italy, Germany, the Soviet Union and, most lately, Mother England. But nowhere, not even Moscow as Communism came crashing down around my head, quite had the buzz.

Needless to say, my frame of mind is a little different from a decade ago. Then, I was coming from the Soviet Union; America was the promised land. For hours I would wander round supermarkets in a consumerist trance, my critical faculties – to put it mildly – dimmed. This time, however, I arrive with the anti-Americanism of a certain left-liberal élite ringing in my ears. And this time, a supermarket offers a different lesson.

It is our second morning, and we are searching in vain for maple syrup. Finally we turn to an assistant for help. She points up to the store guide above our very heads, showing syrups in aisle seven. "You should look in the aisle where it says syrup," she says. Back in south London, that remark could have dripped with sarcasm. But the girl was just being helpful. Irony and sarcasm are foreign to the American soul. Once more, you realise that this is a country dedicated to the search for literal, rather than psychological, truth. Which is why Americans are so taken with useless statistics and lists of the 10 best this and the 100 worst that (an obsession now spreading to Britain). Which is why, too, Americans are such experts at museums (and why, on the first morning, I took my son back to the Air and Space Museum); and why they are such suckers for conspiracy theories (whose whole point is that they mustn't be taken too literally).

The biggest change, though, is in the political atmosphere. The George Bush who was running the show back in 1991 was basically a gentleman leading an America that listened. His son George W, however, just brushes aside a world he doesn't understand – and doesn't feel he needs to understand. Behind its formulaic politenesses, America always was a hard-nosed place. Never, though, in its dealings with the outside world, have the politenesses rung hollower than now.

Never has the Atlantic seemed wider. A glance at just one day's headlines has Bush being lectured to by the Pope on stem-cell research, Bush isolated on the Kyoto climate pact, Bush "a pariah" on the germ-warfare treaty, and so on and so on. But who cares? Nice liberals, perhaps, but they've been driven from the White House to the think-tanks and TV studios. Kyoto, a conservative academic opined in The Wall Street Journal the other day, was a "radical mysticism" that would cost the Europeans dear; thank heavens for a "courageous American president" who has dared to call their bluff.

This has been an odd first week to be back. The President, the sun around which, in Washington, all human life normally revolves, was away in Europe. Instead, the biggest story in town was a funeral – that of Katharine Graham, the former publisher of The Washington Post, long referred to as "the most powerful woman in America". By no stretch of the imagination could she be described as a Bushie. She was an internationalist, and her paper was, and remains, a bastion of the liberal establishment. But the ceremony at Washington Cathedral, a state funeral in all but name, spoke volumes in its own way about this America we think we understand but don't.

Katharine Graham was born in 1917, at the birth of American global power, when the US expeditionary force went to help the Allies in the First World War. She died when that power was at its height – and with it the doctrine of American exceptionalism, the notion of the US as a "city on a hill", apart from other nations.

The phrase was first used by John Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Company in 1630, during a sermon to future settlers. Today, the pilgrims' sense of mission, of difference, of "manifest destiny" – call it what you like – is more tangible than ever. You can see why: victory in the Cold War, victory (so far, at least) in the battle of economic ideas and economic growth. But exceptionalism is also a convenient way of justifying self-interest. Every country, of course, defends its interests. No one, though, wraps self-interest in assumed moral superiority quite like the Americans.

Mrs Graham's funeral was a metaphor for our illusions and misunderstandings. From our rented seventh-floor flat in downtown Washington, the cathedral dominates the horizon. Washington being Washington, there's not a skyscraper to be seen; just this honey-coloured Gothic pile shimmering in the heat, completed in 1990, inaugurated by Bush Snr, but visually belonging not in the New World but in an ancient English city of the shires.

Inside, too, an Englishman would have outwardly felt at home last Monday: the vaulted nave, the rows of dark suits and sombre faces, all mourning the passing of a great figure. So familiar. Yet so utterly foreign. There was grief, sure – but also unabashed, glorious celebrity-spotting, proof that Washington and Hollywood are two sides of the same coin. And even the rite of sorrow was transformed into a paean to being American.

At the end of the service, as Mrs Graham's casket made its way back down the aisle, they sang "America the Beautiful". Now this ebullient and patriotic country, not surprisingly, brims with anthems, official and unofficial. But for me, "America the Beautiful" has the best tune – as rousing in its way as the old Soviet anthem that the Russians have had the belated good sense to resurrect.

Ah, but the words. A few lines suffice to give the flavour: "America, America/ May God thy gold refine/ Till all success be nobleness/ And every gain divine." And so on, in similar vein, for eight verses. With us, "Rule, Britannia!" and "Land of Hope and Glory" are variously a sentimental wallow, a giggle, a cringe, or an opportunity to crack heads – depending on your point of view and your alcohol intake. Here, however, people still believe this sort of thing.

"America the Beautiful" began life as a poem written by a Massachusetts teacher called Katharine Lee Bates. When she produced the first version in 1893, England's global authority was at its zenith. Yet Ms Bates was already telling her friends with certainty that countries such as England had failed, "because while they may have been great, they have not been good". America is convinced it is good.

That conviction has its upside. It breeds an exhilarating self-belief that contributes to the buzz I was talking about before. America, I remember Bush Snr once saying in that endearing, slightly goofy way of his, was "a rising nation". And despite the enervating summer heat, the crass excesses of popular culture, the mindless consumerism, you come back and feel it still is one, a rising nation where everything is possible, possessed of an infinite capacity for invention and reinvention.

But self-belief can be too much of a good thing. Whatever his limitations, George W Bush, Texas's born-again man of God, standing at the junction of the myth of the American West and the certainties of Christianity, seems full of it. Maybe, worried by its growing international isolation, his administration will come to change its ways. Maybe economic crisis will undermine America's belief in its "manifest destiny". I somehow doubt it.

But make no mistake. These next few years will be a hell of a ride for transatlantic relations. For me, being back in Washington heightens my sense of European-ness. One way and another, nothing beats covering a superpower for putting Britain's place in the world in proper perspective. Come to Washington and you appreciate the true scale of the nonsense talked by those who think Britain would be better off turning history and geography on their head, ditching the EU and embracing Nafta and – who knows? – becoming the 51st state of the Union.

This foreign land may not give William Hague nightmares, but a foreign land it is, none the less. Britain may be becoming more American. But America is becoming more American, too. The gap between them is as wide as ever. But it's great to be back. The only thing missing is the Test score. Then it really would be perfect.