Richard D North Column

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It doesn't usually do to make it blindingly clear that what one knows about a country has been substantially gleaned by sitting in the back of a cab. Still, it was interesting to note that several cab rides in Washington last month revealed that one half of the Asian and Hispanic cabbies are religious maniacs, and the other half listen to the only civilised radio station I could find in the city: the classical music one.

There was no sign by which you could detect which sort of cab you were getting into. Variously scruffy vehicles had Bach or the Bible. Seeing the Psalms on the dashboard was no more of a guarantee than hearing Mozart that one was about to be treated with friendliness.

It's curious how often Kenneth Galbraith's phrase about private affluence in the midst of public squalor characterises America, and we certainly watch out for the symptoms because we suppose that since we import only the worst side of American life, it will be what happens here soon. Well, the message is at least mixed. I took the train down to New York, and to do so went to Union Station. It is staggeringly smart. It has the qualities of the Quai d'Orsay in Paris after that station gave up being functional: it is so grand that you wonder how it could deign merely to be the beginning and end of people's journeys.

I am one of the few people who wish rail privatisation well, and if the recent rail crashes on both sides of the Atlantic had made me wonder if perhaps this was an ideology too far, the excitement of Union station would have reassured me.

From the book stall, I bought copies of the National Review and the New Republic. I have often promised myself to see what the thoughtful Right says to itself in the privacy of its own house magazines. I couldn't tell the papers apart, which may show what a naif I am in these matters.

The bad news is that the New Republic published Camille Paglia's piece on the president's wife: "Hillary Unmasked", subtitled "Ice Queen, Drag Queen: A psychological biography" - an egregious piece of psycho-babble. Doubtless, it's just the sort of grossly impertinent intrusion we'll see more of here. Not that we should resist incisive comment, nor that we can eschew gossip, but we should feel ashamed of making wild assertions about what a person's body language might say about their potty training, or whatnot.

But there were strikingly good pieces, too, of a kind I don't think we would see here, such as a review I saw by Jean Bethke Elshtain. This ethics professor from Chicago reviewed a book on childhood and the family by Mrs Clinton. It was quite a sceptical account: but it was as polite as it was unflinching. Hillary says we should learn from our children, because they are citizens, too. Jean says: "No, they really are not. A home is not a polity and a polity is not a home." The bottom line is that, with luck, the home is a kinder place than the polity: we try to provide in it a place where we can ease our children into not needing us. But we shouldn't kid ourselves: adulthood needs to be in the chair.

Uplifted by these several thousand words, I was fortified for the other big issue of the journals. I'd say it was immigration and the melting point. But like all big issues, there is no obvious right- or left-wing view. Poor Republicans are probably more vociferous than rich ones about the way new arrivals ought to fit in, or go home. But I have the feeling that the right is very divided about whether every new immigrant is a useful addition to America, or a blight. Actually, it appears that clever immigrants earn more than natives in comparable jobs: they're better educated and harder working. This insight is also enjoyed by the Right as a further example of the sloppiness which America has indulged in for too long.