Boston — Richard Reeves has just spent five years following in the 19th-century French footsteps of Alexis de Tocqueville around America, and he likes what he sees. On reading his new book, ''American Journey'' (New York: Simon & Schuster; $15. 95), one may be startled, surprised, and chagrined. But Reeves isn't. Having examined racism and the failure of local governments, he is hopeful, patriotic, and enthusiastic, even though he looks too sophisticated for all that. In his striped shirt with the sleeves rolled up, news room style, and casually snappy slacks, he talks through an interview in a guarded, quiet New York drawl.
Reeves said he went out on his journey with ''the normal cynicism of a political reporter - it's like being a cop . . . you see life in a certain way.'' He came home with renewed faith in democracy. ''I realized people are much more in control of their lives . . . they're much more optimistic, and they were much more like each other and like the people Tocqueville saw.''
Even their complaints were music to his ears. Gripes about politicians, the fact that no one wants to work anymore, and the lack of great minds like those of the past were no worse than what Tocqueville heard. ''They were saying it 150 years ago and they'll be saying it 150 years from now,'' said the handsome-to-the-point-of-dapper, white-haired Reeves. Asked if he found that reassuring, he grinned and said, ''Enormously. Enormously.''
Alexis de Tocqueville, at the time a 25-year-old French aristocrat, traveled around the United States for nine months in 1831 and spent the next nine years writing ''Democracy in America.'' The book is still a classic quoted by journalists trying to unravel American politics 151 years later.
Reeves was one of these journalists, writing political news for the New York Times, Esquire, and a syndicated column, not to mention four other books. When he discovered that the notes Tocqueville took on his trip had been published, along with his letters home, Reeves decided to take the same trip himself. He went to cities and towns Tocqueville chose and talked to modern-day stand-ins for people Tocqueville interviewed. Like the Frenchman, he made notes at the end of the day, albeit on a tape recorder instead of a with a quill pen, and did serious writing and thinking early in the morning before setting out to talk to more people. He still has no idea how his predecessor got any rest, because Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont, his traveling companion, were such celebrities that they were invited to balls at night.
Seeing America through the eyes of a 19th-century aristocrat was particularly difficult, since the aristocrat in question was a genius. Reeves is amazed at Tocqueville's energy and his ability to see a pattern in what he observed. ''He was important to me because his work and journals and the internal debates that were in the journals before he came to the conclusions gave me a context in which to look at America that was separate from my own experience. It gave me a platform to try to see it from a distance.'' He traveled in Tocqueville's shadow: ''I was constantly thinking, 'What would he do?' It sounds corny to say that, but I did it.''
He kept worrying that everything looked too ordinary to him. The first chapter, in which he describes sitting in a car in Newport, R.I., and finding nothing odd about it, rings a note of panic, but he did achieve a distant vision. His book talks about familiar issues and ordinary places from a point of view that seems as odd, and often as annoying, as that of a shrewd, well-educated foreign visitor.
He found out two things: Americans are still the same, still going after life , liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; and the system works, but it's a different system than the one Tocqueville investigated.Since 1831, Reeves says, ''I think we destroyed the republic. The republic for which we stand, whatever, doesn't really exist anymore.'' Tocqueville thought that there would be a struggle between democracy and liberty, between individual equality and the strength of each state as a member of the union. He was right, says Reeves: Equality won out over liberty. The country isn't governed locally, but federally , through the courts. ''If an American really has a problem, if I or you really want fairness or a decision on something, we're not going to go to our state legislator . . . we're going to go to court.''
It started with two disparate but very powerful elements of American life - civil rights and Interstate highways. ''We had to confront problems that were both physical and spiritual, and that all came together in the middle 1950s,'' he says. Interstate commerce improved so much with the building of better roads (overcoming a physical problem Tocqueville lamented 150 years ago) that corporations began roaming the land, searching for pockets of cheap labor, becoming national, not regional. Local businessmen increasingly worked for some supervisor in a distant headquarters. But Reeves agrees with Tocqueville that racism is our worst and most abiding problem. When we ran up against it, he points out, we went to court.
''I hate to be the bearer of bad news, because I believe in town meetings and everything else, but the economy is not regional anymore and the problems are not regional anymore,'' Reeves said. ''And when the problems were regional, we never used to deal with them. The people who ran Mississippi and Alabama . . . destroyed the republic. The republic could not work as long as they were unwilling to fulfill the promises that were made in the fundamental documents of this country, and that's why we had to quickly build a new system of government. . . .''
He quotes the late Judge Robert Ainsworth of the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth District as saying that ''it all began with Brown v. Topeka'' - the 1951 suit by Oliver Brown, a black man, against the Topeka, Kan., school system when his daughter was turned away from an all-white school. Now all sorts of redress are sought through the courts. Reeves used to think the courts were overused and had too much power. ''We've become a government of laws rather than a government of men. . . . I was appalled by that when I began,'' he says, but as he wrote in ''American Journey,'' '' . . . if clogged courtroom calendars were the price of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, it was one of the greatest bargains in American history.''
In Louisville, Ky., he interviewed a 20th-century version of Tocqueville's ''Mr. McIlvain, one of the greatest merchants in Louisville,'' one Dann Byck Jr. , president of Byck's, a rare locally owned business. Mr. Byck's father was president of the Louisville City Council, but, Byck said, ''Local leadership of the kind there was here during my father's day just doesn't exist anymore. All of that is left to politicians now. That's their business. I have my own.'' After talking to Byck, and to others who pointed out that most businesses in Louisville were run from national headquarters, and seeing how much of what went on there was legislated by federal court rulings, he wrote in his notebook: ''There is no Louisville.''
Such a bold pronouncement wasn't really softened when he added, ''It was too flat a statement, but I was not surprised when I learned, in May of 1981, that Dann Byck, the natural inheritor of local leadership, had moved to New York City.''
There may be ''no Louisville,'' but there is another, grimmer America, he writes, and it is wherever blacks live. Reeves's talks with blacks are jarring. His subjects, many of them successful businessmen and community leaders, are frank about how deep they see racism cutting into their lives. He visits the urban wasteland of black Detroit, where Tocqueville looked at the degradation of American Indians 150 years before. He finds it to be like ''a separate country receiving aid from the United States - in the form of the welfare and assistance checks that reached almost every house - and spending and circulating that money by local custom.'' Local custom means heavy traffic in illegal drugs and prostitution, an underground economy that is left alone as long as there is no trouble.
Jason Lovett Jr., a black photographer and writer, tells him that heroin came into Detroit in the form of ''scag,'' pinkish pills that turned up for sale in the neighborhood right after the riots of 1967. He says it is ''part of somebody's pacification program,'' hinting that the ''somebody'' is the US government. Others say that the establishment didn't worry about drugs in Detroit until they turned up in the white suburb of Grosse Pointe.He talked to the majority leader of the California Assembly, Maxine Waters, a black woman who grew up in St. Louis but now represents Watts. She is cheerful, successful, prosperous, and bright, but thinks that when the white majority gets scared enough of more trouble, it will disperse black neighborhoods.
These talks with blacks both depressed and encouraged Reeves. He had only interviewed blacks as a reporter in what he called an ''artificial situation,'' in which he would ask them to analyze something or when ''the reporter from the New York Times comes to talk to you about whether you're going to burn down the town or not, and you say, 'Yeah, we're going to burn down the town.' ''
''It was painful for me to realize that I really believed that the nation was essentially racist,'' Reeves says. ''A lot of the rhetoric about not being racist and whatnot is just that, it's rhetoric, and it was black people who taught me that. Because black people never forget that they're black and we're white, ever. And then I realized that I personally and, as far as I could extend it, white people like to kid themselves that they don't notice that someone else is black when in fact it's the first thing they notice. . . . I liked the fact that these people weren't kidding themselves.''
Tocqueville predicted a race war in America. His opinion was that a king could raise a people's consciousness to a government of equality, but in a democracy the people ''could not rise above themselves.'' What gave Reeves hope, and made him think that for once Tocqueville was wrong, was that as he talked to blacks he found ''the deeper you get into these people, (the more you realize) their attitude toward everything that's important, from God to their children to work, is probably identical'' to the attitudes of whites. Those attitudes, he has found, are still the same hopes that are the basis of the Declaration of Independence, and they are still held by all Americans, no matter how limited their opportunities are.
''I don't want to be too pompous or attempt to be profound, but we have this wonderful set of ideas,'' he says. ''This marvelous set of documents and ideas - the Declaration and the Constitution, the Federalist Papers - there really was something there, and there was time to nurture it, and we created a people (for whom) it worked, no matter who came. The ideas were strong enough, the opportunity was great enough, that whoever came became Americans. . . .
''We've always got [racism]; we've got to fight it, but we've done better than Tocqueville thought we would do, '' he says.
''He was basically talking about race war, and it didn't happen.'' Reeves admits the riots of the '60s could be seen as a race war, but points out that the majority of Americans, if not on the side of the blacks, were on the side of solving the problem of racism. They had to be. ''We're always in danger of doing something that destroys those ideas, and if we destroy those ideas, we destroy ourselves,'' he said.
Saving the country from that danger took not a king but the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who held up the American ideals to the reality of racism and ''called us to our conscience. We can't resist that call because we are born telling each other that we are the last best hope, and we believe that. When I began (the book) I would probably have said that with a smirk or something,'' he says.
''But I feel differently now. They do. I'm not saying we are the last best hope, I'm not that arrogant. But it is important that we think of ourselves that way because we are more likely to act that way than not.''
Americans, a German observer told Reeves, are the only people who really don't believe the moral questions have been answered. ''I would have expanded it. . . . We're often the only people who think there are moral questions. Everybody is always saying, 'What are they talking about?' and you can make fun of Americans about that, but it really is the best thing about us,'' he says casually, but without the shadow of a smirk.