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In Tocqueville's shadow

By Maggie LewisStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 1, 1982


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.

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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.''