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American myths: the Frontier and Ellis Island immigrants. (John Springer Collection / Corbis, FPG / Getty Images)

Cowboys and Immigrants

Two dueling archetypes dominated 20th-century American politics. Is it time for them to be reconciled?

Newsweek's proclamation notwithstanding, my guess is that the categories of Ellis Island and the Frontier persist—but now, like so much else, have been globalized.

In the 21st century, the division between the two mind-sets projects itself into McLuhan's misnamed "global village," which, more accurately, has become a planetary megacity with some wealthy neighborhoods (now not as wealthy as they thought they were) and vast slum districts—a megacity without police force or sanitation department. The messy municipal planet remains in many ways a frontier, a multicultural Dodge City or Tombstone (lawless, with shooting in the streets, dangerous with terrorism and nuclear possibilities, not a fit place for women and children) that has an Ellis Island aspiration to survive and prosper as the family of man.

The Frontier and Ellis Island analyze problems in different ways and arrive at different decisions. The Frontier assumes the drunken soldier is a rapist or murderer and shoots him between the eyes. Ellis Island may see him as a confused fool and hope to talk him into a cup of coffee and a 12-step program. Roughly the same choices present themselves to a president: the planet is the Frontier; the planet is Ellis Island. Genius is the ability to hold two contradictory truths in the mind at the same time without going crazy.

Obama might reflect upon the transition of Harry Hopkins, FDR's inside man and chief federal relief dispenser during the New Deal. Hopkins was the most abundantly generous of Keynes-ian do-something-now bleeding hearts, with a heart as big as Charles Dickens'. After Hitler took Poland and France and started bombing London, Hopkins became one of Roosevelt's most aggressive and efficient war facilitators, organizing lend-lease and acting as FDR's emissary to Churchill and Stalin. Hopkins abandoned Ellis Island for the Frontier. He complained that his New Deal friends—during the Battle of Britain, before Pearl Harbor—did not understand the change that had come over him.

Hopkins was, of course, the implementing instrument and executive echo of Franklin Roosevelt, an Ellis Island president who, after December 7, 1941, found himself confronting history's wildest frontier.

Lance Morrow, author of The Best Year of Their Lives (2005), is writing a biography of Henry Luce.

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