There’s another striking aspect of the American enigma that’s very much on display right now: its politicians.
This is a dynamic country full of clever, energetic, creative people. Even people who profess to despise America devour its culture.
We read American books, listen to American music, watch American films and television, wear American-inspired clothes, are kept alive by American drugs and rely on American technology. There’s hardly a place on earth that isn’t influenced in some way by America.
So, given the incredibly rich human resources with which it’s blessed, how is it that we see such a dispiriting line-up of candidates for the presidency?
Surely in a nation of 320 million people – the country that accomplished the most audacious feat in history by putting man on the moon – it must be possible to find more inspiring candidates than those whom American voters are currently considering for elevation to the most powerful political office on earth?
The highest-profile Republican contender is a braying braggart with a frighteningly simplistic, one-dimensional world view. If we thought George W Bush was a monstrous practical joke, a President Donald Trump would be an even more tragic mistake.
His pitch for the support of American voters seems to depend on two things. One is his sneering criticism of the other Republican contenders; the other is his reputation as a man untouched by political correctness. In the absence of any coherent policy or vision, these are not convincing credentials for the White House.
What of the leading Democratic contender, then?
Hillary Clinton is the polar opposite of Trump, and not just in ideological terms. While he plays up his status as a maverick, untainted by connections with the Washington establishment, Clinton is the consummate political insider.
She’s capable, intelligent and a seasoned schmoozer. She has a track record as Secretary of State and happens to be one half of the world’s most famous power couple.
Her performance in TV debates, and under the blow torch during a gruelling 11-hour congressional hearing into American deaths in a terrorist attack for which her Republican rivals held her responsible (rather unreasonably, it seems to me), has been polished and assured. She gives the impression she would make a tougher and more decisive president than Barack Obama.
But she has a few skeletons rattling around in her closet and opinion polls suggest many Americans don’t trust her. Besides, the Clintons, like the Bushes, have had their time in the White House.
Trump and Clinton aside, there’s a supporting cast of lesser presidential hopefuls, consisting of the usual ragtag collection of egotists, misfits, no-hopers and fumblers – proof that ambition and overweening self-confidence can take you a long way in American politics even when there’s a gaping ability deficit.
American TV satirists are never short of material, least of all at election time. Some contenders for the White House seem unprepared for questions on even the most basic policy issues.
You could call this the Sarah Palin Effect. The Republican nominee for vice-president in the 2008 election had never travelled outside America until 2007 and, when questioned, couldn’t name a single newspaper or magazine that she regularly read. This presumably inspired her fellow Americans with the realisation that anyone could run for high office.
It wasn’t always like this. American politics once resounded with soaring, visionary rhetoric.
Consider the speeches of John F Kennedy, bits of which are still routinely quoted more than 50 years after he died. Kennedy may have been a shameless libertine – a man whose alley-cat personal morality was sharply at odds with his virtuous public image – but he knew how to inspire his fellow Americans with words that created a sense of hope and opportunity.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, arguably the greatest US president of the 20th century, had a similar gift. His “fireside chats”, broadcast over the radio, reached into millions of homes and helped carry America through the Great Depression and the Second World War.
Like Kennedy, Roosevelt never talked down to his audience. He spoke eloquently, even loftily, confident that his audience would get his message – and they did.
Somewhere along the line, America has mislaid this element of its political culture. I was reminded of this watching a recent documentary film called The Best of Enemies, which recalled a famous series of cerebral 1968 television debates between the American intellectuals Gore Vidal, on the left, and William F Buckley Jr on the right.
Both the protagonists struck me as thoroughly obnoxious, but the debates, broadcast to coincide with the Democratic and Republican national conventions, fizzed and sparked with vicious but sophisticated humour.
Broadcast in prime time on the ABC network during the presidential primaries, the debates were a surprise ratings hit. It would never happen today – a risk-averse media would dismiss the concept as too highbrow. And even more sadly, the same is true in New Zealand.
Karl du Fresne blogs at karldufresne.blogspot.co.nz. First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard.