Fussin and fightin Its all good, says author/pundit

In his new book, “The Thirteen American Arguments,” Howard Fineman caps the nation’s core political debates at an even baker’s dozen. No more. No less.

There is something refreshingly imperious about his use of the definite article in the title.

“On one level it’s obviously absurd to name a specific number,” the popular Newsweek columnist and political analyst says. “I wanted to achieve a balance between breadth and specificity. I didn’t want to give people so many they found it daunting, or so few that each one would be meaninglessly broad.”

Fineman is taking a break from punditry to embark on a national book tour. He will make a couple of Bay Area appearances, including a book signing at Book Passage in Corte Madera on April 27, and a dialogue at the Commonwealth Club the following day.

With the steady coarsening of debate on cable news shows, a term like “argument” might conjure images of Al Franken mud wrestling with Bill O’Reilly. However, Fineman says debate on core issues is not only healthy for American society, it defines it.

“Democracy is rough and nasty,” he says. “We were the first country founded on the idea that nobody has the ultimate answer in public life. In order to figure out what we have to do, we have to discuss it, we have to argue it. The country was born in a debate about our society.”

Fineman’s list of 13 arguments includes a few big questions: Who is a person? Who is an American? What is the role of faith? What are the limits of presidential power, of individualism?

But not all arguments are created equal. Fineman believes the first — who is a person? — is most important.

“It’s over that we fought a civil war, the most cataclysmic event in our nation’s history,” he says. “It goes to the core of what America is about.”

As for the argument about who is an American, Fineman has some personal acquaintance. The Pittsburgh native claims maternal grandparents who emigrated from Ukraine and Moldova. He describes his father’s side of the family as a long line of Pennsylvania flappers and baseball fans.

But Yiddishkeit and lively discussions at the dinner table ruled. “There’s a direct line from my table to ‘Hardball,'” Fineman notes. “My dad was like Chris Matthews because he would both ask and answer his own questions.”

His parents, both teachers, also taught Sunday school at the local synagogue where Fineman was bar mitzvahed. He attended a predominantly Jewish high school before moving on to Colgate University.

While there, he earned a postgraduate fellowship, for which he undertook what he calls his “kosher roots project. I bought a VW bus and went to Jewish places in the Old Country, then to Israel for three months. I recapitulated Jewish history.”

After cutting his teeth as a reporter with a Louisville daily, he worked his way up the media ladder, writing for the New York Times, Washington Post and Newsweek. The Washington, D.C., resident is a regular commentator on “Countdown,” “Hardball,” “Face the Nation” and many other political news shows.

Fineman says America has proven a uniquely hospitable home for Jews because of the nature of its founding.

“Its operating assumption is that no one has a corner on God-given truth as it applies to public life,” he notes. “In many ways this is the most devout country on Earth, but it’s a marketplace of faith, not a monopoly of faith.

“That, plus the innate philo-Semitism of the founders, who analogized their situation to the Jews of the Old Testament, makes the country unique.”

Despite what seem like intractable problems — pick your nightmare: environmental decay, trillion-dollar debt, endless terrorism — Fineman remains optimistic about this country, largely because this is an arguing society.

“It’s the energy of the argument that takes us forward,” he says. “The trick is to capture the energy of emotion, that desire to have the country do what you want to do, without having the place blow up.”

He even has a high tolerance for the rough-and-tumble screamfests that typify talk radio and cable news debate.

“Ann Coulter follows a disreputable but long tradition,” he says of the vitriolic ultra-conservative commentator. “Abe Lincoln was depicted as a monkey.”

“The Thirteen American Arguments: Enduring Debates that Define and Inspire Our Country” by Howard Fineman (306 pages, Random House, $25).

Howard Fineman will appear 7 p.m. April 27 at Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera. Information: (415) 927-0960. He will also appear in conversation with S.F. Chronicle editor at large Phil Bronstein at 6 p.m. April 28 at the Commonwealth Club, 595 Market St., S.F. Tickets: $18. Information: (415) 597-6700, or online at www.commonwealthclub.org.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.