As published by The National Press Club’s The Wire on June 23, 2018
June 20, 2018 | By Kristina S. Groenning | firstname.lastname@example.org
Presidential historian and Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Jon Meacham told a June 20 Book Rap audience that Time magazine’s request for his thoughts on the violence in Charlottesville, Va. led to the thesis for his latest book, “The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels.”
“What I wanted to do was make the argument not that we’ve been through this before so therefore let’s relax, [but] that we’ve been there before, try not to set your hair on fire twice a day – once is fine,” Meacham said.
Meacham explained that division and resilience have been common themes throughout American history. To people who say, “this is not who we are,” Meacham’s response is “[t]he hell it’s not who we are,” citing “the Alien and Sedition Acts, the removal of Native Americans, and the enslavement of an entire race.”
However, the author stated that America has overcome these moments of darkness, largely due to its leadership, the Constitution and an optimistic outlook.
Meacham particularly emphasized the important role that past presidents’ finding their better angels within themselves has played in the preservation of our democracy.
The author referenced Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Harry Truman as “two of the great examples of people who really did grow and change in the office.” He noted that their positions on race were unexpected in light of their histories. However “[t]he fact of their national elevation or election…created a sense of broadmindedness about their authority,” he elaborated.
Meacham expressed concern that President Donald Trump is diverging from such precedent, including his continual indifference to the truth. When asked if past presidents exhibited similar behavior, Meacham responded “[y]es and no…. In terms of a public persistent similar situation, no…Lyndon Johnson lied about Vietnam, Richard Nixon lied about damn near everything, and Bill Clinton….” The author finds Trump’s rejection of full briefings troubling, stating he does not know if Trump’s lies are “tactical or…just wrong.”
Meacham wrote an open letter to Trump in 2017 suggesting that the President model himself after Jackson. “If you’re going to embrace Andrew Jackson, don’t just embrace the crazy parts,” he wrote, acknowledging that Jackson had his moments, but “he believed in the union, he believed we were one great family…he understood his vices, he made them into virtues.”
The author believes that ultimately the Constitution will continue to be the bulwark in maintaining the strength of our democracy. “The Constitution endures not least because it recognized that moments like this were inevitable” he said, noting that the forefathers contemplated the rise of demagogues.
Meacham also cites our optimism as instrumental to America’s winning the battle for its better angels. “If you put yourself back in almost any of these moments, we didn’t know it was always going to be a brighter tomorrow. We hoped so.” He maintains faith that “having come through a revolution that was incomplete, having come through a civil war, having come through two world wars and its discontents…I just think we’ll get there.”
Free Bing image of John Meacham