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In ‘These Truths,’ historian Jill Lepore weaves in underappreciated political stories

A new, single volume of history sets out to explore the experiment in government that is the United States. Jeffrey Brown sits down with award-winning Harvard historian Jill Lepore, author of “These Truths: A History of the United States,” to discuss how we now understand the role of women and people of color in our political heritage, and how to put today’s politics of division in proportion.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    On the eve of tomorrow's elections, we examine a recent book with a sweeping view of American history that's especially resonant right now.

    Jeffrey Brown has more.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    It's an ambitious project, a single-volume story of America, and ideally timed, arriving at a moment of intense division over where the nation has come from and where it's headed.

  • “These Truths:

    A History of the United States" sets out to explore and experiment in government that continues to unfold.

    Author Jill Lepore is an award winning historian and staff writer at "The New Yorker."

    Welcome to you.

  • Jill Lepore:

    : Thank you.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Can I start with the ambition, the intent?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You say at the beginning you did this because it was important and it felt worth the try.

  • Jill Lepore:

    It used to that be historians at a certain point in their career would write such a book. It would be the capstone of your long — right before you become an emeritus professor.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Right.

  • Jill Lepore:

    And that has fallen away entirely.

    I think American history, a kind of consensus about the American past, dismantled at the same time the country kind of began to divide. And books like this aren't really written anymore. I mean, it's not just the length of the thing.

    It is in particular the attempt to use your scholarly authority to tell a long, big, sweeping story.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    So, inevitably, of course, there are the contradictions and the paradoxes of American history. That's — you have 800 pages of it, right, from this idea of natural rights and equality, to the institution of slavery, to open borders, to now we must limit who comes in.

    That never stops, right?

  • Jill Lepore:

    No, it never stops.

    I mean, it's the beauty and the tragedy. It's the rise and the fall. And it's the fall and the rise. And everything always has a kind of doubleness to it.

    The trick, though, was to try to see both of those. Benjamin Franklin invented the bifocal and always said, you need to be able to see at the same time things that are up close and things that are far away.

    And this book, I aimed to kind of have a binocular vision, right, that we could track the kind of well-thumbed political history, we can march from president to president and see presidential administrations and evaluate them, but that we really also need to reckon with the incredible work that's been done in the academy the last half-century recovering, investing in the lives of everyone else, of women, of people of color, and that those are also political stories.

    And they're also origin stories, and that you can't understand the presidency or politics with a capital P without bringing these two strands together.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    I asked you to think about an episode that — because there's too many in this book, right? It's all of American history, but something that surprised you or that made you — gave you some understanding of where we're at today.

  • Jill Lepore:

    Yes.

    So much that I found out working on this book surprised me, but taking stock in particular, really, in a systematic way of how women participate in American political culture, decades before women get the right to vote in 1920 with the 19th Amendment.

    And what you see when you do that is that women develop a very specific political style, this moral suasion, the moral crusade, because you think about it, you can't vote. What you can do is tell men how to vote. And how are you going to tell me how to vote? You're powerless.

    Well, you're going to say, well, I have more moral authority than you. So, the rhetoric of women being morally superior. So that's where we get abolition and temperance, later prohibition. And in the 20th century, so many moral crusades that are led by women have really not been fully examined by political historians or — so if you think about Phyllis Schlafly, just the leading architect of modern conservatism, isn't fully appreciated in that way.

    She starts out in the 1950s as a member of the Kitchen, Cabinet, the sort of GOP ladies auxiliary, the Federation of Republican Women's Clubs. So she goes on to — she's McCarthyite. She campaigns for Goldwater. She's a big promoter of Goldwater.

    But then, in 1972, she formed this organization to stop the ERA. And it is a moral crusade, and it really realigns the party system, I think. We think a lot about — it's quite fashionable to talk about the Southern strategy of the Nixon administration. Right?

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Sure. Yes. Yes.

  • Jill Lepore:

    We have to think about the female strategy, but the parties realigned around questions of the equality of women.

    And I think now, if you think about the MeToo movement, which is, of course, a moral crusade, it comes out of that long tradition. And it otherwise..

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Even though it's coming amid a different — at a very different angle.

  • Jill Lepore:

    Right, from a very different angle.

    But it also is about the law not really working, right. It's not — women have the right to vote, but the law isn't actually protecting women, granting women the equal protection, because the ERA never was ratified.

    So there's this kind of failure of a political settlement that we see the legacy of now.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    I mean, focusing on women, telling the story of black — this is in a way bring people into the history that were not there always.

  • Jill Lepore:

    Yes.

    Well, they were there in the sense that you know now, we know now, we can see now that the Supreme Court and gender politics are not separate strands, right? Those things are intersecting.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes.

  • Jill Lepore:

    That has always been the case. It's just history has been written in such a way as to artificially divide them, so sort of systematically, not some grand conspiracy, but just about how historians decided to write about the American past.

    They set aside the things that women do as apolitical. They set aside slavery as an economic issue, not a political issue. They — so there's this weird, almost like a segregated past.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    So, inevitably, it leads — the book leads to now.

    When you look at now, in the framework of this long history, where does Donald Trump fit? Where do you see — where are we in this American story?

  • Jill Lepore:

    Yes, this is a very troubled time. That's not — few people would deny that this is a troubled time. The partisan divide is extremely wide.

    Income inequality, which has been growing ever since 1968, is higher than it has ever been before. By many metrics, our politics are not working effectively, policy gridlock, right? So we can — and the tone of our politics is particularly dire.

    So, by that measure, you could say this is a very difficult time. There are all kinds of other measures where you kind of some sense of proportion, right? I mean, I think when people say the country's never been so divided before, that often is a way of saying, I'm only thinking about the country as the history of white people, because, when you think about people who are enslaved as a political community, they are deeply divided from the rest of the community.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Right.

  • Jill Lepore:

    You know what I mean? There's no — there's no moment before emancipation that is a better moment than today. For women, there's no moment before safe delivery in childbirth than is a better moment than today.

    So I think one of the reasons to tell such a long story with a big, long sweep is to get that sense of proportion.

    That said, Donald Trump didn't win the popular vote. So you can't really write an account of American history whose rationale is to explain how he got elected. It could have gone another way. History is full of contingencies and chaos, and not everything falls to an explanation that is a pattern.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    All right, the book is "These Truths."

    Jill Lepore, thank you very much.

  • Jill Lepore:

    Thanks for having me.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Worth paying attention.

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