Support Intelligent, In-Depth, Trustworthy Journalism.
In "The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels," Jon Meacham tries to offer historical context and a sense of proportion for our current times. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author is best known for his presidential biographies of Andrew Jackson, Thomas Jefferson and George H.W. Bush. Meacham joins Judy Woodruff for a conversation.
On this Memorial Day, Judy Woodruff is back with the latest from the "NewsHour" Bookshelf.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jon Meacham is best known for his presidential biographies of Andrew Jackson, Thomas Jefferson and most recently George Herbert Walker Bush.
Last month, Meacham delivered a eulogy during the funeral service for former first lady Barbara Bush.
"The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels" is Meacham's latest book.
And, Jon Meacham, welcome back to the "NewsHour."
Thank you for being here.
So, you write that the idea for this came when you had a colleague call you up after the terrible events in Charlottesville, Virginia, last summer.
A woman died in the white nationalist rally.
What — how did this get from that to the book?
Well, it kept rattling around in my head that we have been here before.
American history, we tend to think of in nostalgic terms. And nostalgia is a powerful narcotic. But in a way, it does a disservice to the past. It suggests that somehow or another the struggles of the past were not as pitched or as contentious as our own.
And what we have done again and again in American history is run it very close to try to get things right. But we have always managed to get to higher ground.
And what I wanted to try to figure out is, to what extent is this period we're in now, which feels dispiriting and depressing — no matter where you stand on the political spectrum, people are unhappy — how does this compare to moments in the past where division seemed to be the rule, not the exception?
Did you find true parallels then?
Well, Mark Twain is supposed to have said that history not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.
History's not — shouldn't be cultural Zoloft, but it can give us perspective. It can give us a sense of proportion. At what point should we light our hair on fire? At what point should — just to pick an example at random — should a given tweet really upset us?
And trying to create that sense of proportion by putting this moment in context with Andrew Johnson, a president during Reconstruction who issued a state paper saying that African-Americans were genetically incapable of self-government, or Joe McCarthy, who chased after innocent people using the media of the day to create this hysterical feeling.
These were moments that were incredibly difficult, and yet we now have a country, even now, for all our problems, that, by and large, we can be proud of.
So, take us inside one of those moments.
I mean, the Ku Klux Klan rising in the 1920s and '30s.
How did the country grapple with that? And how did it get through it?
Well, there are parallels, because there was a great deal of immigrant — anxiety about immigrants. There was a great deal of anxiety about global affairs, because we had come out of the First World War.
And the middle-class, working-class white movement refounded the Ku Klux Klan. Members of Congress, there were senators, there were governors who were explicitly members of the Klan.
How did we get through it? One thing is, Calvin Coolidge limited immigration, so took some of the oxygen out of the fire. But, also, a free press said, this is not who we are. Harding and Coolidge said, this is not who we are.
And, ultimately, our better angels prevailed, at least briefly.
You also write — there are so many other examples.
But one of the principal ones is the Red Scare after World War II, the 1950s, the McCarthy era. And Roy Cohn was a figure, someone who, coincidentally, was a mentor to Donald Trump.
Yes, we hope it's coincidental.
I think, in many ways, the early 1930s and the early 1950s are the most analogous periods.
The early 1930s, we had a real question about whether democratic capitalism would survive the decade. President Roosevelt could have assumed the powers of a dictator if he had been so inclined.
In the early 1950s, Joe McCarthy gives a speech in February of 1950 at Wheeling, West Virginia, saying, I have in my hand the names of 205 communists.
He didn't tweet it, but he might as well have.
And it lasted about four years. And what happened was, he understood the media. He understood how wire services worked. He understood radio. He understood television. He understood how to control the narrative.
Any of this sound familiar?
But what happens?
The people in Congress stood up. Margaret Chase Smith, Republican of Maine, was one of the first. They ended up censuring him. And they ended up arguing that America is most herself when we widen the definition of what we mean by equality, not when we narrow it.
One of the questions one comes away with is, can it really be compared to today, when you have got this explosion of social media, Twitter, Facebook, and all the rest of it, just this nonstop environment of news and conflict?
Well, but if you — imagine if you lived in a pre-print universe. Having a newspaper come every week or every month seems like a suddenly crowded arena.
Imagine the 1920s, when radio suddenly nationalizes the culture. Imagine the early 1950s, when television explodes.
I think it's somewhat self-referential and self-defeating for us to think that this is the worst time ever. Just because something's happened before doesn't mean it's not happening now, but we can't, I think, suggest that our problems are insuperable, because they're not unique.
There has always been the struggle in the — what I call the American soul. People say, oh, the soul of the country is X. Actually, no. In Hebrew and Greek, it means life or breath. So, in the American soul, we have room for Dr. King, but we also have room for the Klan.
And every era is defined by which side of that — of that dichotomy wins out for a given period of time.
Everyone would agree the country is deeply divided right now, no matter which side you're on.
But there are a lot of people who believe this president, this presidency is exactly what they wanted.
Their cares and concerns cannot be dismissed.
I wrote this book not because American presidents in the past have always risen to the occasion, but because the incumbent rises to it so seldom.
And I do think there is — there are lessons to be learned here. I wish the president and those who serve him would realize that posterity rewards the presidents who reach beyond their base, who try to unify the country, and not simply cater to a given audience and a given predisposed set of supporters.
And, finally, how much does it matter that this is a president who, I think many of the people around and say, has not paid that much attention to American history?
Oh, I think he's paid almost none.
I had one conversation with him, and it was it was like pulling teeth, except pulling teeth might have been more fun.
All I can say is that he's living in a house where there are portraits of people. Someday, his portrait will hang there.
And what I would hope we would do is, as he walks down those hallways, if he looks up from his phone, he would realize that he will want to be seen in a warmer and better light than he is right now.
And, as Winston Churchill once said, the future is unknowable, but the past should give us hope.
So I think we have to hold on to that hope.
Jon Meacham with another book. This one is "The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels."
Watch the Full Episode
Support Provided By:
Support PBS NewsHour:
Subscribe to Here’s the Deal, our politics newsletter for analysis you won’t find anywhere else.
Thank you. Please check your inbox to confirm.
Additional Support Provided By: