Is Joe Biden the Jon Meacham Candidate?

Here is the Biden announcement video:

Biden appeals to the “Soul of America.”  Historian Jon Meacham recently published “The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels.”  (Biden and Meacham appeared together earlier this year).

Biden focused his campaign video on the Charlottesville race riots of August 2017.   In his Introduction, Meacham begins with the story of segregationist Strom Thurmond’s 1948 speech in Charlottesville and then moves to the racial violence in Charlottesville in 2017.  (Biden and Meacham also discuss this here at around the 56-minute mark).

If I were Alexander Burns annotating this speech at The New York Times I would note Biden’s debt to Meacham.

Meacham writes:

I have chosen to consider the American soul more than the American Creed because there is a significant difference between professing adherence to a set of beliefs and acting upon them.The war between the ideal and the real, between what’s right and what’s convenient, between the larger good and personal interest is the contest that unfolds in the soul of every American.

He adds:

Philosophically speaking, the soul is the vital center, the core, the essence of life….Socrates believed the soul was nothing less than the animating force of reality….In terms of Western thought, then, the soul is generally accepted as a central and self-evident truth.  It is what makes us us….

Biden’s campaign video is inspirational. It will win him supporters.  But unlike Meacham, who distinguishes between the “American soul” and the “American Creed,” Biden confuses the two.  He begins with a reference to the “soul,” but spends most of the speech talking about America as an “idea.”

I am not sure I have a larger point here.  I am just wondering if “soul” and “idea” are incompatible when applied to a nation.   🙂

 

Meacham: At least Trump didn’t sign the Bibles in red ink

Watch presidential historian Jon Meacham talking to Joe Scarborough about Trump signing Bibles and evangelical supporters of Trump.  Here.

I agree with Meacham, but I am disappointed in him.  Last year I sat next to him at dinner before his speaking engagement at Messiah College and told him all about my book Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.  I am OUTRAGED by the fact that he does not cite the book here!    🙂  (I will give Joe a break here since I have never talked to him face-to-face about Believe Me!).

Jon Meacham Offers Some Advice for Surviving the Trump Era

Jon Meacham Photo and Book 03082018

Meacham is on tour for his new book The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels.  In a recent piece at USA Today he shares some advice on how to survive the age of Trump.  A taste:

►Enter the arena. The battle begins with political engagement itself. Theodore Roosevelt put it best: “The first duty of an American citizen, then, is that he shall work in politics; his second duty is that he shall do that work in a practical manner; and his third is that it shall be done in accord with the highest principles of honor and justice.”

Politicians will disappoint; that’s inevitable. But they will also, from time to time, thrill. “Every man who has been in practical politics,” TR remarked, “grows to realize that politicians, big and little, are no more all of them bad than are all of them good.” One need not become a candidate (though that’s certainly an option worth considering) or a political addict hooked on every twist and every turn and every tweet. But the paying of attention, the expressing of opinion and the casting of ballots are foundational to living up to the obligations of citizenship in a republic.

►Resist tribalism. Engagement, especially at a time of heightened conflict, has its perils: Those motivated by what they see as extremism on the other side are likely to see politics not as a mediation of difference but as existential warfare where no quarter can be given. The country works best, however, when we resist such tribal inclinations.

Ever practical, Eleanor Roosevelt offered a prescription to guard against tribal self-certitude. “It is not only important but mentally invigorating to discuss political matters with people whose opinions differ radically from one’s own,” she wrote. “For the same reason, I believe it is a sound idea to attend not only the meetings of one’s own party but of the opposition. Find out what people are saying, what they are thinking, what they believe. This is an invaluable check on one’s own ideas. . . . If we are to cope intelligently with a changing world, we must be flexible and willing to relinquish opinions that no longer have any bearing on existing conditions.”

If Mrs. Roosevelt were writing today, she might put it this way: Don’t let any single cable network or Twitter feed tell you what to think.

►Respect facts and deploy reason. There is such a thing as discernible reality. Facts, as John Adams once said, are stubborn things, and yet too many Americans are choosing this view or that perspective based not on its grounding in fact but on whether it’s a view or perspective endorsed by the leaders one follows.

Read the entire piece here.

Has Politics Ever Been This Ugly in the United States?

Of course it has been.

I recently showed this video to my U.S. Survey course:

Over at NPR, writer Jon Meacham backs me up.  Here is a taste of his interview with Steve Inskeep:

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The election of President Trump got Jon Meacham thinking. Meacham is a journalist and historian. He’s written biographies of presidents. He wrote a book about faith. The 2016 election prompted him to combine those two subjects and more in a book called “The Soul Of America.” It’s an exploration of the history of a country whose soul, he says, includes Martin Luther King and the Ku Klux Klan and much in between.

JON MEACHAM: The question I get asked all the time is, has it ever been this bad? And the answer is yes. In fact, it’s been worse. We are in a very, I believe, perilous moment because of the president of the United States. I will state that. But I also think it’s worth pointing out that Andrew Johnson announced that African-Americans were genetically incapable of self-government.

INSKEEP: This is the president after the Civil War.

MEACHAM: He was a bully. He was self-absorbed. He gave self-pitying speeches. Any of this sound familiar? You know, as Mark Twain is reputed to have said – history may not repeat itself, but it does rhyme. The story of American history is that we have, in fact, moved forward. And what we’ve done – and the reason I wanted to look back at these moments – is what have been the moments where presidents have either been really right and led us forcefully and proactively? And what about the moments where they’ve been really wrong? And how did we overcome that?

Read the rest here.

Even More Historians Talk About the Trump Presidency

trump-fist

Scott Berg, Robert Dallek, Jon Meacham, Edmund Morris, Stacy Schiff, and Garry Wills all reflect on the Trump presidency in this piece at Vanity Fair.

Here is Schiff:

Eighty-seven years before the American Revolution, the New England elite lost their patience with overreaching British officials. They wailed that their royal governor intended to deliver them to a foreign power. He colluded with the Native Americans. He distributed Catholic propaganda. Privately, they alleged, Governor Edmund Andros sneered that the Puritans “were a people fit only to be rooted off the face of the earth.” To counter his “deep design,” Boston’s civic leaders staged a coup. They were hardly the first to pass off self-interest as self-preservation, persecution as piety. They warned that the French and Irish were en route to Boston to destroy it; that Andros had bribed the Native Americans with jewelry; that together those fiends intended to butcher the settlers. An Andros associate wrote off the charges as hysterical, “so apparently false and strangely ridiculous” that no one could conceivably believe them. He was wrong. The coup’s leaders had a great deal invested in that narrative. They were a familiar breed of thin-skinned men, the kind who—as John Adams would later say of Elbridge Gerry—“would risk great things to secure small ones.”

Setting the stage for the American Revolution, Samuel Adams took a page from that playbook when in 1768 he linked a later Massachusetts governor to a so-called Papist plot. Adams had not a shred of evidence. But he knew a thing or two about stalking horses; Jesuits would be said to prowl menacingly through much of the American 19th century. Ultimately the Catholic specter gave way to the Communist one: between the Puritan hedge and Trump’s Mexican wall came networks of subversives, the watchtowers of the nation, and the reckless cruelty of Joseph McCarthy. The fevered imaginings remained the same. Each group served its purpose, threatening, as an eminent cleric warned in an 1835 anti-Catholic tirade, to “decide our elections, perplex our policy, inflame and divide the nation, break the bond of our union and throw down our free institutions.” Always a convenient demon can be found to plot against America, to remind a chosen few that they are the elect, that our way of life is in peril, that time is short, that we are precariously poised between a sun-dappled past and an apocalyptic future. The language has evolved very little since the 17th century. The judge sentencing Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for espionage in 1951 termed theirs “a diabolical conspiracy to destroy a God-fearing nation.” That fiery 1835 cleric could have been selling this administration’s Muslim ban.

By definition the contest is stark and absolute. The insinuations alone are vague. “There’s something going on that’s really, really bad,” our current president has reminded us. “A lot of people are saying,” he hints, broadly, vaguely. The fearmongering works, as does the cheap call to arms, Patriotism Lite. To connect Ted Cruz’s father with J.F.K.’s murder, to invent Kenyan births or Trump Tower wiretaps, allow you to avenge and aggrandize yourself while defrauding the truth. It divorces the rest of us from reality. It dangerously obscures the evidence at hand. It moves the club from the hand of the slogan-spewing white supremacist to that of the peaceful protester. Reason takes a holiday; in rush the phantom Frenchmen. Conveniently, a fake enemy can’t return fire. Better yet, he will continue to wage battle only so long as he is needed, after which he disappears into thin air.

Read the entire piece here.

A History of Hate in America

KKK

KKK member in South Eastern Ohio, 1987 (Creative Commons)

Jon Meacham lays it out for us in this piece at Time.

Here is a taste:

The message was clear. The fate of America — or at least of white America, which was the only America that counted — was at stake. On the autumn evening of Thursday, Oct. 7, 1948, South Carolina Governor Strom Thurmond, the segregationist Dixiecrat nominee for President, addressed a crowd of 1,000 inside the University of Virginia’s Cabell Hall in Charlottesville, Va. Attacking President Truman’s civil rights program, one that included anti-lynching legislation and protections against racial discrimination in hiring, Thurmond denounced these moves toward racial justice, saying such measures “would undermine the American way of life and outrage the Bill of Rights.” Interrupted by applause and standing ovations, Thurmond was in his element in the Old Confederacy. “I want to tell you, ladies and gentlemen,” Thurmond had told the breakaway States’ Rights Democratic Party at its July convention in Birmingham, Ala., “that there’s not enough troops in the Army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the nigra race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, into our churches.”

Seventy years on, in the heat of a Virginia August, heirs to the Dixiecrats’ platform of hate and exclusion — Klansmen, neo-Nazis and white supremacists of sundry affiliations — gathered in Charlottesville, not far from where Thurmond had taken his stand. The story is depressingly well known by now: a young counterprotester, Heather Heyer, was killed by a barreling car allegedly driven by a man who was seen marching with a neo-Nazi group. In the wake of Heyer’s death, the President of the United States — himself an heir to the white populist tradition of Thurmond and of Alabama’s George Wallace — flailed about, declining to directly denounce the white supremacists for nearly 48 hours. There was, he said, hate “on many sides,” as if there were more than one side to a conflict between neo-Nazis who idolize Adolf Hitler and Americans who stood against Klansmen and proto–Third Reich storm troopers. Within days Donald Trump had wondered aloud why people weren’t more upset by the “alt-left,” clearly identifying himself with neo-Confederate sentiment.

Perennially latent, extremist and racist nationalism tends to spike in periods of economic and social stress like ours. Americans today have little trust in government; household incomes woefully lag behind our usual middle-class expectations. As the world saw in Charlottesville — and in the alt-right universe of the Web — besieged whites, frightened of change, are seeking refuge in the one thing a shifting world cannot take away from them: the color of their skin.

Read the rest here.

Jon Meacham: “Every Day is Christmas” for Historians in the Age of Trump

American_lion_by_jon_meacham_coverIf you were listening to National Public Radio yesterday, you may have heard Steve Inskeep’s interview with writer and historian Jon Meacham on Morning Edition.  As many of you already know, Meacham is the former editor of Newsweek and a prolific biographer.  His book American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography.

Here is a taste of the interview:

INSKEEP: Jon Meacham will help us on this Independence Day. He’s a wide-ranging thinker and historian, former editor of Newsweek. His books range from an exploration of religion to the life of Thomas Jefferson to a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Andrew Jackson.

What’s it been like to be a historian living through this moment in history?

JON MEACHAM: It’s as though every day is Christmas. It really is. And I’m not being overly facile about it. If you care about the underlying elements of our national story, the national order, then a moment in which all of those fundamental assumptions are being questioned is a time of intrinsic interest.

Read the rest here. (HT: History News Network)

 

 

Are the Founding Fathers Back In Vogue?

Earlier today we posted a video of a session on race and monuments from the Aspen Ideas Festival.

Here is another video from the Festival that will be of interest to readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  The session is titled “Are the Founders Back in Vogue.”

The panelists include Yoni Appelbaum, Annette Gordon-Reed, Jack Rakove, Noah Feldman, and Jon Meacham.  Not a bad lineup.  I should also note that two of these five esteemed panelists have been guests on The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.

There is some great stuff here on historical thinking, the uses of the past in the present, and the role of history in constructing a national community.

Watch it here:

 

The "Glitzy Glorification of Jefferson" and "Learned Hagiography"

Over at blog of the Historical Society, Randall Stephens has posted an excerpt of Michal Jan Rozbicki‘s review of Jon Meacham’s Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power.  Rozbicki, who teaches at St. Louis University, offers a scathing critique of what he calls “learned hagiography,” an approach to writing that employs “old-fashioned hero worship, elite-centered topic, seductive narrative aimed at popular readership, solid scholarly research with a heavy apparatus of citations, and a didactic political objective.”

Here is a taste:

Greatness sells, which is why hero-worshiping literature has a long and venerable tradition, rooted in both popular and elite culture. It stretches from Greek mythology, Gesta Romanorum, lives of saints, Arthurian legends, chivalric romances, troubadour songs, and chronicles of monarchs, through the political drama of Renaissance and the epic poetry of European romanticism, to didactic biographies of leaders (such as Parson Weems’s life of Washington) and historical novels. These writings—as opposed to modern, critical history aiming to explain why things happened—mostly describe prominent people and events in time, often embellishing them with invented episodes, folk legends, and even the personal views and experiences of the authors. The goals are usually fairly simple: exalt the qualities of the great and the saintly, lionize the powerful, and point to their role in changing the course of history. One of the distinctive features of this literature is that it was an instructional tool. Its aim was pragmatic and rooted in the present. Authors hoped that their works would supply the collective memory with worthy themes and symbols that bind societies and invite followers. The enduring attractiveness of such stories lies less in their adeptness in reconstructing facts than in their ability to conjure up ideal types, to celebrate the potential of the individual person, and to offer positive models of virtue—all qualities that defy the incoherence of the world.