Reading is one of my favorite pastimes. I read everything from non-fiction bestsellers to classics to biography and history. I particularly love reading historians who don’t just tell me names, dates and places but who can tell a story, who make the past come alive. I’m an avid reader of my two favorite historical writers, Doris Kearns Goodwin and Jon Meacham. Both have a talent for capturing larger-than-life characters. With each of these historians I come away having learned new things about their subjects, the nuances of the times in which they lived, and often, lessons for dealing with now. Their books are infused with facts and poetry, history interpreted through a storyteller’s sensibility
Earlier this summer, I read the latest book by Jon Meacham called “The Soul of America.” This weekend is the anniversary of Charlottesville rally, where last year the president, in the face of white supremacy demonstrations, gave moral equivalency to patriotic Americans seeking justice and equality and the apostles of former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan David Duke – “very fine people on both sides” Trump said. “There’s blame on both sides,” Trump said. That rally became a catalyst for Meacham to write this book. Today on the anniversary of Charlottesville, far fewer white supemacists, only about 20, marched in Washington, tamped down by a far greater number of counter-protesters. White supremacists were outnumbered at their own rally. The larger numbers were really on the side of the anti-racist, anti-fascist counter-protestors. The President’s reaction? Under pressure he tried to walk back last year’s comments – too little, too late, and only under duress, again.
We’re living in a world of parallel universes. Donald Trump uses slight of hand and distraction admonishing his followers who have surrendered their intellect to him, to “Just remember, what you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.” For 22 months we’ve asked ourselves how did we get to this place? Well, for one thing, having a president who tolerates extremist rhetoric and fosters an atmosphere where division is not only tolerated but honed, is distructive. In an interview I saw coincidentally today, Meacham calls Donald Trump the “vivid manifestation of our worst instincts” but they are instincts that are part of our national character. It’s the confluence of a period of intense fear and a willing individual at the helm creating the storm such as what we are currently living through.
We’ve been through times of fear before, of course, and have ultimately gotten through them. Meacham talks about fear of “the other,” people who don’t look like us or sound like us: fear of immigrants, fear of Catholics, fear of blacks that have generated times like this. Incredibly, three to five million Americans were part of the Ku Klux Klan from 1915 to 1927 and were so integrated into the fabric of our country that they didn’t bother to hide that fact. Governors of Oregon, Georgia, Texas, Colorada and others were known members of the KKK. Seventy years ago, Strom Thurmond, United States Senator from South Carolina, running as a DIxiecrat, espoused that communisim would win if swimming pools were integrated. Indeed even Franklin Rooseselt, generally a good president whose administration passed legislation that was wildly beneficial for the people, caved to then-Attorney General of California Earl Warren and instituted the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.
One of the most emotional and prideful moments in the book and in our history was the evolution of Lyndon Johnson spearheading the Civil and Voting Rights movements in the mid-1960’s. Here was a Southern President being brought along in his thinking and position on this and ultimately fighting indefatigably for these pivotal pieces of legislation. He came to politics as anything but a progressive, appeasing his segregationsist constituents, having actually weakened civil rights bills in the Senate. But Meacham calls his ultimate commitment to Civil Rights “one of the great chapters of personal transformation and of political courage in the history of the presidency – one akin to Lincoln’s move from tolerance of slavery in 1861 to emancipation in 1862-63.”
Each chapter in his book is dedicated to specific crises as cautionary tales or illustrative of what is possible: the Revolutionary War and the beautiful country that ultimately resulted, crises such as the Civil War and the Reconstruction, the destruction created by McCarthyism that sadly ruined countless lives but didn’t ruin the country, the Great Depression. We’ve prevailed through them all. The subtitle of this book is “The Battle for our Better Angels.” In previous times, Meacham says, usually with appropriate presidential leadership and the people themselves relentlessly communicating – through our vote and through activism – that this is not who we want to be, that we find that progress is possible again and we can re-discover our better angels.
Jon Meacham is certainly not a Donald Trump fan, but he writes this book with an even hand. He uses examples of how both Democrat and Republican presidents and institutions have faltered throughout our history and how we’ve addressed each situation. No matter what side of the political aisle you stand on, if you read this book, I hope you find it interesting, informative and provocative. As Meacham says at the end of his introduction, “Hope is sustaining…Fear can be overcome.” We can be lifted to higher ground.
Until next time………