HISTORIAN JON MEACHAM

Pulitzer Prize-winning presidential historian Jon Meacham makes sense of the country’s current political climate by taking a look at our past.

Aired on December 4, 2019. 

TRANSCRIPT

> KU KLUX KLAN MARCHING THROUGH COLLEGE CAMPUSES WITH TORCHES IN HAND WAS ONE OF THE MOST DISTURBING IMAGES WE HAVE SEEN IN MANY TIMES.

JON MEACHAM, THE VIOLENCE THAT UNFOLDED IN CHARLOTTESVILLE SERVED AS A REMINDER OF TIMES GONE BY WHEN PRESIDENTS REFUSED TO CATER TO SUCH MOBS AND CONQUERED THEM WITH A BREATH OF VISION THAT SPEAKS TO THE BEST PARTS OF OUR SOUL.

IT SERVES AS A CATALYST FOR HIS BOOK, 'THE SOUL OF AMERICA, THE BATTLE FOR OUR BETTER ANGELS' WHEN HOPE OVERCAME DIVISION AND FEAR.

JON MEACHAM JOINS US NOW.

WELCOME BACK HOME.

THANK YOU.

THIS IS STUDIO YOU INAUGURATED A FEW YEARS BACK, MARIANNA HOSSA.

SO GOOD TO SEE YOU.

THANK YOU.

LET ME START WITH THE OBVIOUS QUESTION.

WHAT WAS IT ABOUT CHARLOTTESVILLE AND THE PRESIDENT'S RESPONSE TO IT THAT LED TO THIS BOOK?

THE IDEA THAT THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES WOULD SAY THERE WAS BLAME ON MANY SIDES WHEN A YOUNG COUNTER PROTESTER STANDING UP AGAINST KLANSMEN AND WHITE NATIONALISTS WAS KILLED, HEATHER HEYER, AND TWO STATE TROOPERS, WERE CASUALTIES OF A VIOLENT WAR.

THERE'S ALWAYS FEAR AND VIOLENCE, PART OF A FALLEN WORLD.

AT OUR BEST, PRESIDENTS HAVE REMINDED US OF OUR BETTER ANGELS AND NOT CATERED TO OUR WORST INSTINCTS.

IT WAS VERY CLASSIFIED INFORMATION TO ME IN CHARLOTTESVILLE, DONALD TRUMP WAS USING A TRAGIC HOUR TO PANDER TO PARTS OF HIS OWN BASE.

WE'LL GET TO THAT IN ONE SECOND.

THE TITLE OF THE BOOK, 'THE SOUL OF AMERICA.'

DO COUNTRIES HAVE SOULS?

I THINK SO.

FOR A PAGAN PHILOSOPHICAL IDEA AND RELIGIOUS ONE.

SOUL IN HEBREW AND GREEK CAN BE TRANSLATED AS LIFE.

SOCRATES ASKED, WHAT MAKES A PERSON A PERSON AND HIS ANSWER WAS, A SOUL.

IT'S NOT HOWEVER, A LOT OF FOURTH OF JULY ITERATIONS AND QUICK THINGS SAID, WELL, OUR SOUL IS ALWAYS GOOD, WHAT I AGREE WITH IT IS.

MY SENSE IS THE AMERICAN SOUL HAS ROOM FOR DR. KING AND THE KKK, AND EVERY ERA IS DEFINED BY WHICH OF THOSE TWO WINS OUT FOR A GIVEN PERIOD OF TIME.

IT'S A PERENNIAL STRUGGLE.

IT'S NOT A MISTAKE, NOT AN ACCIDENT THE FOUNDERS SAID WE ARE SEARCHING FOR A MORE PERFECT UNION, NOT A PERFECT ONE.

PRESIDENTS HAVE, AT THEIR BEST, MANAGED TO MARSHAL THE VOICES OF THE POWERLESS, PROTESTERS, RESISTERS, SUFFER RAJJISTS, PEOPLE WHO FOUGHT AGAINST JIM CROW AND MARRIAGE EQUALITY, ALL THOSE MOVEMENTS BEGAN FAR FROM THE PINNACLE OF POWER.

IT HAS REQUIRED A PRESIDENT AND CONGRESS AND COURT AND PRESS, TO RECOGNIZE THOSE VOICES AND PUT THEM INTO POLITICAL ACTION.

THE BATTLE FOR OUR BETTER ANGELS, THAT PERENNIAL STRUGGLE YOU'RE TALKING ABOUT CAN BE BOILED DOWN TO A BATTLE BETWEEN FEAR AND HOPE, RIGHT?

ABSOLUTELY.

FEAR, AS EDINBURGH SAID, THERE'S NOTHING MORE IRRATIONAL THAN FEAR.

ST. AUGUSTINE DESCRIBED FEAR AS ANXIETY WE WON'T HAVE WHAT WE LOVE.

WE'RE IN AN HOUR TODAY BECAUSE OF GLOBALIZATIONS AND STAGNANT WAGES AND INCOMES, THERE ARE AN ENORMOUS NUMBER OF PEOPLE FEAR THE WAY OF LIFE THEY KNOW WILL GO AWAY.

THIS IS NOT THE FIRST TIME THIS HAPPENED.

IT HAPPENED IN THE EARLY 1920s WITH 50,000 KLANSMEN MARCHING DOWN PENNSYLVANIA AVENUE AND IN THE '50s, AGAINST COMMUNISTS.

FEAR IS A PERENNIAL FORCE.

WE PUSHED AHEAD AND TO ME, IT IS DEFINED TO WHAT EXTENT WE ARE WILLING TO WIDEN THE DEFINITION BY THE FOUNDING IDEA WE ARE ALL CREATED EQUAL.

YOU CLEARLY BELIEVE THE ROLE OF THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT IS A MORAL LEADER?

ABSOLUTELY.

EQUALLY IF NOT MORE IMPORTANT THAN HIS ROLE AS CEO OF THE COUNTRY, RIGHT?

ABSOLUTELY.

THE BULK OF THE BOOK IS REFERENCING BACK TO DARK MOMENTS IN AMERICAN HISTORY, WHERE USUALLY FROM THE PRODUCING OF PEOPLE, REFORMERS OUTSIDE OF GOVERNMENTS THE PRESIDENTS RISE UP TO THE MOMENTS AND WIN FOR THE ANGELS.

GIVE US SOME EXAMPLES.

FIRST IS LYNDON JOHNSON.

TERRIFIC.

A WHITE SOUTHERN SENATOR AND NOT A CHAMPION OF CIVIL RIGHTS, HIS ELECTION AS VICE PRESIDENT HAD A REAL IMPACT ON HIM.

HE GAVE A SPEECH AT GETTYSBURG, 5 OR 6 MONTHS AFTER HE BECAME PRESIDENT AFTER THE TRAGEDY IN DALLAS HE LAID OUT THE UNFINISHED WORK OF LINCOLN, AND HE DECIDED THE NIGHT OF KENNEDY'S ASSASSINATION HE WOULD NOT COMPROMISE ON THE CIVIL RIGHTS BILL AND PUSHED IT TO VOTING RIGHTS.

THE MARVELOUS SCENE, THIS CAPTURES ALL OF IT.

WHERE WE ARE NOW IS LIKE GEORGE WALLACE BECAME PRESIDENT, ROUGHLY WHERE WE ARE, A RIGHT WING POP YOU LIST WHO DID REPRESENT GENUINE CONCERNS, AS YOU SAY, THAT ECONOMIC MESSAGE WAS FRAIDED WITH A RACIALLY AND CULTURALLY DIVISIVE ONE THAT ULTIMATELY ERODED HOPE.

WALLACE WON'T LET THE MARCHERS GO FROM SELMA TO MONTGOMERY, THE BLAZE SUNDAY STANDOFF WITH JOHN LEWIS AND JOSEA WILLIAMS ARE NEARLY BEATEN TO DEATH AND JOHNSON SUMMONS GEORGE WALLACE TO THE OVAL OFFICE.

WALLACE IS A LITTLE GUY ANYWAY AND PUTS HIM ON A DEEP CUSHION COUCH AND JOHNSON SAYS, WHEN YOU'RE GONE, DO YOU WANT YOUR TOMBSTONE TO SAY, GEORGE WALLACE, HE HATED, OR GEORGE WALLACE, HE BUILT?

AND PART OF MY MESSAGE HERE IS THINK ABOUT, IF YOU'RE IN PUBLIC LIFE AS AN OFFICE HOLDER, THINK ABOUT WHAT WE WILL THINK ABOUT YOU WHEN WE LOOK AT YOUR OIL PORTRAIT.

THAT'S ULTIMATELY GOING TO LAST A LOT LONGER THAN ANY GIVEN CYCLE OR ANY OTHER TWEET STORM.

TALK ABOUT FRANKLIN ROOSEVELT.

HE HAS A PARTICULAR ROLE IN THE BOOK.

HE DOES.

LIFE OF THE COUNTRY OBVIOUSLY.

THE IDEA ROOSEVELT WITHOUT HAVE DISMISSED HIM IS IMPROBABLE, WITH NO PARTICULAR SKILL WOULD LIKE TO BECOME PRESIDENT IN THE ANNALS OF COLLEGE PREDICTION IS PRETTY HIGH.

HE COULD HAVE, BECAUSE OF THE CRISIS OF 1933, AMERICANS OUT OF WORK, DEEP CRISIS OF INSTITUTIONS, GLOBAL ANXIETY AND UNEASE.

ANY OF THIS SOUND FAMILIAR, HE COULD HAVE ASSUMED MORE DICTATORIAL POWERS.

THE LINE IN HIS INAUGURAL ADDRESS THAT GOT MORE REACTION THAN THE ONLY THING WE HAVE TO FEAR IS FEAR ITSELF, THE PRESENT CRISIS MAY REQUIRE ME TO TAKE ON WAR-TIME POWERS, AND THE CROWD ROARED AND ELEANOR ROOSEVELT SAID IT CHILLED ME BECAUSE THEY WANTED A DICTATOR.

THAT NIGHT, MARCH 4th, 1933, ROOSEVELT SITTING IN THE WHITE HOUSE THE FIRST NIGHT IN 12 YEARS AND A BRAIN TRUSTER COMES TO HIM, ADVISOR, RATHER PRETENTIOUSLY, MR. PRESIDENT, IF YOU SUCCEED, YOU WILL GO DOWN AS ONE OF OUR GREATEST PRESIDENTS, IF YOU FAIL YOU WILL GO DOWN AS THE WORST.

HE LOOKS AT HIM AND SAYS, IF I FAIL I MAY GO DOWN AS THE LAST.

MY VIEW, I BELIEVE THE CHARACTER IS DESTINY, AS THE GREEKS TAUGHT US, ROOSEVELT WAS ABLE TO LIFT US UP BECAUSE HE LIFTED HIMSELF UP.

39 YEARS OLD, ONE OF THE MOST POPULAR POLITICIAN IS IN THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY.

1941, THE YEAR BEFORE NOMINATED FOR VICE PRESIDENT THE AGE OF 38.

HAD EVERYTHING GOING FOR HIM AND WAKES UP WITH INFANTILE PARALYSIS AND WILLS HIMSELF BACK INTO THE POLITICAL ARENA.

THESE PRESIDENTS WERE HIGHLY FLAWED MEN.

YES.

HAD SUBSTANCE OF CHARACTER THAT ALLOWED THEM TO TRANSFORM THEMSELVES, YOU TALKED ABOUT LYNDON JOHNSON.

YOU DON'T HAVE THAT HOPE OR DO YOU HAVE THAT HOPE STILL OF THE CURRENT PRESIDENT?

I LIVE IN HOPE.

WHAT I WOULD LIKE, DO YOU WANT US, WHEN WE LOOK AT YOUR PORTRAIT, ON THE STATE FLOOR, DO YOU WANT PEOPLE TO SAY, OH, THAT'S THE GUY THAT SCREWED EVERYTHING UP.

OR YOU KNOW WHAT, HE HAS UNCONVENTIONAL AND HAD HIS MOMENTS, DAMMIT, HE DID THIS ON GUNS AND JOBS.

THAT, TO MY MIND, MIGHT APPEAL TO TRUMP, BECAUSE IT IS ABOUT HIM.

JOHN, THE BOOK IS 'THE SOUL OF AMERICA, THE BATTLE FOR OUR BETTER ANGELS,' YOU READ IT AND YOU WILL HAVE HOPE.

Funders

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