tv Jon Meacham The Soul of America CSPAN September 2, 2018 3:38am-4:35am EDT
perception is very valuable right now. coverage on c-span2. >> good afternoon. i had the nonfiction book critic at the new york times we are proud to have partnered with the library of congress and would like to thank everyone for coming out on this labor day weekend that is not only a celebration that also an opportunity to think of the role of books in our culture.
at the time when the new cycle has gotten faster and faster with an endless supply of hot takes a can in not only our life but the lives of others as well as the world in which we live. to that end it is my great pleasure to introduce john meacham. >> many of you know him already from his presidential biographies writing books about george h to be bush, thomas jefferson as well as fdr and his special relationship with churchill. and with a pulitzer prize-winning biography of andrew jackson a complicated figure who considered himself
an embodiment of the people he helped although his view was exclusionary. so that doesn't flinch from the full record it showcases his background as a journalist. as a longtime staffer at newsweek eventually becoming its editor. in fact the trajectory of his career shows that the fast-paced journalism and gradual history is not as connected as it may seem. it is not only a theme in the past but also has startling relevance to lay the foundation for how we got to the are now. to reflect undoubtedly has a
gift for accessibility and even though i would say his books are short, he clearly makes point to to keep his storytelling shark. more recently as a contributing writer. and often finds those angles that are surprising for instance one year ago after heller me clinton published her best-selling book what happened he examined other books by other present candidates that were not triumphant stories about winning elections but instead more candid reflections about losing. his newest book the soul of america in the sense that it is not a biography that closely follows the life and times of a particular
president make sense that to chronicle their achievements word now take online country. the soul of america is hope in these times and hope is not the same as complacency but don't take it from me. please join me to welcome john meacham. [applause] >> thank you. and i was reminded writing about the various dead men i
have written about it when i was finishing jefferson bisexual that the time say how is the book about george jefferson going? [laughter] i said sherman helmsley is an important figure blood pressure we need a full biography. and i had the honor speaking at mrs. bush's funeral a few months ago because this is the scene of this is what she had in mind with humility. and she said it's you and that
and that there is a forged copy of the runaway jury but so that was a saturday like today so i left the book festival.on the plane and whitey my biography at the time and flew to maine. and for some reason that was almost unheard of because that view of life was one long reunion mixer. when he would be more interested in the oak ridge boys other than the pope. mrs. bush looked across the table i am expecting motherly reassurance. she said how do you think poor john grisham would feel? he is a very handsome man. [laughter] it was not a good weekend for me. but i am thrilled to be here which i am one more time.
thank you for being here and if the last three years have taught us anything it is a lot to teach the american republic. so thank you. so i am asked all the time has it ever been like this? one of the quick answers? let's see if we can do the whole game. busy like jackson? i knew injured jackson. [laughter] in 2017 in nashville tennessee where i live with the 250th
birthday we had a paintball dual so i'm thinking i should do something because whenever presidents talk about their predecessors and it is interesting to keep track because they see as they wish to be seen. when jack kennedy said this is a greatest gathering of talent so what he was really saying is isn't very jeff sodium and of to invite all of you here? with those democrats or the tyrant of wall street.
that is key in the story i promise. he comes down so i write an open letter to the president. so if you're going to embrace jackson don't embrace just the crazy parts and there are plenty. he said his only regret in public life he did not hang henry clay and jott will just shot john c calhoun his own vice president. that the next person who thought that way about their running mate was john mccain. so i cleared that with mccain years ago i've been telling that for years. don't worry. so to embrace for all of his sin he did believe that we were one great family to fight
under the same roof but to remain a continental nation he was also a great go sheeter. and as a more formidable figure he was a lawyer or a prosecutor or a judge twice a senator and general to win the popular vote and respected the rule of law and establish constitutional order. it had no effect whatsoever and the next day i walking to lunch and is george h to view bush he spent a lot of time in the hospital that winter so his staff was giving him stuff to read. he said how are you doing? they key to doing him as dana carvey said mr. rogers trying to be john wayne.
i'm fine. [laughter] i read your letter to jackson. he is 93. he's at the hospital. i said thank you sir. actually is a letter to trump about jackson he said but yeah jackson will pay more attention. [laughter] so he is fine. mark him off your worry list. but i want to talk today in two parts. one is how i do things to represent a manifestation and in some ways extreme of perennial american forces.
the path is not cultural zoloft or a bedtime story. but and in perspective of proportion. and to know that as it happened to the people living challenges of their time. we do two things. if we do a disservice to the nation we want to protect to act as if progress was inevitable tell that to john lewis or rosa parks or elizabeth cady stanton or frederick douglass or harriet tubman or surgeon or truth. tell them that this will work out.
we need to remember history to honor those who gave the ultimate price to have something worth defending. so if we act as if history is a myth if everything works out in a land far far away to foreclose the possibility of learning from it. but they are just like us. i write history and biography not because it was more reassuring but imperfect yet they got through it and made progress and with all of their imperfections with her appetite and ambition and racism and sexism that he created a more perfect union and surely all of us driven by
those same forces. and then to simplify this it is sometimes sometimes it is absolutely clear but that is the exception not the rule and the nation is defined i think in the august terms that the nation is a multitude of rational beings ignited by the common objects of their love. again. a multitude of rational beings ignited by the common objects of their love. so what do we love in common?
see any here on the anniversary of hitler's invasion in poland and we bury a great american hero on a day when just over one third of the country approves with united states is doing the postwar achievement the building of social mobility and middle class. but this day we don't love enough. and when dwight eisenhower was president he had an approval rating with democrats 49% guess what obama was with republicans? 14%. this is a divided and tribal time. what i will talk about is not
in lieu of but a clear utilitarian hope that if we understand the moments of the past were difficult and required enormous effort and courage and sacrifice to overcome and create a sustainable vision and reality then we can do it too. not by relaxing as jennifer said my messages not we have come through before so relax but let's figure out how the hell we didn't and do it again. and it requires resistance and witness and protest. and affirmative steps into the arena to engage with justice holmes called the passion and
action of our times. the first duty of an american citizen is to engage in the arena and no other time to let people fight your battles. so now a few moments we will talk at the end the characteristics that are necessary because let's remember a republic is only as good as the sum of its parts. the moral dispositions have a discernible and definitive effect of the life of the country. and with aristotle to machiavellian. in the end the americans get the government they deserve.
remember that. and then to point fingers at groups instead of pointing ahead. at the same time so we have to examine ourselves. and force that kind of character and into the arena it is never easy or never forever but the way american history has been built. so my own sense on the battlefield with 17 years old i went to the university of
south maybe the error are one or two who don't know that. so to frame that culturally it is downton abbey meets deliverance. [laughter] i am very much with falconer the past is never dead it is actually the only thing he ever said that i understand. [laughter] thank you. people say love him but no you don't. [laughter] you thank you are supposed to say that over your latte. show of hands and on this group. who enjoys that? so the civil war it is the
great cauldron or crucible of who we are. the story of the war in many ways for our purposes to say the story of the confederacy begins with its immortality not win for something or was fired upon but when lee handed his sword to grant. and that continues to shape us to the day. it was coined in 1866 barely nine or ten months after the journalist from richmond and tell me if this sounds familiar. he argued that because the war itself is lost in the war over slavery was lost that the south should not reengage in the force of arms with that is
centered in washington. i have seen this uncertain cable news channels. it was a narrative for those that had a piece believe and white supremacy to give them the hope to continue to fight. and that is on the historical record. but if we don't call them as we see them not living up the promise and the possibilities
so if you always try to see a little bit of truth on both sides you probably are not seeing the truth. this is my own view of this. so andrew johnson is a disaster i say that as a tennessean. he is impeached the right thing to do the wrong cause stay tuned. [laughter] coming soon. and basically he argued it was the historian calls the most racist statement ever written by an american president that black americans were congenitally genetically incapable of self-government. to do everything to stop the
forces of reconstruction to veto the reconstruction bill and oppose the 14th and 15th amendment to the constitution. doing everything he could to carry on the battle. the clan is founded to terrorize the south and president grant is the right thing early on to break the first but then the curtain descends 1877 with rutherford b hayes that we never talk about the election of 1876 it is important in american history because as a part of the price of that victory the republican rather bared --dash
brother ford b hayes ended reconstruction to secure the presidency of course that was decided in florida. i don't know what it is down there maybe it's the humidity. take so people say it's never been worse keep an eye out. it could never be any worse. not a lot of african-americans say that. sometimes when women say that to me they have not voted in this country it's been 98
marriage equality has only been possible for three years. things do change. they change slowly but perspective and proportion and to some extent and to some degree and i think the soul of the country is an amalgam and in hebrew and in greek i dislike it when people say if there is a party that i disagree with to capture the soul of the country. that's not quite right it has proven itself capable of accommodating the kkk and martin luther king. and every era is defined by the degree to which they win
out over the worst instincts. we are the sum of our parts and i don't know about you all but if i listen to my bitter angels that is one hell of a good day. something is not often achieved. but we can't let that be the enemy so the soul is tested. two. or age to age emancipation is gratified slavery was abolished that reaction immediately sets in segregation prevails with those racial injustices to grow out that unimaginable.
we stand on land that belonged more properly to the cherokee nation. native american removal and african-american slaves. >> so the goal has to be to make it right and how do we do that? it seems to me that to expand more generously as best we can the implications of what thomas jefferson meant that all men were created equal the generations that we honor or to emulate that strong the definition but those who
expanded. then nation was fixated on the funeral of a man whose political life was largely about hope and opening our arms not folding them across our chest. the most important sentence ever written in this language is that we are all created equal. i am very careful when i say that because when i mentioned the english language like that about the school board candidate in texas against teaching spanish and on the campaign trail he said if english is good enough for our lord jesus christ it is good enough for texas. [laughter] we always say thank god for texas. [laughter]
>> that was a total parenthetical. i have a list of two stupid things i have said to sitting governors. one when george w. bush was running for president i went to austin as a journalistic delegation and said do you know governor, if not for my people you would still be part of spain. he said that's funny asshole. [laughter] the other talking about thomas jefferson six years ago i got a call from chris christie before he became patty hearst. [laughter] and he is good company. so i went out to lunch he said i am more of a hamiltonian
which normally means you are the investment banker. at least my guy did get shot in jersey. [laughter] and the damnedest thing happened i cannot get back into the city. all the bridges. [laughter] so now back to "the soul of america" how do we expand that definition? that is progress in terms of the american soul. the civil war? yes. reconstruction? no. birth of a nation is released in 1815 the sunday after thanksgiving stone mountain georgia the second kkk is founded to recover the great white empire of the south but not just the south it became a
national phenomenon. why did the kkk get between three and 5 million members 1915 through 1926? how was that there were six governors or 17 senators or 75 congressman who remembers the kkk? how was that there were 103 ballots at the dnc driven by the fact 347 delegates who would not vote for al smith and irish catholic? how is it the 50000 klansmen marched down avenue? anxiety about crime? anxiety about a shifting economy from a largely agrarian and understandably industrial one to a more
complicated one? the introduction of a national culture with the spread of radio 1921 think about it. if you were in a red state you totally control the media's information the experiences that your family had until about 1922. and then to have the world come into your home and to programming things in new york and hollywood. it was disorienting and a reaction to that disorientation was fear. and fear is what drives fear like our own that it is the anxiety produced by the law of what we love and what happened
from 1915 through through 1925 is largely what is happening today. a fear among an extraordinary number of people that look a lot like me and come from states like mine that the demography of the country is changing. the economy of the country is being left behind and they don't want to live in barack obama's america they want to live in donald trump's. let me tell you something from the bottom of my heart. twenty years from now we will be living in barack obama's america not donald trump's. [applause] >> it is okay for people like me to say that.
and i feel that is my job and i am in the arena but it will require a heck of a lot more than that. it requires the institutions of democracy so how does that fever break? between three and 5 million members or supreme court justices? governors of oregon and indiana colorado texas the governor of georgia lost the election joins the clan and runs and wins gives a speech he wants to build a wall of steel as high as heaven to keep out immigrants. twain said history may not repeat itself but it rhymes. the press did its job the newspapers in new york plan expose after expose than his defense you don't hear much
but harding and coolidge did the right thing. the lawyer said i have of that with my husband i can make you say three words and he said you lose. they spoke out subtly but to take a stand against the clan the supreme court into critical decisions ruled against the clan one was an oregon case with the dominated legislature that every child of school age had to go to a public school not a private school. what do you think that was about? the nuns. they were going to break the catholic church because it was seen as a foreign entity. the supreme court threw it out. the case out of new york because there is so much violence the new york legislature passed a law that
they countersued to say it was like the kiwanis club they should not have to do that. then you have got to publish the names. and thank god for those reasons but it takes us to the next moment which is 1932, 33. and roosevelt said the two most dangerous man in america where he belong and and douglas macarthur to lead a revolt from the left and douglas macarthur from the right. march 4, 1933, when he gave his inaugural address, the line that we all remember is that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. the line that got the biggest applause and a bloodthirsty
cheer according to eleanor roosevelt when fdr said the circumstances of the present crisis are such that i may require more time like executive powers. and they roared and it chilled her they said -- she said because they realize that they were ready as the europeans had proven themselves for a strongman or dictator and it terrified her. that night fdr had a drink before bed and one of the brain trust comes to them and says mr. president if you succeed to save capitalism you will go down as the greatest president but if you fail you will go down as our worst. fdr look to him and said if i fail i will go down as our last. so don't tell me we have not been here before.
the 30s were decade were we did not know if democracy would succeed against dictatorship. churchill saw it and thought roosevelt as a hero he said fdr represented a bright light between the soviet and the lurid flames only winston churchill could write the flames the nordic flames of self assertion. he was the hope he had a country that responded to it. he cannot do it by himself he understood we were stronger together and that america required an elevation and that
if in fact we live to fight another day in democracy it would require the division and an understanding that the country was bigger than any single. not to lionize that imagine to be 39 years old to wake up in 1921 with one with the most famous name of american politics with a bright future ahead and be able to walk? not one man and the thousand could've ever left his house again. not one man in the million could run for office and not one in 10 million could have risen to the pinnacle of the great republic. i am convinced the greeks were
right and that democratic capitalism and socialism or communism is a mix of the two of anti-semitism i'm convinced that franklin roosevelt wanted because he knew what it was like to be knocked out and had to come back the new york times wrote on the day that he died that men will think god on their knees when years from now that franklin roosevelt was in the white house when the crisis came. but he always knew he was an instrument of all of us.
and he also knew he should not be in our faces all the time affect i must say much of that current moment does disprove i stole that line from henry adams but write that down. writing the letter in 1935 get on tv you need to talk more there is something in the psyche that will not withstand the scale into set that into 140 characters tweet that out for me.
he understood how to lead in a democracy and it was incredibly frustrating. with mrs. roosevelt one of the greatest women represented better angels in every sphere of life. so whenever i visit domestic trouble which is often i will say at least fdr did not tell mrs. roosevelt that winston churchill thank you for coming to stay in the white house for a weekend stay for christmas until christmas eve afternoon. it is amazing she did not just kill him. also fdr drank odd martinis that were three quarters removed and one quarter gin it
is amazing that we want. [laughter] churchill hated them he would pour them out and kill the plant during one summit. and if he would pour out a drink it was bad. he wasn't perfect because what is the greatest american moment? people say world war ii. absolutely right but remember the soul and the clan so here we are protecting power to defeat tyranny around the world and what is the reality at home? a segregated america? military? franklin roosevelt signing an executive order 9066 to join the japanese-american simply
then to buy anti-communism the the way they might buy a car. lincoln's first day in virginia. the reign of terror of four years. lincoln's birthday february. late 54 parenthetically as well. to august 9, 1974. this isn't the way the history unfolds. but for almost 48 months joe mccarthy terrorized the united states of america. through the manipulation of
the media at a time of transition and he did it promising to make america on peak again. those press conferences seeking a communist in des moines. headlines all over the country senator seeks read des moines. he did not have time to check. and in the morning papers closed at midnight to say the red in des moines is eluding me i am redoubling my efforts. lashes across america i redoubling my efforts and radio helped him. there was 3.1 televisions and one censored there were 30.6
admits the seachange and if you believe the truth and leaders who are not appealing to traffic in fear is exposure. people watched long enough to think this is not who we want to be. let me tell you you definitely have want to have been. you want to be margaret chase met the republican senator from maine who within one month gave a speech of the declaration of conscience i urge you to go beat it. in 1954 when this happened.
and sheila got six senators to sign that. but here we are in 2018 talking about her not the senators who wanted to wait to see the next poll. and then the one that is what we need more of to actually have powers of one of the things i try to say is what you want us to think when we look at your oil portrait? and where we are not gazing adoringly. it is passive-aggressive. and i was thinking all morning
and what will they think people are saying about them? with a 26% approval rating? [applause] >> we don't have to agree all the time. from a loyalist to a patriot to interventionist to protectionist the country was built to fight and have guardrails but here are a couple of three characteristics. that i think we need and public officials need to win
that battle within the soul. and those that are intellectually curious he can write that sentence not because he was a politician of virginia but in a broad conversation with the enlightenment that protestant reformation with the reorientation of the world to be run by kings and popes either by an accident of birth and give them power over all of us with a vertical understanding.
that we were all born with the capacity to determine our own destiny. jefferson was able to set that in motion because he was graciously curious what was going on in the rest of the world and i think the baseline is citizenship always but particularly today, is realizing the american revolution was the political manifestation of the idea that reason has to have a chance in the arena against passion. we have been given a brain and the capacity away different argument and if we don't reflect and use reason and fall prey then we are not true
to the reality of the revolution. partisanship is fine and is a price of free government but we have to make it reflective we have to figure how to admit mistakes we would not be here jack kennedy could not minute minute mistake from the bay of cranks to the one -- bay of pigs to the cuban missile crisis to say to do good in a parliamentary system the last man on earth the one to appear in tutelage asking to come to camp david he said everybody has to be in the room to weigh the pros and cons and october 62 casually estimate
of a hemispheric exchange of nuclear weapons between 70 and 100 million americans many of the people in this room would not have been here if kennedy had not had the humility one of the many tragedies of dallas jack kennedy is one of the few presidents that was self-evidently learning as they hold that office. it's so hard to learn at that level but to do that and we are better off in the last is a busy if i don't care about you but democracy doesn't work.
to not have that sense of sociability. and neighborliness. to understand we are in this together or mutual destiny. that requires empathy. i don't have to love you to death or spend time talking, but that most empathetic man was george herbert walker bush. to show another planet basically. this is the kind of person years ago this is a letter that president bush wrote in the late