President Donald Trump’s name doesn’t appear very often in Pulitzer Prize-winner Jon Meacham’s newest book.
But it’s hard to miss the Trump references throughout Meacham’s The Soul of America: The Battle For Our Better Angels.
Meacham, who will speak at a Forum Club of the Palm Beaches lunch on Tuesday, said in an interview with The Palm Beach Post that he was motivated to write by Trump’s equivocal initial responses to the deadly white nationalist demonstration in Charlottesville, Va., last summer.
“After the violence in Charlottesville the president had a difficult time condemning the neo-Nazis and the Klansmen who were marching,” Meacham said. “It struck me as a singular failure of presidential leadership and in many ways crystallized, in my mind anyway, what the moral role of the presidency can be at its best and at its worst.”
Meacham set out to chronicle “antecedents” to Charlottesville in American history and examples of presidents showing moral leadership to counter them. The resulting book is a grim accounting of America’s racial sins and other failings, but also of leaders who overcame their flaws to summon the “better angels” that Lincoln memorably referred to in his first inaugural address.
Meacham often selects examples for his book that seem particularly tailored to the Trump era.
Former Georgia Gov. Clifford Walker is quoted pledging in 1924 to build “a wall of steel, a wall as high as Heaven, against the admission of a single one of those Southern Europeans who never thought the thoughts or spoke the language of democracy in their lives.”
In a chapter on Joe McCarthy’s anti-communist crusades in the 1950s, Meacham describes the Wisconsin senator as “something new in modern political life: a freelance performer who grasped what many ordinary Americans feared and who had direct access to the media of the day.”
One example in Meacham’s book is aimed as a lesson for Trump’s enemies. He recounts former President Lyndon Johnson’s appearance at a symposium on civil rights at the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin in December 1972, shortly after Richard Nixon’s re-election (and a few weeks before Johnson’s death).
After Johnson spoke, two audience members jumped up to call for the conference to denounce Nixon.
Johnson returned to the podium, writes Meacham, who quotes him calling for “reasoning together … And you don’t need to start off saying he is terrible — because he doesn’t think he’s terrible. Start talking about how you believe that he wants to do what’s right and how you believe this is right, and you’ll be surprised how many who want to do what’s right will try to help you.”
Meacham, speaking with The Palm Beach Post, said the LBJ vignette speaks to today’s polarized political environment.
“It’s very hard in our climate to say anything … good about the bad guys or bad about the good guys. In the center-left precincts of the country nothing is acceptable short of absolute opposition to Trump and in the center-right precincts of the country, nothing is acceptable short of absolute allegiance to Trump. And that’s not a productive dynamic,” Meacham said.
Later, he added: “Division’s not bad. It’s when it’s reflexive division, it’s when we don’t even think about what the other guy is saying and we just oppose it … you pick a team and then you go to war and you don’t say, ‘Alright, what’s a workable solution?’ That’s just not part of the political culture right now.”
Meacham, 48, won a Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for his biography of Andrew Jackson, the 19th century anti-establishment populist who is a hero of Trump’s. Meacham also wrote a 2015 biography of George H.W. Bush and grew close to the Bush family during the lengthy research and writing process. Meacham was one of the eulogists at Barbara Bush’s funeral in April.
“It was the honor of a lifetime. I hugely admired Mrs. Bush for who she was, what she did,” Meacham said.
“She asked me a couple years ago to do it and I said, ‘Ma’am, I think you’ll bury me.’ And she said, ‘Well, that’s the plan. But just in case, be ready,’” Meacham said.
“What I found quite moving about the service was it was in many ways a celebration of virtues that we have to keep in mind or we’re going to continue to feel dispirited about the future of the country,” Meacham said. “None of these people is perfect. They all had faults, they all had flaws. But they tried to do the best they could to serve a larger cause and that’s an abiding example that we should all keep before us.”
Meacham’s book is unsparing in noting the flaws of the presidents he celebrates. Lincoln personally opposed slavery, but wrote in 1862 that his “paramount objective in this struggle is to save the Union, and it is not either to save or to destroy slavery.” Progressive icon Theodore Roosevelt, Meacham writes, “shared the dream of Anglo-Saxon imperialism.” Franklin Roosevelt made a “concession to fear” by rounding up Japanese-Americans and putting them in concentration camps during World War II.
Meacham, aside from criticizing Trump’s “singular failure” after Charlottesville, described the president in an interview as “temperamental … prideful … a kind of constitutional tsunami washing ashore.”
But he said he hasn’t written off Trump.
“You have to hold out hope. I’m not wildly optimistic about him. But he’s an uncontrollable force. So if he decided to reach beyond his base, if he decided to do things that might get above 40, 45 percent support, then things might be just fine,” Meacham said.
“We saw that in that meeting about guns a month or two ago when he seemed open to some very reform-minded legislation and he dialed it back immediately. But that was a glimpse of what might have been and what still could be,” Meacham said. “It’s not impossible.”
Presidential historian Jon Meacham will appear at a Forum Club of the Palm Beaches lunch on Tuesday at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach. He will sign copies afterward of his book, which will be available for sale at the event. Doors open at 11:15 a.m. and the program begins at noon. Tickets are $40 for club members, $60 for guests (ordered by members) and $85 for the general public and can be purchased online at https://forumclubpalmbeach.org/tc-events/jon-meacham/.