Speaking at the ULI Spring Meeting in Nashville, bestselling author and Pulitzer Prize winner Jon Meacham said that as far back in America’s history as the Revolutionary War, Americans have been able to change their minds and switch sides on many issues. “America was founded on the idea that we could think our way through problems,” he said.
Meacham, who has written biographies of U.S. presidents Andrew Jackson and George H.W. Bush, quoted former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt in saying, “What is absolutely essential is that we have the capacity to face facts, however uncomfortable.”
But Meacham said the American experiment has always been at risk. “The whole enterprise is a roll of the dice,” he said. “No one has done what we’re doing.”
To think that it was always better in the past, said Meacham, does a disservice to the efforts of past Americans, from the civil rights leadership of John Lewis and Rosa Parks to the troops on the beaches of Normandy in 1944. He also said regarding the uncertainty facing the United States and the world today, “[America’s heroes of the past] didn’t know how anything was going to turn out.” He also noted that despite all of the nation’s problems, the current immigration debate assumes that many people still want to come to this country in search of a better life.
Meacham said that while the election of 2016 was a rejection of the system of the past 30-plus years, during which either a Bush or a Clinton ran for office in 80 percent of the last 10 presidential elections, the world does need a sense of proportion about what is occurring. “The world did not fall apart on election night in 2016,” he said.
In this presentation, Jon Meacham helps us understand the present moment in politics & life by looking back in our history when hope overcame division, when we transcended fear by heeding what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” #ULISpring https://t.co/hN6xt9LB8w pic.twitter.com/Bsfye9gCCh
— Urban Land Institute (@UrbanLandInst) April 19, 2019
Americans have been disenchanted in the not-so-distant past, he said. Just a hundred years ago, President Woodrow Wilson closed more than 400 newspapers and magazines that disapproved of him and his handling of World War I, and he re-segregated the federal government. In 1915, the Ku Klux Klan reemerged, said Meacham, in response partially to fears about increased immigration, and millions of Americans would eventually join, while American women were still unable to vote until 1920. And just a decade later, he said, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt would say at his inauguration, “The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself.”
Said Meacham, “Perfection is not the goal. It can’t be. The founders understood this. They said, ‘Our goal is a more perfect union.’ . . . We have not applied the American promise and made it real to everyone,” said Meacham, “But we’ve made it more real to more people than at any other time.”
Meacham said America needs three things in order to prosper: curiosity, humility, and empathy. Curiosity requires citizens to be open to the other side of the argument rather than close off debate before anything has been said. Humility includes being able to admit you were wrong, as President John F. Kennedy did after the flawed Bay of Pigs invasion, which would help prepare him to better handle the 13-day Cuban Missile Crisis. And empathy is necessary to consider and aid other people. Meacham said that as the Soviet Union was unraveling, President George H.W. Bush knew that making Mikhail Gorbachev look weak could backfire because it might empower the opposition within Gorbachev’s government.
“We’ve always grown stronger the more widely we’ve opened our arms, the more generously we’ve interpreted what Thomas Jefferson meant when he said, ‘All men are created equal.’”
Meacham’s latest book, The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels, was published in 2018, and he is working on a book with country music singer Tim McGraw on music and America’s history.