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Jon Meacham: Healing the soul of our nation

Patrick Boyle , Staff Writer
November 12, 2019

These are not the worst of times, the presidential historian told listeners at Learn Serve Lead 2019: The AAMC Annual Meeting. A look back offers a dose of realism — and lessons for moving forward.

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Presidential historian Jon Meacham speaks at Learn Serve Lead 2019
Presidential historian Jon Meacham speaks to the audience at Learn Serve Lead 2019: The AAMC Annual Meeting on Monday, November 11, 2019.
Richard Greenhouse

At a time when America is torn by seemingly unprecedented political and social divisiveness and anger, presidential historian Jon Meacham took the stage at Learn Serve Lead to deliver a message of hope: Our country has been through such struggles before and can again emerge stronger than before.

“My message to you is think about the past as you negotiate the future – not because the past is a GPS, but it is a diagnostic guide,” Meacham told attendees gathered at Learn Serve Lead 2019: The AAMC Annual Meeting, on November 11 in Phoenix, Ariz.

In remarks that amplified the themes of his 2018 book, The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels, Meacham observed that protests, divisive politics, and political acrimony have been near constant in the United States, and that the Constitution was built to mitigate their potentially destructive impact. Exploring several eras of passionate and even violent divisions, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author extrapolated lessons to guide America through today’s challenges.

Just 101 years ago, he noted, the end of World War I left America at peace yet frightened, feeling surrounded by foreign forces threatening a cultural and political takeover. That, Meacham said, spurred “a nativist reaction” that flourished for years: The federal government employed sedition laws to close newspapers and magazines that published material deemed offensive to the government; the Ku Klux Klan formed and thrived (with five governors among its millions of members); and isolationism spurred strict limits on immigration, with the governor of Georgia declaring, “We needed to build a wall of steel as high as heaven to keep immigrants out.”

“We didn’t respond … well” to the fear of outsiders, Meacham said.

By the 1930s, he said, those fears stirred a significant push among leaders and citizens for the U.S. to turn toward a European-style strong-man dictatorship. But when President Franklin Roosevelt, a proponent of executive branch power, tried to stack the U.S. Supreme Court with appointees of his choosing, Congress pushed back and the balance of power was restored. Roosevelt, Meacham said, learned to reach out to his political opponents and helped to build, by 1945, the most powerful nation in history.   

Just 51 years ago, Meacham noted, passionate divisions among Americans also seemed to threaten the nation’s survival. Internecine clashes over the Vietnam War and civil rights ignited not only protests and the effective ousting of President Lyndon Johnson, but violence: the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, and brawls between protestors and police at the Democratic National Convention. The year ended with a presidential election in which the victor, Richard Nixon, won just 41 percent of the popular vote, and an avowed segregationist, Gov. George Wallace of Alabama, won 13.5 percent and carried five states.

Among the lessons Meacham drew is that many of these clashes periodically repeat because they involve core values, visions, and fears. “These are perennial forces that we have to combat,” he said. “The forces that are shaping us today –  xenophobia, racism, extremism, isolationism, nativism -- they ebb, and they flow.

“Right now they are flowing,” Meacham told meeting attendees. “The best we can do is try to get them to ebb.”

Doing so, he said, requires individuals and the nation as a whole to develop three characteristics: Curiosity, he said, forces us to seek information and points of view, which allows us to adjust our opinions. “Don’t let any cable single network or Twitter feed tell you what to think,” he said. “That’s not being true to the American Revolution.”

Humility, he said, allows us to admit a mistake and learn from it. He cited President Kennedy learning from the Bay of Pigs disaster that he had to change how he convened and listened to advisers – a change that enabled him to safely steer the world through the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Empathy, he said, enables us to consider how our actions might be viewed through the eyes of our opponents. He cited President George H.W. Bush declining suggestions from aides, after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, to give a speech declaring America’s victory over Communism, recognizing that such gloating would exacerbate domestic political pressure on Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

“Bush gave Gorbachev room to breathe,” Meacham said, "because that’s the way he would have wanted to be treated if he had been in Gorbachev’s shoes.”

Several times Meacham underscored his points with homage to Veteran’s Day, on which he was speaking. Citing the sacrifices of American soldiers in war, he implored his audience to practice curiosity, humility, and empathy rather than march blindly behind leaders who cast as enemies all who hold different views.   

“That's not why people we honor today ... fought," he said. "They didn’t fight so we could reflexively follow just one leader or another. They fought so we could get a more perfect union for all of us.”

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