The Soul of America: how can the past teach us about a fractured present?

How did a Pulitzer prize-winning historian, who may sometimes be giving lectures, signing books or roaming dusty archives, discover himself making a speech at the Democratic nationwide conference to hundreds of thousands of viewers?

“I think this is an all-hands-on-deck moment if you believe in the efficacy of an American experiment that, for all of its failings, is worth defending,” Jon Meacham, biographer of Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson and George HW Bush, explains by telephone.

Meacham’s 2018 bestseller, The Soul of America, was presciently titled, since Biden and others have framed this yr’s election as a battle for America’s soul. The guide has now spawned an HBO documentary of the similar identify.

The movie finds Meacham journeying from observer and chronicler to one thing of a protagonist “in the arena”, as Teddy Roosevelt put it. Director KD Davison says: “We had been with him on the highway for about a yr and I used to be watching this transition happen.

“Jon has a deep sense of morality. He’s deeply spiritual and I think that where we are now is just so spiritually unnerving for people who are deeply kind. Reason is incredibly important to him but then also goodness and kindness and compassion and love. For people who are deeply compassionate, this presidency has been a difficult thing to watch. It makes perfect sense to me that’s the way he would go.”

Such is the galvanising impact of Donald Trump. Bob Woodward, one other presidential biographer, broke his personal protocol by declaring Trump unfit for workplace at the finish of his newest guide. Pete Souza, White House photographer underneath Barack Obama, forged off his anonymity to turn into a trenchant critic of the forty fifth president (the topic of one other high-quality documentary, The Way I See It). Scientific American made the first presidential endorsement in the journal’s 175-year historical past.

Does Meacham sense himself crossing the flooring from political historian to political activist? “Not in any permanent way,” he says. “I think this is an existential election. Biden asked me to speak at the Democratic convention. I agreed as long as there weren’t any restrictions and there weren’t.”

The 51-year-old, born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, provides candidly: “I don’t know where I would have been on the issues of the civil rights movement if I’d been born 20 or 30 years before. I like to think I would have been on the right side but I don’t know. But I do know what the stakes of this are and I know what side I’m on and I want to be clear about it.”

The Soul of America gently traces Meacham’s life and profession and devotion to the precept that the past isn’t lifeless, it’s not even past. Growing up, he recollects, he might nonetheless discover bullets left over from the civil warfare. When he was 10 he was already campaigning for Ronald Reagan.

“I was a strange child,” he jokes. “It was a tactile thing for me. I can’t really explain the Reagan thing except that he captured my imagination and made the public square interesting. He was sort of my gateway drug. So blame him.”

Like the guide on which it’s primarily based, the movie is designed to calm, console and cajole to motion, making the case that America has been by means of darkish instances earlier than and emerged on the different facet. It runs by means of the girls’s suffrage motion, the incarceration of Japanese Americans throughout the second world warfare and the McCarthyite communist witch-hunts.

Meacham says: “Trump is the fullest manifestation of the darkest forces in the history of the republic and, if we go back to a phrase from the 18th century, eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. No single election is going to make all these forces go away but the task of civic life is, can you make the darker forces ebb as opposed to flow, and that’s what’s on the ballot.”

The documentary factors to a different instance, the battle to cross civil rights laws in the Nineteen Sixties, and in a single section Meacham is heard quoting Mark Twain’s “History doesn’t repeat itself but it does rhyme”. Many heard a rhyme on this summer time’s Black Lives Matter protests after the police killing of George Floyd and, noting their scale and variety, instructed that this time change will probably be extra lasting and profound.

Meacham just isn’t so certain. “Inherent in protest and reform, there are advances and there’s retreat, there’s progress after which response. I feel it’s too early to inform. We’re in a important second each in phrases of structural racism, structural partisanship and in addition what’s the long-term influence economically and culturally of the virus.

“To quote Churchill, this is not the beginning of the end, it’s probably the end of the beginning. Because how many of these jobs don’t come back? What does that do to the economic distribution? I think it’s wide open. We are poised, I hope, for significant advances in combating structural racism but that requires eternal vigilance and energy.”

Dozens of statues of Confederate troopers who fought to protect slavery had been eliminated or torn down throughout the racial justice rebellion. But statues of Washington, Jackson and even Abraham Lincoln had been assailed too. Where to attract the line?

Jon Meacham in The Soul of America. Photograph: HBO

“The first query is, was this particular person dedicated to the constitutional experiment and a journey towards a more perfect union? If they had been for ending the constitutional order then get off public land, take it down. So as soon as that’s clarified, then make an evaluation of, on stability, is that this particular person worthy of commemoration?

“If memorials are only for perfect people, we will have none. I don’t mean to sound overly Anglican about it but I really do think this is one where it’s case by case and requires a sense of history and the totality of a given person’s contributions.”

To take one instance, Jefferson wrote that “all men are created equal” however enslaved greater than 600 individuals and fathered at the very least six youngsters with Sally Hemings, an enslaved girl. His memorial nonetheless stands tall in Washington, separated by water from a more moderen tribute to the civil rights chief Martin Luther King.

Meacham displays: “There’s nothing more American than the fact that Martin Luther King now stares in perpetuity across the Tidal Basin at Thomas Jefferson. So, yes, there should be a Frederick Douglass memorial, one of the most important Americans who ever lived. Yes, there should be Harriet Tubman. I would err on the side of additive rather than subtractive.”

On statues and contested historical past, as on a lot else, Trump has been each clarifying and polarising. By each out there metric, Meacham says, the nation is extra structurally divided now than it was a technology in the past when Ronald Reagan gained re-election by carrying 49 out of 50 states. The ballot on 3 November is not going to produce something like that. Nor will it repair every thing in a single day.

“People who think that the kingdom of heaven is going to come if the election goes one way or the other are just wrong,” the historian continues. “What we don’t know yet is whether Donald Trump was the last gasp of an angry white sense of grievance or whether there are gonna be more gasps.”

In historical past, Meacham seems to have discovered a language that takes the sting out of today’s tribal politics, echo chambers and alternate realities. He is that deeply retro factor in hyperpartisan instances: a middle-of-the-road average who can see either side of an argument.

Jon Meacham speaks during the Democratic National Convention

Jon Meacham speaks throughout the Democratic nationwide conference. Photograph: AP

Davison, the director, who grew up in Texas, says: “What is so crazy to me about Jon is that he can speak to a packed room of super-progressive lefty liberals in Boston and then go down to a packed room of super-conservative rightwing folks in Alabama and have the same response. He knows where he is. He knows how to speak to people and he knows how to find a common language. It’s this really fascinating thing to watch.”

Asked how he cracked the code, Meacham responds: “Well, I say the same thing to everybody so that helps. I talk about all this stuff in a historical frame, not in a partisan one. That’s not to say it’s not inherently political but you don’t need me to tell you about the president’s latest tweet. There are plenty of people who can do that. If you have taken pains to lend an ear to what I might have to say, then I feel a certain obligation to add value to the cacophonous unfolding conversation in our country.”

It just isn’t laborious to know why Biden tapped Meacham to talk at the conference in August. Both preach civility, bridge-building and dealing throughout the aisle, risking scorn from the hardliners on either side. The pair communicate often, Meacham says. “He’s a good, good man. He’s running a sound campaign in a cataclysmic time and I think that, in so far as dignity and decency are on the ballot, if Americans want dignity and decency, they have a terrific candidate to choose.”

Would Meacham settle for some sort of function from a President Biden if it had been supplied? The reply just isn’t seemingly, however he finds a characteristically elegant strategy to say it: “I love my country and I will do whatever service I can do to it, but I seriously doubt that my being officially involved in anything would be good for the journey toward a more perfect union.”

The Soul of America debuts on HBO on 27 October with a UK date to be introduced

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