Shortly after the election results were announced in key Pennsylvania state, Joe Biden delivered a victory speech announcing the need to “restore the soul of America.”
“Our nation is shaped by the constant battle between our best angels and our darkest urges,” the president-elect said, barking hoarse in a Delaware parking lot. “It’s time for our best angels to win.”
The voice was Biden’s, part of the wording was Abraham Lincoln’s, but the thesis definitely came from Jon Meacham. “I sometimes advise the president-elect on historical issues and some major speeches,” as Meacham puts it elliptically, while smoking a cigar in the morning at his Nashville home.
Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Meacham has spent much of the Trump presidency arguing that the threat to democracy should be put in its historical context. His book, America’s soul, reminded Americans that – for example – 50,000 members of the Ku Klux Klansmen crossed Washington in 1925 to make the country great again, and that Franklin Roosevelt interned Japanese-Americans for several years.
Each time, the republic was finally saved from its worst instincts, but never definitively. America’s soul is now an HBO documentary, which viewers can safely watch knowing the light has conquered the dark again – for now at least.
“My argument for years has been that there is a false impression that if only we could go back to X, things would be better. So I always say, where do you wanna go back? Name that year. And I can probably safely say that if you were a woman, a black person, a low-wage worker, you probably wouldn’t go back.
The documentary is a study as a public intellectual. He follows Meacham as he addresses American audiences, young and old, and tells them the good and bad of their story. “Americans are not very good at looking back. It gives me a way to make a living, so I totally agree. We’re more like Huck Finn, we always light up the territories.
For Meacham, “twin urges worth avoiding are longing for an age that did not exist and a kind of narcissism for the present, which suggests that our problems – like [historian] Arthur Schlesinger once said – are particularly oppressive. “
This message clearly appealed to Biden, a president promising both normalcy and progress. For others, it can be baffling to accept that America will remain a “swing” between light and dark – that the Trump era was not an aberration. So much for America, the world beacon of liberal progress.
Meacham, former editor of Newsweek magazine, avoids talking about American exceptionalism. “I would resist the comparative and the superlative, because it creates unnecessary debate. We don’t need to be better than the motherland. For him, the electoral victory affirmed that America is a “country with 51%”: “In this particular case, the 51% have it right – and that does not always happen.
“The big question for us now is how temporary is this victory? ” he says. “Was Trump the last nationalist populist position? . . where is he a die latest? I think it would be reckless to say, OK, it’s all settled now, the same way it would have been reckless to say, in 2008 race is no longer an issue in America, we have a black president.
Much of the left struck off the Biden administration before it started. The challenges are vast – including coronavirus, climate, and race (the median white family’s net worth is 10 times that of the median black family, a ratio that has increased since the turn of the millennium). And despite Biden’s victory, the Senate will likely favor Republicans, the Supreme Court certainly does, and the entire American electoral system is skewed. The constitution looks less and less like a work of genius.
Meacham prefers hope to despair. The framers “made it difficult for any action, because they thought that most of what we would do would be wrong. . . If you are for radical change in the United States, it requires working within the constraints of a system designed to make any change, good or bad, slow and arduous. It seems to me that you get victories where you can get them, and you keep moving forward.
His previous book was a biography of civil rights hero John Lewis. “John Lewis used to say, at the very end of his life, if you don’t think America can change, come and walk for me.
“For me, history is not a GPS, it is a diagnostic guide. There are certain symptoms that keep coming back, ”adds Meacham. “My point of view is that it is good to think historically but to act rationally. “
It’s easy to dismiss Meacham as an establishment myth maker. But he is quick to recognize his privilege. “I am a white, heterosexual, Episcopalian man from the south. Things tend to work out for me in this country, ”he laughs, adding later:“ I believe that to whom you give a lot, you expect a lot. “
His faith in America’s redemption reflects a deep religious anchor. “We are commanded to love our neighbor as ourselves. This is an incredibly radical commandment, for who wants to love his neighbor as himself? I mean, I wish you luck, but do I love you as much as I love myself? No, sorry, no. This allows him to see America’s sporadic record of success as a triumph.
The divisions of the country go back to “the first chapter of Genesis,” he said at one point in our conversation. At another time, he aspires to be in Jerusalem in AD 33. “Was the city in a riot, does that explain the crucifixion? “
Born in 1969, Meacham campaigned for Ronald Reagan at the age of 10, but by his early twenties, after working as a journalist, he decided that neither party had “a monopoly on” one or the other virtue of wisdom ”.
He first met Biden shortly before running for the Democratic nomination in 2008; the senator at the time wanted to talk about American gospel, Meacham’s book on the link between the faith of the Founding Fathers.
How has Biden changed over the years? “Biden is remarkably consistent in his base character. The three most empathetic people I have known in American politics are Joe Biden, George Herbert Walker Bush, and John Lewis. When you were with one of them, you felt like they really cared about how the world looked through your eyes, and that’s a great political gift.
He compares the president-elect to senior Bush, Bob Dole and John McCain – all men who have lived through personal tragedy. “Instead of giving up, it created a sense of proportion for the four of them in the face of political ups and downs. When you have lost a child, losing an election takes its due course in your mind.
Biden is “a man of coins.” What does it mean? “It’s wide. He’s not just concerned – or not at all concerned, for that matter – with what Twitter is saying this hour. When you lost a woman, you lost a child, you lost another child, you had brain aneurysms, when you thought many times that your political career was over, and yet now you find yourself on the verge to become the most powerful person in the world, it just gives you a bigger perspective.
Meacham’s thoughts will likely be in Biden’s inaugural speech in January. This is, in some ways, remarkable. Under Meacham’s tenure, Newsweek failed to adapt to the online world; her manners can often seem older than her 51 years old. A recent New York Times article softly criticized Biden and Meacham as old-fashioned figures who have not accepted the world of the Internet and the polarization it has produced.
But Meacham pushes back. He insists that his worldview “emphasizes the nature of change”. John Lewis was “a man who was ready to die to change the country – not to talk about it, not to tweet about it, not to talk about it by cable, but to step into armed, totalitarian, and sanctioned white supremacist violence. the state. It’s out of fashion ? It doesn’t seem old-fashioned to me.
‘The Soul of America’ airs on Sky Documentaries and Now TV on December 17th in the UK and is on HBO in the US