WPSU-header-triangles.png
Public Media for Central Pennsylvania
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Take Note: Jon Meacham on how history informs present day politics, including the war in Ukraine

Jon Meacham
Heidi Ross/Penguin Random House
/
Jon Meacham

Today we're going to hear about how history informs present day politics, including the war in Ukraine. The guest will be Jon Meacham, author of multiple New York Times bestsellers, Pulitzer Prize winner, distinguished visiting professor at Vanderbilt University and co-chair of Vanderbilt's Project on Unity and American democracy, contributing writer for the New York Times Book Review and a fellow of the Society of American Historians. Today's interview is from the Democracy Works podcast, a collaboration between WPSU and the McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State. The Institute's Jenna Spinelle interviewed Meacham.

Here's the conversation:

Jenna Spinelle 
Jon Meacham, welcome to Democracy Works. Thanks for joining us.

Jon Meacham 
We're gonna test whether the title is actually true.

Jenna Spinelle 
(Laughter) Yeah, indeed, indeed. So, you know your visit to Penn State, and in some ways this conversation, is about two years in the making. You were scheduled to come originally in 2020. And, you know, we've been through a lot in those intervening two years. A pandemic, an insurrection, more, you know, the sort of most poignant conversations about race we've had, maybe since the Civil Rights era. I could go on, but these are, you know, a lot of not unlike the moments of struggle and division that you write about in your book, "The Soul of America," where, you know, we've had to choose as Americans hope or fear. Better angels or worst impulses. So I'm wondering, I guess, as you look back on this, you know, these recent events in this recent history, how have we done at you know channeling some of those impulses?

Jon Meacham 
I think we're doing better. Certainly, we're having a more...this is a more congenial conversation than it would have been in March or April of 2020. For all the obvious reasons. At that point, we were just beginning the once in a century pandemic, as you say, we were headed into a ferocious period about racial justice. And we had a president of the United States who would, within the year attempt to thwart the will of the people. The point of democracy seems to me is not to arrive, but to struggle, and try to make tomorrow just a little bit better than today. And it'd be great if it were a lot better. But I'm a hopeless and hapless, Episcopalian, believe we're all fall and frail and fallible. And a democracy is the fullest expression of all of us. And so the country is only as good as we are. And when people talk about character and conscience, and it's really about us. It's about the daily and seasonal decisions that we make that become perennial ones. I am much happier today that the incumbent president is the incumbent president. I think that we have the capacity to amend and reform to return to our imperfect country. As opposed to the country that we were living in, I think, from 2017 through the sixth of January 2021, in which nobody even wanted to try to be more perfect.

Jenna Spinelle 
So you know, we're also watching the conflict in Ukraine play out and you and many others have characterized it as a conflict between democracy and an autocracy. And the, you know, kind of Western order versus threats of authoritarianism and things like that. And I think that that's, yeah, I don't think anybody listening to the show would disagree with that. I guess I'm wondering what a win for democracy looks like and how do you frame it in a way that, you know, resonates when people here and perhaps other places don't necessarily agree on what democracy is, or even if they think it's important or something sort of worth fighting for?

Jon Meacham 
A couple of things. The struggle that President Biden is leading here is entirely consistent with the one that President Truman undertook from really the fall of 1945 forward. If you look at the creation of NATO itself, for instance, it is entirely framed in the rhetoric that we're hearing now from the President. If you look at Harry Truman's inaugural address in 1949. If you look at his remarks, when the various treaties were signed at different steps, it is about democracy versus communism, liberty versus slavery. And so the struggle is ancient. What is unique about this, this is the first time, as we sit here in the late winter of 2022, where two nuclear powers of this scope and scale have been this close to each other. Now I accept, the except "e-x", the missile crisis because that was at least a contained moment.

Jenna Spinelle 
Yeah, I want to come back to that, actually.

Jon Meacham 
But in Korea and Vietnam elsewhere, we were all...each of us had a side. But it wasn't direct. This is different. And so the stakes are terrifying. You ask about how do you define democracy? I think it's a basic understanding that we were all born with an innate capacity and right to pursue our own path in life under the rule of law. And then the rule of law is established not by the Fiat of the strong, but by some kind of collective action, however, manifested, however, expressed within the protocols of politics. And so a victory for democracy would be Vladimir Putin not controlling Ukraine, pretty straightforward. And there are children and women and men who are dying and suffering at this hour because of the most elemental kind of conflict that is unfolding in an advanced century where we have the capacity to destroy ourselves many times over.

Jenna Spinelle 
Right, and on that point, I was listening back to your episode of "Hope Through History" about the Cuban Missile Crisis and Kennedy and Khrushchev. And, you know, one of the points you made there was that you know, Kennedy was really a student of history and figuring out how he was going to approach a situation. You know, I'm wondering if the Biden White House is doing the same thing. If they're also looking to perhaps some of the same history? Or if perhaps, what Kennedy did in '62, is now a part of that cannon of how we...how to move forward here?

Jon Meacham 
It's a great question. I've not talked to anybody specifically about the '62 analogy. But the basic vernacular in which we're speaking, is fully and deeply, excuse me, appreciated at the White House. Remember, Biden has lived a big chunk of this. All right. I mean, he's almost 80 years old. He was born during World War II. And so...and he spent a lot of time looking at particularly how both the Cold War world and the post-Cold War world can operate. And so I think not unlike George Herbert Walker Bush, I think that what we've seen in the diplomatic response is an appreciation of the value of diplomacy and understanding of complexity. While remaining in a principled position. One of the things as you know about history and politics is you never get credit for keeping bad things from happening. And that's the price you pay. Right? That's when you go into office, you got to accept them.

Jenna Spinelle 
So the other kind of historical comparison we've seen a lot recently is comparing Zelensky in Ukraine to Winston Churchill. I'm wondering, well, I guess one where that comes from? It's an easy like hot take to put out on Twitter, right. But you know, where does that come from? And do you agree?

Jon Meacham 
I think the Churchill of May 1940 is a vital figure to understand not only because of his defiance, and his insistence that as he put it, according to Hugh Dalton, in the war cabinet, "If this Long Island story of ours is ended last, let it end when we are choking up upon our blood upon the ground." It's all great stuff, right? It's Gary Oldham in the movie, we shall fight on the beaches, we should fight on the landing grounds, growing strength and growing confidence in the air we shall never surrender... But the last part of that speech, which nobody quotes is, "Even if this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our empire beyond the seas armed and guarded by the British fleet would carry on the struggle until in God's good time, the new world and all its power and might will step forward to the rescue and liberation of the old." It ends with a diplomatic appeal to Franklin Roosevelt and to the United States. And so the Churchill example is implacability but understanding that you have to have the people with you to be implacable. And then you have to be practical, certainly the first part of that President Zelensky has done an amazing job. And my sense as events unfold is that he seems to be doing the other as well. The Churchill example also is a great one in human nature, because Churchill got almost everything in life wrong, except Adolf Hitler. And if you're going to get one thing right opposing Adolf Hitler's the one to get right. And so he was 65 when he became prime minister in May of 1940. We can never know too much about that period. And I don't know if Zelensky studied it. I don't know if it's intuitive to him. He certainly echoed the rhetoric of it. The speech to the Congress was quite brilliant in that it linked terror from the air coming in the two tragic moments. It happened in the United States. Either Zelensky knows a lot of American and British history, or he's got somebody near him who does. And it doesn't really matter. Because here's a guy who has put on a master performance in rallying your people in the face of aggression.

Jenna Spinelle 
Yes, many, many books to be written about him and this situation in future generations, I’m sure. I also don't blame listeners if they want to hit pause and look up implacable. (Laughter)

Jon Meacham 
(Laughter)

Jenna Spinelle 
And you've also talked about this idea of unity, not unanimity. I wonder if you could unpack that a little bit?

Jon Meacham 
Look, unity to me is not that we're all going to be at the Brookings Institution and agree on you know, means testing, social security, or whatever the compromise of the moment is. It's basically a common assent a-s-s-e-n-t, to the rule of law. My view is you can't love your country only when you win. As long as we accept the protocols of politics, if we accept the rules of the road, if we accept, pick your analogy, then we can argue. At its best, this country's at 60/40. That's massive unity, right? 40% of the country never voted for Franklin Roosevelt in the three great landslide elections from the second world war until now. 40% still voted the other way 1964, 1972, and 1984. So what we're really looking at, I think, is 60/40 is the goal or historical measure. Right now we're at 50.5 to 49.5. Right? So how can we at least get to maybe 53/47, and at 53/47, which is what say George HW Bush got in '88 or so, we would sit around thinking the country has come together. I think this is an eminently doable, because we're not talking about that many people. And I don't care if you disagree totally with me on everything. In fact, most people do, I would imagine. But you got to say the election was fair, right? That's the threshold, if you're going to participate in what is functionally an unfolding plot to undermine governance, then that's not unity. If we're all in it, and we fight, but we accept the rules, that's a whole different thing. That's what we're supposed to do

Jenna Spinelle 
Getting to that 53/47 or you know, somewhere closer to that 60/40. How much of getting there is top down and how much of it is bottom up?

Jon Meacham 
Great question. That's the central question of politics in history, right? At what point is the elected leadership and the people, at what point are they makers are mirrors? Whether the issue is slavery or emancipation in the 1860s? Or the social safety net in the 1930s? Whatever the question is, it's, it is a mix. It's very unusual for there to have been an American president standing on Olympus deciding something. That's just...it just doesn't work that way. That American president can stand on Olympus and do something brave. But I bet that's because 45% of the country was with them, not 51. I think it's both. I think that the country has, broadly put, the country has to decide, a significant portion of the country has to decide what they want, and then entrust that power and mission, which is what we're supposed to do. And I think it happened in 2020. I don't believe polls much anymore, but for all kinds of technical reasons. I don't believe that 60% of Republicans think the election was stolen. I think 60% of people in that poll may have told someone that to kind of own the libs or whatever. But I think that what you saw in 2020, was a decision by enough people to say, we do not want to repeat the experience of the last four years. And I'm a firm believer in the following point, which is that presidential elections are not referenda. They're choices. Very few people think...it's not as though we went to the country and said, "Do you want Donald Trump to be president?" And they voted on that. That's not the way it went. It was do you want Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump? Do you want Joe Biden or Donald Trump? And that's what elections are, they're not ratifications. And so any question about presidential politics has to be answered in context. If you're just joining us, you're listening to Take Note on WPSU. I'm Emily Reddy. Today's guest is Pulitzer Prize winning writer and historian Jon Meacham. Today's interview is from the Democracy Works podcast, a collaboration between WPSU and the McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State. Interviewer Jenna Spinelle talked to Meacham about how America's political history ties into the present day.

Jenna Spinelle 
So the other thing, the other sort of factor that amplifies this of course is the state of our media environment. But I think about any time President Biden or other politicians say something it goes through the looking glass on, you know, right wing media. And so I guess I, I wonder if that's something that you think about in the work you've done with President Biden about how it's going to be perceived in that world? Or that just gets you so far down the rabbit hole, you can drive yourself crazy, I would think trying to game out all those scenarios?

Jon Meacham 
Well, let me answer in general, I don't want to be specific about anything about President Biden. In general, it is a perennial truth. As you know, newspapers were partisan in the 18th and 19th centuries. They were, I'm pretty sure I can't prove this was data, but I'm willing to bet the mortgage payment, that there were not a lot of planters in South Carolina, poring over The Liberator. And there weren't a lot of people who were reading The Liberator who were reading The Charleston Mercury. And if they were, they were just reading it to get mad in both cases. So the existence of a partisan media, it creates a machinery of perpetual conflict. And it doesn't really matter what the quality of the fuel is, the machine has to work. Any comment, anything, because they have to publish or broadcast or tweet or whatever it is. nobody at any cable network gets up at 5am and scans the wires and says, "oh, there's nothing to fight about today, we're just gonna go dark." So you have an infrastructure that values conflict, no matter what. And if the conflict may not need to happen, The Daily Show was brilliant at this. My favorite is Obama wore a tan suit once, right, and there were many things going on that day, so the tan suit was the thing. It is different in that the written culture however sulphureous, operated on a different part of the brain than people looking at something coming in on their phone. I think one of the reasons the divisions persist at the same level is COVID. An event that should have produced a sense of common purpose, forced people inside and onto their screens. And when they're on their screens, they just get mad. And there are people who have an economic political motive to make them mad. The only good news about this, is that it is a van...it is a smaller proportion of the people. We just happen to know all of them and are part of it, right. But I think I'm right 75% of the country's not on Twitter, right? And if you take the cable news audience at its biggest, you're talking about 10% of the country, maybe, right? Every congressman, every senator, every political operative is in that universe. So it has an outsize effect.

Jenna Spinelle 
I've been thinking a lot about the podcast, you did "Fate of Fact".

Jon Meacham 
Yeah.

Jenna Spinelle 
And that to me...so I have been on panels and even sat in this very studio and said things like, "you know, podcasts are our way out of this political media problem in some way, because they allow for more nuanced discussion." And you know, all those things. And the longer time has gone on, I'm starting to think that maybe that's not true. Maybe that was like a delusion of grandeur. (Laugh) Because it's also such a...like all of our other media today, its self-selecting. So how are people...are people going to seek out content that they know that they might deliberately that they might not readily agree with? And it strikes me that your show "Fate of Fact" tried to maybe do some of that. Tried to and tell me if that's wrong, but you were maybe trying to reach people who might need to hear a message they might not otherwise?

Jon Meacham 
I think that for what it's worth, I think that if you just tell people, they're wrong, it makes you feel good. And your people feel good, but doesn't do any good, right. And so one of the things that when I'm lucky enough to be asked to do commencement speeches, one of the things I say, and the grandparents and parents love it, the kids are hung over a course, So they don't they're not paying any attention. I'm mainly talking about Twitter. Just because you have the means to express an opinion quickly does not mean you have an opinion worth expressing quickly. And what I try to do every day is judge before I say something and try to figure out, "Is this going to add to the sum of human knowledge or not?" And most of the time it's not. And so I'm sometimes, I'm good about not doing it, and sometimes I know it, but I do it anyway. I think it is hard for people to, as you say explicitly seek out something that they think might change their mind. It is the reason I do what I do. I believe that history has the capacity to appeal both to the broadly put liberal love of experience and data and the conservative appreciation of tradition. And that may not be dispositive, but at least it opens the aperture just enough that you might get something done. I disagree with those who say the Trumpification of the Republican Party was the inevitable result of Nixon, Reagan, Bush, etc. I don't think that's true. I think it's the opposite. I think that Nixon, Reagan, Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan, Bush actually didn't deliver for those folks. And so they said, "All right, if you're not going to deliver, we're going to send a professional wrestler." And so I think that It's interesting, I don't know if it's actionable in some way. But you do have the ability to curate and create conversations and content that are a little bit like preaching a sermon. You never know who's going to listen.

Jenna Spinelle 
I do wonder how you think about audience when you're writing a book versus making a podcast and has it changed? You know, over time?

Jon Meacham 
I try to create, this an old David McCullough point, I try to create the kind of stuff that I like, and that I would like to read or hear. And I'm not a partisan, I'm not a political operative, I would like to speak to the moment because I think there is a moral utility to history, by which I mean that if you have an understanding of the past, it can be elevating in that you realize that they were not perfect people walking around doing great things. And I find that very liberating, flawed people doing good things. Obviously, it's a polarized climate. I don't know. I don't want to ever purposely talk down to people. And I believe that, for instance, when I am lucky enough to be asked to speak on things, I can go an hour and not mention the 45th President's name. And I find, I don't know if you find this in your work, two things. There's a greater power in admitting that you're listening to a sermon from a sinner and not a saint. And secondly, trust the audience, whether it's a classroom or civilians, to get the argument by implication. So if I described Joe McCarthy, I don't need to push really hard about why that matters. We're about what that means. And George Wallace, you know. And I think that...I think the audience then feels is more open to the argument because they feel they've made the connection.

Jenna Spinelle 
The elephant in the room is only the elephant in the room if you make it that.

Jon Meacham 
Yeah, yeah, exactly.

Jenna Spinelle 
We talked earlier about people in democracies obviously have choices and the "Soul of America" talking about a list of actions or more kind of concrete things people can and should do. I wonder if you could talk about some of those things?

Jon Meacham 
Well, democracies don't work without citizenship. And one of the things we have learned in the last five years is that citizenship is not a passive, but an active state. My argument is that citizenship is best practiced, if you're in the arena, as painful and awful and unpleasant as that can often be. If you understand that facts can't be changed. One's reaction to them can be, but facts can't. You actually have to engage with people who disagree with you. Eleanor Roosevelt once advised people to go to the other parties meeting every once in a while, she's the only person I can think of who would ever actually do that. Having a sense of history, arms you for both mental health, as you engage in all this and might give you a sense of what's possible. You know, I have a broader sense of what leadership means than, you know, sort of FDR in the wheelchair, lighting a cigarette. It's all of us making, sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously, decisions about how we want the world around us to look. And I believe fervently that when the people of given eras in the United States have decided to advance the meaning and application of what Jefferson wrote in the Declaration, as opposed to keeping it in one place or pulling it back. It's pretty straightforward. You know, do you want to be Joe McCarthy? Or do you want to be Margaret Chase Smith? Do you want to be Jefferson Davis? Or do you want to be Abraham Lincoln? It's there. And maybe it's overly simple, but I don't really think so.

Jenna Spinelle 
Yeah, I think this...to wind us all the way back to the notion of, you know, democracy is the struggle to make tomorrow better than today. I thought about your work on John Lewis. This is something he really embodied in his work. I wonder if you could talk more about that and where that notion came from for him?

Jon Meacham 
Well, John Lewis was on that bridge in Selma and was on the buses for the Freedom Rides and got arrested. I think 41 times in his career because A) of the Gospel, the New Testament gospel, "to love your neighbor as yourself", and B) an innate revulsion against segregation, against the idea that human beings should be treated differently based on how they look. Which was a violation in his view of failure to carry through on the fundamental promise of creation, which was both theological and more secular in the declaration. And Congressman Lewis is a marvelous example of this. He's a saint, and we're not. In my view though, the reason to talk about saints is not to make them unapproachable and their work seem like something as if or something we could not do, but just put them on a pedestal so more people can see them. My other thought about this is Theodore Parker's great line from the middle of the 19th century is that which is this is how Dr. King paraphrased it, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." But it's not going to bend unless there are people insisting that it's swerve. And John Lewis insisted that it swerve. And not all of us can be John Lewis. But we can say "x" is what I want the country to look like, I want more people to feel they have a shot. So take a step back. How do you do that? What's so funny about this era, of course, is that this is all like describing the wallpaper, right? This is what we're supposed to do. And because of the designs of a particularly autocratic element within American politics, we are forced back to these first principles and first things to talk about and defend.

Jenna Spinelle 
There is, I think, a thread of hope that runs through your work. Are you a hopeful person by nature?

Jon Meacham 
No. (laughter) I'm not. I say that to be cute. Sure, if you're me, sort of how could you not be right? I'm a boringly heterosexual, white, Southern male Episcopalian. You know, things work out for me in this country. I was born in this remarkable place. I've been given these remarkable opportunities. And so it seems to me intuitively, that one should make sure that promise that created the world that I have benefited from, that that promise is extended to all. I'm also hopeful because 55 years ago, we lived under functional apartheid in this country. 100 years ago, you couldn't vote. You know, 56 years ago, we were still living under an immigration system that have been passed in 1924, which is the excuse the federal government used not to allow in more refugees from Nazi Germany. There would be people alive today, if our immigration laws had been changed. I know we're in the middle of this great debate about 1619 or 1776, or 1865. I'm a big believer that really we were founded in 1965. This country is 57 years old as we know it. 1968 was the first integrated electorate. 1968, day before yesterday to me, and I knew a man and was honored to write a book about him who in that year, nearly died, because he wanted the provisions of the 15th Amendment, which had been enforced for 90 years to actually be applied. I knew him. So what are we talking about that somehow this was all easy until 2016? I don't think we do ourselves any favors by romanticizing a pre-Trumpian world.

Jenna Spinelle 
Thank you so much for joining us today.

Jon Meacham 
Thank you.

Emily Reddy 
Jon Meacham is the author of multiple New York Times bestsellers and is a Pulitzer Prize winning writer and historian. He's a distinguished visiting professor at Vanderbilt University and co-chair of Vanderbilt's Project on Unity and American Democracy. He's a contributing writer for the New York Times Book Review and a fellow of the Society of American historians. Today's interview is from the Democracy Works podcast, a collaboration between WPSU and the McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State. Jenna Spinelle was the interviewer. You can hear more Take Note and Democracy Works interviews at wpsu.org/radio. I'm Emily Reddy, WPSU.

Related Content