The Soul of America

Whether you are familiar with Jon Meacham, you may be familiar with his work. The Pulitzer Prize winner is one of America’s “explainers” of our history offering a needed context given what was going on at the time. He has written several biographies of presidents, including his most recent one on George H.W. Bush, as well as ones on Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson and the relationship between FDR and Winston Churchill. He even spoke at Bush’s funeral at the behest of his wife, Barbara Bush. If I had to sum up who Meacham is – he is an astute student of history. And, he has many admirers including noted historians Walter Isaacson and Michael Beschloss.

I recently read his excellent book called “The Soul of America,” where he is his usual informative self. The subtitle is “The Battle for our Better Angels.” He notes we have had battles of trying to do the right thing throughout our history, yet sometimes it has been hard to work our way there. Here are a few examples:

During the 1920 and early 1930s, over 25% of the US Senate and over 100 members of Congress had an affinity for the KKK. This stunned me, as looking back we would hope that leaders would have seen the KKK for what it was. Yet, even today, we are seeing a rise of White supremacy with some comments being parroted by a couple of elected Congressional representatives. And, after the popularity of “Birth of a Nation,” a very racist movie, and the example of the Tulsa massacre and many lynching’s in the south, it should be less surprising. In fact, it took a couple of KKK leaders openly espousing violence toward Jews, that caused an upset stomach for some of the sympathetic legislators, and they started to distance themselves from the KKK.

He also noted that President Dwight Eisenhower was not too keen on Senator Joe McCarthy of communist witch hunt fame during the early 1950s. But, the president recognized that McCarthy had too big a following to be ignored. So, he tolerated McCarthy without actively supporting him. What was surprising to me is attorney Roy Cohn, who advised McCarthy, knew his boss tended to make things up and was reckless not doing much homework, which would eventually become a problem. By the time Joseph Welch, the US Army’s Chief Counsel famously asked McCarthy, “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?” McCarthy was already beginning to fade. In fact, an earlier quote of Welch’s was also condemning of McCarthy’s clumsy efforts. “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness.”*

Let me close with a quote from Eisenhower on leadership that is telling. Apparently, one too many folks was offering the WWII European Allied Commander advice. “Now, look, I happen to know a little about leadership. I’ve had to work with a lot of nations, for that matter, at odds with each other. And, I tell you this…you do not lead people by hitting them over the head. Any damn fool can do that, but it is usually called ‘assault’ – not ‘leadership.’ I’ll tell you what leadership is. It’s persuasion – and conciliation – and education – and patience. It’s long, slow tough work. That is the only kind of leadership I know – or believe in – or will practice.”

The book is a good read. I only mention these three examples, as I don’t want to give too much away. America’s history, with all of its warts must be understood. If we do not learn lessons from our history, we are destined to repeat our failures. Already, we are seeing a rise in White supremacy along with the untruthfulness of a demagogue who rose to the presidency before he was not reelected. Trying to convince people he was reelected is akin to the recklessness that is used to define Senator McCarthy. We must guard against such untruthfulness as people get hurt when they believe such.

*Note: Trusted newscaster Edward R. Murrow would prove to be McCarthy’s most ardent critic. One of his many quotes is “We must remember always that accusation is not proof and conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law.”

13 thoughts on “The Soul of America

  1. Thanks for this, Keith. I’ve seen the book and this essay is just what I needed to commit to it. We need some historical perspective to get past current histrionics, eh?

  2. I was wondering Keith if you see the parallel between how one thinks to support white supremacy and how one thinks to support anti-Semitism. I ask because it’s common to read criticisms of the Right wing that houses various versions of white supremacy but rare to read criticisms of the Left wing that houses various versions of anti-Semitism. Yet, to me, it’s the same group-based thinking acceptance that creates room for the setting or hardening of the Us and Them mentality necessary to find a home in the minds of many, a method that makes it okay to vilify those people over there but unacceptable to vilify these people over here, so to speak.

    • Tildeb, you raise a good, but subtle point. Criticism of a country for acting poorly is not necessarily anti-semitism, but can be if it is short sighted and the actions are not indicted, but the people are. Being critical of Israel is like being critical of your cousin. You can still love and even support your cousin, but be disappointed in certain actions. This all in mentality has always been a slippery slope to me. In this zero-sum thinking, some want you to support a tribe 100% or 0%, but when they fall short, then you need to let them know. Under the previous president, America’s reputation declined, but our support remains with many. With that said, anti-semitism needs to be called out regardless of who does it People cannot get a hall pass because they are on your team. Thanks for raising this issue. Keith

      • I was questioning the stark similarity to the mindset, the method of categorizing people into groups based on some inherent criteria, and asking if the same method was or should be as criticized if on the Left as we see heaped on the Right. That there is a rather remarkable rise in anti-Semitic .crime without – as far as I can tell – any equivalent social criticism to me is really quite shocking and deeply concerning.

        Funny you referenced anti-Semitism as if the term automatically references criticism of Israel, so I’ll ask you about this. Just out of curiosity, have you ever encountered not just equivalent criticism but ANY criticism of, say, the Palestinian Authority’s program Pay to Slay, where Palestinians (and/or their families) either convicted of and imprisoned or killed during attacks on Israeli citizens at any time that causes Jewish casualties receive life long pensions? Is this the kind of criticism of a ‘country’ acting poorly that might meet the bar of justified criticism? Because, to be honest, I’m not seeing it from anyone who criticizes white supremacy on the Right. And that I think is – or at the very least should be – very concerning to anyone who thinks ‘Never Again’ means more that diddly squat.

      • Tildeb, I do see criticism of the increase in anti-semitic hate crime, but does it get the same level of coverage, I do not know. It is simply not right, just like hate crimes against other groups – African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Hispanic Americans, LGBTQ+ folks, etc. I also see people being critical of Israel’s more aggressive actions classified as anti-semitic, which I mistook for your point. Israel has every right to defend itself, but when either side’s aggressions cause innocents get hurt, that is not right, in my view. Thanks for your comments. Keith

  3. I read this a couple of years ago when it first came out and very much enjoyed it … learned a lot from it, too! You are so right when you say that if we fail to learn the lessons of history, then we are almost certain to repeat them. It sometimes seems that we are in a never-ending loop. The Chinese believe that history is cyclic, and some days I’m inclined to agree. Good post … I would recommend this book to everyone, and you’ve given just enough of a taste to make people want more!

  4. Excellent review Keith. I’ve heard great things about this book.
    I so agree and love your line:

    “If we do not learn lessons from our history, we are destined to repeat our failures.”


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