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.”

Senator Joe McCarthy, Donald Trump and Richard Nixon

What do the above three people have in common? It is more than one might think. The two deceased members are being invoked about the living one’s actions. There is ample reason for that, but there is even more commonality.

Senator Joe McCarthy ran roughshod over America playing on people’s fears during the Communist witch hunts. It took the efforts of Joseph Welch, the legal counsel to the Army, who uttered this plea under oath to the Senator, “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?” It also took the considerable reporting from an honorable man Edward R. Murrow, who highlighted McCarthy’s fearmongering.

President Richard Nixon resigned as President before he was impeached and convicted. In essence, he ran a burglary ring from the White House and went to great lengths to cover it up. What did Nixon in was his paranoia. He wanted the dirt the Democrats had on him for the 1972 election, so he authorized a burglary of the headquarters at the Watergate hotel and office complex. Plus, he paranoidly taped every conversation in the oval office, which was his Waterloo.

The current President is being investigated for any links to colluding with Russian agents to win the election. Yet, like Nixon, he is condemning the actions as a witch hunt and may be guilty of obstruction of justice, which was item 1 on the Nixon impeachment paperwork in Congress. It should be noted that Michael Cohen’s eight guilty pleas and Paul Manafort’s eight guilty verdicts bring the total Mueller convictions to seven people – that does not seem like a witch hunt to me.

Yet, there is even more in common than misuse of power, fear-mongering and paranoia. A key advisor to Donald Trump early in his career was an attorney named Roy Cohn. Cohn told Trump two key pieces of advice – never admit a mistake and sue everyone – which Trump follows to this day. But, Cohn also served as an advisor to none other than Senator Joe McCarthy during the Communist witch hunts. What other advice did Cohn share with Trump?

But, it does not end there. As a Congressman, Nixon also participated on the House Un-American Activities Committee, which was heavily influenced by Senator McCarthy. So, Nixon adds his name to another one of America’s biggest black eyes.

My point is should Trump be found guilty of obstruction of justice and collusion with the Russians, these three men would join together, with a link of Roy Cohn, to three of the worst misuses of power in American history. And, all three are associated with “enemies lists.” Talk about fear-mongering.

Ironically, a key characteristic of a narcissist is to echo back criticism he is getting, so Trump is calling Mueller’s investigation akin to McCarthyism and has referenced White House Counsel John Dean who testified against Nixon as a “rat.” Dean actually found his conscience and is viewed as somewhat of a hero. As Trump has done before, he is trying to paint others with his own justifiable criticism. To me, the fact all three men kept enemies list is telling by itself.

So, the names of McCarthy, Nixon and Trump will live on infamy. And, they should.