Monday, July 23, 2018

No. 278: Jon Meacham's New Book—A Priceless Gem

Jon Meacham is an American historian whose previous books include treatises about Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, George Herbert Walker Bush, and the "epic friendship" of Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. His latest book, which became my July 4th reading at the suggestion of a friend, is entitled The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels. Although I have not read his earlier books, I have seen him interviewed on television. His new book is a priceless gem.

Structure of the Book
The book is about 400 pages long, but the text is only about 250 pages with fascinating photographs sprinkled through it. The remainder of the book consists of notes, a bibliography, illustration credits, and an index. The titles and subtitles of the book's introduction, seven chapters, and conclusion provide a summary:
Introduction: To Hope Rather than to Fear
1. The Confidence of the Whole People: Visions of the Presidency, the Ideas of Progress and Prosperity, and "We, the People"
2. The Long Shadow of Appomattox: The Lost Cause, the Ku Klux Klan, and Reconstruction
3. With Soul of Flame and Temper of Steel: "The Melting Pot," TR and His "Bully Pulpit," and the Progressive Promise
4. A New and Good Thing in the World: The Triumph of Women's Suffrage, the Red Scare, and a New Klan
5. The Crisis of the Old Order: The Great Depression, Huey Long, the New Deal, and America First
6. Have You No Sense of Decency?: "Making Everyone Middle Class," the GI Bill, McCarthyism, and Modern Media
7. What the Hell Is the Presidency For?: "Segregation Forever," King's Crusade, and LBJ in the Crucible
Conclusion: The First Duty of an American Citizen
General Observations
Meacham's conclusion about "the first duty of an American citizen" is the need to "enter the arena" and "work in politics." He goes on to mention other duties of citizens: resist tribalism, respect facts, deploy reason, find a critical balance, and—as historians say—keep history in mind.

The entire book is superb, but I was most fascinated by Meacham's discussions of these subjects: the battle for women's suffrage; the struggles with the Ku Klux Klan and the new Klan; President Franklin Roosevelt's victories in our greatest depression and our greatest war, his mistake relating to the treatment of Japanese Americans after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and his failure to rescue more Jews from the Holocaust; President Harry Truman's efforts on civil rights despite his racist background; the rise and fall of Senator Joseph McCarthy; the contributions of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.; and President Lyndon Johnson's battles, despite his Southern roots, to persuade Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

I came away from reading the book with an overpowering wish that President Donald Trump would read it. I have heard it said he does not read books, but perhaps that assertion is "fake news." I choose to hope that, even though we have strong evidence to the contrary, the book would have a profound influence on him.