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Has The Partisan Divide Ever Been This Bad? Author Jon Meacham Says, 'Yes'


The election of President Trump got Jon Meacham thinking. Meacham is a journalist and historian. He's written biographies of presidents. He wrote a book about faith. The 2016 election prompted him to combine those two subjects and more in a book called "The Soul Of America." It's an exploration of the history of a country whose soul, he says, includes Martin Luther King and the Ku Klux Klan and much in between.

JON MEACHAM: The question I get asked all the time is, has it ever been this bad? And the answer is yes. In fact, it's been worse. We are in a very, I believe, perilous moment because of the president of the United States. I will state that. But I also think it's worth pointing out that Andrew Johnson announced that African-Americans were genetically incapable of self-government.

INSKEEP: This is the president after the Civil War.

MEACHAM: He was a bully. He was self-absorbed. He gave self-pitying speeches. Any of this sound familiar? You know, as Mark Twain is reputed to have said - history may not repeat itself, but it does rhyme. The story of American history is that we have, in fact, moved forward. And what we've done - and the reason I wanted to look back at these moments - is what have been the moments where presidents have either been really right and led us forcefully and proactively? And what about the moments where they've been really wrong? And how did we overcome that?

INSKEEP: You have a quote - is it from Franklin Roosevelt? - about history jerking forward and jerking back and jerking forward...

MEACHAM: Yeah. It's from - it's a great - it's from Endicott Peabody, the rector of Groton School.


MEACHAM: His - but Roosevelt used it in his 1945 inaugural. And he said that history will move up and down, but the line ultimately moves up. We will go through valleys, but we will also reach peaks.

INSKEEP: So talk me through a few of these peaks and valleys that you explore. I guess you'd say the Civil War and the period of Reconstruction was a peak. And then what happened?

MEACHAM: Well, yeah. Lincoln was a peak. By 1862 and '63, he's issued the Emancipation Proclamation. 1877, we enter a darker period. Rutherford B. Hayes became President of the United States as part of a compromise that pulled the federal troops out of the South. But by the time we get to Theodore Roosevelt, we have someone who is engaged with the idea of a melting pot, the idea that immigration was a force for good.

INSKEEP: So this is the beginning of the 20th century?

MEACHAM: Yeah. You get to Woodrow Wilson, and you get women's suffrage. I do think the moment that probably feels most like this one is the McCarthy era in the early 1950s.

INSKEEP: Who was Joseph McCarthy?

MEACHAM: Joseph R. McCarthy, a junior senator from Wisconsin who understood the media, used superlatives, hyperbole and false charges to rise to incredible national attention and power.

INSKEEP: Let's remember, his cause was anti-communism. Right?

MEACHAM: He was a red hunter, as they called him. He puts on a spectacular political show - partisan and mean and sharp-edged.

INSKEEP: Destroyed a lot of people's lives and careers.

MEACHAM: Finally, in 1954, the Senate censures him. What had done it? What had changed it? A couple of things - there were brave legislators who stood up; the press, which often enabled McCarthy by reporting these charges on the grounds that it was news, so they had to report it...

INSKEEP: But not looking into them.

MEACHAM: Right. Edward R. Murrow, in 1954, does a "See It Now" episode in which he directly challenges McCarthy.

INSKEEP: It was a documentary on CBS. Right?

MEACHAM: CBS. By '54, it's over. It's about a four-year period of hysteria.

INSKEEP: So you make this analogy between Joseph McCarthy going after Communists as a demagogue and President Trump, a leader with whom you have many disagreements. Let's extend that analogy a little bit, though. Would it be fair to say that, whatever you think of McCarthy's tactics, that in the 1950s, he was playing on some fear that was very real in the public? It was the beginning of the Cold War. People were worried about Communists. And there even were a limited number of Communists, it turned out later on, in certain positions.

MEACHAM: I'm not dismissing the fears or concerns of those who are fearful. My point is, if you look at what Franklin Roosevelt did in the 1930s - when Franklin Roosevelt took the oath of office, he was sitting in the White House. And a friend came in and said, Mr. President, if you succeed in solving the crisis of the Great Depression, you will go down as our greatest president. But if you fail, sir, you will go down as our worst. FDR looked at him and said, if I fail, I'll be the last. It was that serious. How did Franklin Roosevelt lead the country through the 1930s? He did it with an insistent view that hope was more important than fear.

I'm not arguing for a big "Kumbaya" singing. I'm just saying that if you look at these moments - if you look at Reconstruction, if you look at McCarthyism - by the way, Joe McCarthy and Donald Trump shared the same lawyer, Roy Cohn. So you don't have to make much of a leap here.

INSKEEP: True story.

MEACHAM: It's all there. And then, obviously, the story of civil rights and the way Lyndon Johnson, a white Southerner from a segregated state, decided he was going to create voting rights in this country and finish the work of Abraham Lincoln. When George Wallace, the governor of Alabama, who was an early right-wing populist - when he was stopping the march in Selma with Dr. King and John Lewis and others, Johnson forces him to come up to the White House. And he says, quite brilliantly - when you're gone, George, do you want your tombstone to say, George Wallace: he hated or George Wallace: he built?

I think that's a question that all of us have to ask ourselves when we get up every morning right now.

INSKEEP: Let me ask you a question I avoid asking people.

MEACHAM: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: Seriously, I avoid asking people about the future 'cause I don't trust the answers.


INSKEEP: It's hard to report from the future. But having studied the past, where do you think this country is heading?

MEACHAM: I believe, based on a historically informed view, that Donald Trump will prove to have been a presidential aberration. I do think the choices we make now will echo for a long time. I think this is as important a moment as the hours after the Civil War, when we were trying to decide what kind of country we were going to truly be. There's a lot to work on. But ultimately, the story has turned out well.

INSKEEP: The new book by Jon Meacham is called "The Soul Of America."

Thanks for coming by.

MEACHAM: Thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF RUDY ROYSTON'S "PRAYER (FOR THE PEOPLE)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.