In the keynote address to a large audience on Tuesday at FIA Expo, the historian and presidential biographer Jon Meacham talked about how we are living in “the most divided time since the 1850s” and compared what’s going on now politically with past tumultuous periods in U.S. history, in particular the 1930s and 1960s. His address was titled, “Hope Through History: How To Endure and Prevail When Everything Appears Hopeless.”
Meacham said he hoped we would come through our current crisis and emerge whole, as we did after those periods in the ’30s and ’60s. He said he is not a partisan, but argued against blindly following authoritarian governments, and mentioned that “at no other point [in history] has a mob stormed the Capitol to prevent an election.” He said, “The American Revolution is based on our right and privilege to think for ourselves,” and asked, “Why would anyone give that away?”
He mentioned moments in U.S. history that bent towards authoritarianism, such as the period after the Great War and the Bolshevik Revolution, when Americans worried about socialist immigrants (“radicals and foreigners”), women couldn’t vote, and there were 10 senators and 30 House members in the Ku Klux Klan. Ann Morrow Lindbergh’s book, The Wave of the Future, advocated a more authoritarian approach to government (some called it fascist.) He said a crowd applauded a line in President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s speech in which he talked about potentially requiring wartime executive powers, as if “the crowd seemed ready for a dictator.” However, Roosevelt also advocated neighborliness – helping your neighbor because they might then help you – a sort of pragmatic covenant, Meacham said. That way of thinking is the way out of these crises, he implied.
Meacham said the forces of oppression and authoritarianism are perennial and our cause is to see them ebb, but “there are no slam dunks in [American history].” He listed three characteristics we should nurture in order to change the incentive to go to warring extremes in politics: 1. Curiosity (understanding the forces shaping history and our lives); 2. Candor (about the scope of what we face, as in FDR’s fireside chat in which he said the news would get worse before it got better); and 3. Empathy, in which we lend a hand so that we can have a hand extended to us.
He told several stories about George Herbert Walker Bush, with whom he spent much time as his biographer. He called GHW Bush the “most empathetic person” he had ever met, and talked about Bush’s reaction to the loss of his daughter to Leukemia. He mentioned a dialogue with Bush in which Meacham began a sentence, “If you want to know someone’s heart…” and Bush finished it by saying, “…you have to know what breaks it.”
He also talked about the rise of “partisan news” and the nationalization of every level of politics as contributions to our current state and said that “evidence-based debate is the first step to sanity.” He defended the U.S. Constitution, saying, “Given the evidence, I would rather have a Constitutionalist with whom I disagree [in charge] than someone who wants to eliminate the Constitution.”
Meacham mentioned a couple of times that he could sense some members of the audience disagreed with him and probably dismissed him as a liberal, but he insisted that he believed in the Constitution rather than in one party or the other, and he hoped people would keep an open mind.