Jon Meacham: 2018 National Book Festival


>>Jennifer Szalai:
Good afternoon everyone. I’m Jennifer Szalai and I’m
the nonfiction book critic at the New York Times. The Times is proud to
have partnered this year with the Library of Congress
for the National Book Festival. And we’d like to thank
everyone for coming out on this Labor Day weekend for an event that’s not only a
celebration, but also, I think, an opportunity to
think about the role of books in our culture. At a time when the news cycle
has gotten faster and faster with a seemingly endless
supply of hot takes, reading books can enrich
not only our lives, but also our understanding of
the lives of others as well as the world in which we live. To that end, it is
my great pleasure to introduce Jon Meacham. [ Applause ] So before Jon comes up to
the stage, I should say many of you know Jon already through
his presidential biographies. He’s written books about George
H.W. Bush, Thomas Jefferson as well as FDR and FDR’s
special relationship with Winston Churchill. In addition to all of these,
Jon has also written, of course, a Pulitzer Prize winning
biography of Andrew Jackson, a complicated figure
to say the least who consider himself
an embodiment of the people’s will even
though his definition of the people was
ruthlessly exclusionary. Jon’s 2018 book about Jackson,
“American Lion” doesn’t flinch from recounting Jackson’s
full record. And like Jon’s other books, it showcases Jon’s
background as a journalist too. Jon was a long time staffer at Newsweek eventually
becoming its editor. In fact, the trajectory
of his career shows that fast paced journalism and gradual deliberate
history aren’t as disconnected as
they might seem. History after all is not only
a thing of the past, it is– it also has great and
often startling relevance for our present laying
the foundation for how we got to
where we are now. While Jon’s books are erudite
and carefully researched, reflecting undoubtedly
a lot of time spent in the historical archives, he has the experience journalist
gifts for accessibility. And even though I wouldn’t
say his books are short, he clearly makes a point of
keeping his storytelling sharp. More recently, as a
contributing writer to the New York Times
book review, he’s been writing a column
called “The Long View” in which he looks back at books
to speak to our current moment. He often finds angles
that are surprising. For instance, a year ago, after Hillary Clinton
published her best selling book, “What Happened”, Jon
examined other memoirs by one time presidential
candidates that weren’t triumphant
stories about winning elections but were instead more candid
reflections about losing them. His newest book, “The Soul
of America” might seem like a departure for him in the
sense that it’s not a biography that closely follows
the life and times of a particular president, rather it’s a sweeping
consideration of American history over
the past 200 some years. But then it makes sense in a way
that someone like Jon who writes about the complicated
souls of individuals, chronicling their
achievements as well as their failures would now take on the complicated
soul of the country. “The Soul of America”
is an argument for hope and fraught times. And as he makes clear, hope is
not the same as complacency. But you don’t have
to take it from me. Please join me in
welcoming Jon Meacham. [ Applause ]>>Jon Meacham: Thank you. When Jennifer was talking,
I was reminded of his– sort of running through the
various dead white men I’ve written about. And when I was finishing
Jefferson, I came the kitchen one
day and my six-year-old at that time said,
how’s that book about George Jefferson going? And I said, you know, Sherman
Hemsley is an important figure, but I’m not sure we
need a full biography. Thank you all. I love being at the
National Book Festival. And I’m going to tell
you a story that I told when I had the honor of
speaking at Mrs. Bush’s funeral, a few months ago,
because this is the scene of really what St.
Augustine had in mind when he talked about humility. Ten years ago, I was here to
talk about Andrew Jackson, and I was on my way, I was
on the mall then outdoors. And I was on my way to
give a talk like this. And a woman ran up to me, which doesn’t happen
enough, or ever, actually. And she said, oh
my god, it’s you. And I said, well, yes, you know. Existentially speaking,
that’s hard to argue with. You got to love a room
on Labor Day weekend where you can use
existential as an adverb. Way to go, way to go. [ Applause ] And she said, I just– I
admire your work so much, it’s meant so much to
me and to my family. We wait right here, I want
you to sign your new book. And I said, yes, ma’am. And I stood there thinking this
is exactly the way the world is supposed to work. Women are supposed
to run up to you. They’re supposed to admire you. This is it. Perfect. Hand to god, she brought back John
Grisham’s latest– oh, so, totally true story. So I signed it, right? And so whenever I hear
something nice said about me like what Jennifer said,
I’ve realized that somewhere in America, there’s a
woman with a forged copy of the “Runaway Jury”. But the story does not end. So that was a Saturday
like today. And so, I left the Book
Festival, I got on a plane, I was writing my
biography at that time of George Herbert Walker Bush. And I flew up to Maine
to see the Bush’s. And we were sitting– for some
reason it’s just the three of us at lunch that Sunday, which
was almost unheard of because, you know, George Bush’s view of life was it was one
long reunion mixer. You know, usually
the Oak Ridge Boys and the Pope would
be there, you know? And he would be more interested
in the Oak Ridge Boys. And I told the story. And Mrs. Bush looks across
the table and I’m kind of expecting some motherly
reassurance, you know. She said, well, how do you think
poor John Grisham would feel, you know? He’s a very handsome man. So, it was not a good weekend
for me, but I’m thrilled to be here and we’ll
try it one more time. Thank you first, very quickly. Thank you all truly
for being here. You are citizens of the
Republic of Letters. And if the last three years
has taught us anything, it’s that the Republic of
Letters has a hell of a lot to teach the American
Republic, so thank you. [ Applause ] So I am asked all the
time because of what I do for a living, has it
ever been like this? And one of the quick answers
people like to say is, well, isn’t he like Jackson? I’m going to try to
play the Voldemort game, let’s see if we can do this. You know, is he like Jackson? And I knew Andrew Jackson. Yeah, he was a friend of mine. Not really. So, it– so quick story, so in
2017, the incumbent is coming down to Nashville, Tennessee
where I lived to lay a wreath at Jackson’s tomb,
Jackson’s 250th birthday. We had paint ball duels in town. It was great and we loved it. And so, I was thinking, you
know, I should do something. And because whenever presidents
talk about their predecessors, it’s really interesting to keep
track because presidents see as they wish to be seen. So whenever you hear a president
talk about someone put that in that psychological
test, you know, when Jack Kennedy said this is
the greatest gathering of talent since Thomas Jefferson dined
alone the Nobel Prize dinner, what he was really kind of saying is isn’t it very
Jeffersonian of me to think to invite all of
you here, you know? So FDR saw the New
Deal as a struggle between the Jacksonian
Democrats against the tyrants of Wall Street like
the bank war. It’s a fun game to play. But anyway, so President
Trump is– had to slip it, had to do it, it’s key to the story,
I promise. So he’s coming down and so I’m
sitting at home, all right, I should do something. So I wrote an open
letter to the president for the local newspaper
and basically saying, if you’re going to
embrace Andrew Jackson, don’t just embrace
the crazy parts. And there are plenty of crazy
parts to embrace, right? Jackson once said that his
only two regrets in public life or that he had not hung Henry
Clay the Speaker of the House and shot John C. Calhoun,
his own vice president. We know as of today that the
next person who thought that way about their running mate
was in fact John McCain. So– [ Applause ] — I cleared that with
Senator McCain years ago. I’ve been telling that
for years, don’t worry. So if you’re going to
embrace Jackson, I wrote, embrace for all his
sins and weaknesses. He did believe that we
were one great family. We would fight under the
same roof, but we needed to remain a continental nation. Jackson also was a
great negotiator, he understood his weaknesses,
he made his vices into virtues, more formidable figure. By the time he became
president, he’d been a lawyer, a prosecutor, a judge, the first
congressman from Tennessee, twice a senator, a general,
had won the popular vote but lost the electoral college
and lost it in the house and had run for president. He respected the rule of law. He respected the established
constitutional order. So, I wrote this
as an open letter. And it had no effect,
whatever, of course. And the next day I’m walking
into lunch, true story. And my phone rings and
it was George H.W. Bush, my most recent subject. He’d spent a lot of time in
the hospital that winter. And so his staff was
giving him stuff to read and they’d given him this piece. And he called me and
said, how you doing? I said, I’m– The key to doing
George H.W. Bush, by the way, as Dana Carvey once said
is Mr. Rogers is trying to be John Wayne. How you doing? I said, I’m fine Mr. President. How do you doing? I’m fine. He said, I read your
letter to Jackson, I thought, oh, the old boys
losing it, right? I mean he’s 93, he’s
been in the hospital, he thinks I’m writing
letters to dead people. I should do something. So I said, thank you, sir. I’m glad you’re doing better. You know, actually it was a
letter to Trump about Jackson. Without missing a beat,
the old man said, yeah, but Jackson will
pay more attention. [ Laughter and Applause ] So he’s fine. Mark him off your worry list. So analogies are perilous, but I want to talk today
really in two parts. One is how I do think
this moment represents a manifestation, a
vivid manifestation, and in some ways an extreme one
of perennial American forces. The past is not cultural Zoloft,
right, it’s not a bedtime story, but it’s also absolutely
essential to create a sense of perspective and proportion because if we don’t know what’s
come before and know it truly, know it not as we have come
to remember it but know it as it happened to the people who were living the
challenges of their time. If we don’t have
that, we do two things that I think are worth avoiding. One is we do a disservice
to the people who built the nation
we want to protect. If we act as though progress
was somehow inevitable, tell that to John Lewis,
tell that to Rosa Parks, tell that to Martin Luther
King, tell that to Alice Parks or Elizabeth Cady Stanton,
or Susan B. Anthony, or Frederick Douglass,
or Harriet Tubman, or Sojourner Truth, tell them that this was all
going to work out. So we need to remember
history to honor those who gave the ultimate price so that we would have
something worth defending. The other is that if we act as
though history is myth that is that everything worked
out in a land far, far away in a galaxy
far, far away, then we foreclose the
possibility of learning from it because it feels
remote and mythic, but they were just like us. I write history and biography
not because the past was perfect or more reassuring but because
it was so woefully imperfect and yet they got through it. They made progress. And if with all their
imperfections and sins and shortcomings and appetite
and ambition and greed and selfishness and racism and
sexism, if for all of that, they created a more perfect
union, then surely to God, all of us driven and riven by those same forces
can do the same. To learn from the past is
to embrace its complexity, not airbrush it,
not simplify it. It has not always
been about good versus evil, it is sometimes. Sometimes the moral stake
is absolutely clear. But that’s the exception
not the rule. A nation is defined best,
I think, when we think of it in Augustinian terms. He wrote in the City of God
that “A nation is a multitude of rational beings united by the
common objects of their love.” I’m going to say that again. “A multitude of rational
beings united by the common objects
of their love.” So it’s a great question. What do we love in common? And standing here on the
anniversary of Hitler’s invasion of Poland on the day we
buried a great American Hero, on a day when just over a
third of the country approves of what the president of
the United States is doing, on a day when the great
post-war achievement of the American Century, the
building of social mobility and a middle class is
under grave assault. On that day, this day, we
don’t love enough in common. And this isn’t a sermon and it’s
not a homily, it’s just a fact. I just saw a fascinating
statistic the other day. When Dwight Eisenhower
was president, he had an approval rating
among Democrats of 49%. Guess what President Obama’s
was among Republicans, 14. So this is a divided
and tribal time. What I’m going to talk to
you about is not in lieu of addressing the problems
of the era it’s done with a clear utilitarian
hope that if we understand that the moments in
the past were difficult and required enormous effort
and courage and sacrifice to overcome and to create
a sustainable vision and a sustainable reality, then
we can do it too not by relaxing as Jennifer said, hope
is not complacency. My message is not we’ve come
through it before, so relax, it’s that we’ve come through
it before so let’s figure out how the hell we
did it and do it again. And it requires witness
and resistance and protest and in affirmative assent, an
affirmative step into the arena to engage what Justice
Holmes called the passion and action of our times. Theodore Roosevelt said
that the first duty of an American citizen is
to engage in the arena. This is no time to let other
people fight your battles because they’re all our battles. So I want to talk about a
few moments that I think felt like this and then
talk toward the end about the characteristics that
I think are necessary both for leaders and followers. Because let’s remember, a
republic is only as good as the sum of its parts,
the moral disposition, our dispositions of heart
and mind, individually, have a discernible
and definitive effect on the collective life of
a country without doubt. This is an ancient idea,
it begins with Aristotle, it runs through Machiavelli, Harry Truman said it I think
best in more or less our time, which is in the end, Americans
get the government they deserve. And let’s be honest, politicians
are far more often mirrors of who we are than they are
molders, so remember that. We dislike and we
resist political leaders who spend their time pointing
fingers at groups instead of pointing ahead for all of us. At the same time though we
have to examine ourselves and force the kind of character, the kind of disposition
into the arena. And it’s never easy
and it’s never forever, but it’s the way American
history has been built. So where have we been
like this before? My own sense– and
again, I’m a southerner, I grew up on Missionary Ridge,
a battlefield in Tennessee is where Arthur McArthur
won his Medal of Honor when he was 17 years old. I went to the University of the
South in Sewanee, Tennessee. There may be one or two
of you who don’t know it. So to frame it culturally, it’s
Downton Abbey meets deliverance. So that gives you some sense. So I’m very much with Faulkner and that the past is never
dead, it isn’t even past. It’s actually the only
thing Faulkner ever said that I understand. Thank you. I just– and peoples
say, oh, I love Faulkner. No, you don’t. You think you’re supposed to say
that over your latte, you know? It’s like reading Joyce. OK. Beyond Dubliners who
here understands Joyce? Show of hands. An honest group. So, the Civil War as Shelby
Foote put it is the crossroads of our being. It is the great cauldron, the
great crucible of who we are. The story of the war in many
ways for our purposes begins not at Sumter but at Appomattox. Robert Penn Warren once
said that the story of the Confederacy ultimately
begins its immortality began not when Fort Sumter was fired upon but when Lee handed
his sword to Grant. Because the emergence of the
lost cause mythology continues to shape us to this day. The term itself was
coined in 1866, so barely 9 or 10 months after Appomattox. It was coined by a journalist from Richmond named
Edward Alfred Pollard. And tell me if any of
this sounds familiar. He argued that because the war
itself was lost and the war over slavery had been lost, that
the south should not reengage in a force of arms, but it
should reengage in a battle of ideas where the enemy was
declared to be the forces of centralization
centered in Washington. I’ve seen this on certain
cable news channels. It was an animating
narrative that urged those who harbored a deep
belief in white supremacy to give them hope to
continue to fight. That is an unmistakable in
my view verdict rendered on the historical record. It’s not ideological. I should say I’m not a
partisan, I voted for Democrats, I voted for Republicans, I plan
to continue, but I do believe that if we don’t call them as we
see them, then we’re not living up to the best of the American
tradition and we’re not living up to the promise
and possibilities of the life of the mind. And so, if you always try
to see a little bit of truth on both sides, you’re
probably not seeing the truth, is my own view of this. And so, the lost cause takes off
Andrew Johnson is a disaster. I say that as a Tennessean. He is impeached. Wrong– right thing to do, wrong
cause as a warning in that. Stay tuned. Coming soon to a cable
network near you. And he basically
argued in a state paper in what the historian Eric
Foner recalls the most racist statement ever written
by an American president that black Americans
were congenitally and genetically incapable
of self-government. And so therefore he
did everything he could to stop the forces
of reconstruction. He vetoed the Civil Rights Bill, he vetoed the Reconstruction
Bills, he vetoed the Freedmen’s Bureau
Bills, he opposed the 14th and 15th Amendments
to the Constitution. He was doing everything he could as Edward Alfred Pollard
had articulated to carry on the battle by other means. The Klan is founded in late
1865, it terrorizes the South. General Grant or President Grant
does the right thing early on, breaks the first Klan. But then a curtain descends in
1877 when Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel Tilden ran against
each other for president. We never talked about. The election of 1876, it’s
one of the most important in American history, because
as a part of the price of that victory, the Republican
Rutherford B. Hayes agreed to withdraw federal troops from
Florida, Alabama and Louisiana, thereby effectively ending
reconstruction in order to secure the presidency in
an incredibly close race. That was, of course, was
decided as ever in Florida. I don’t know what
it is down there. Maybe it’s the humidity,
I don’t know. But that inaugurated 90
years of a function– of functional apartheid
in my native region. It would take Lyndon
Johnson in the 1960s to undo the work of that period. And so when people say, you know
what, it’s never been worse, there’ll be some tweet. There’ll probably be one
in the next few minutes, keep an eye out, you know. It’s– God, this is awful. It could never be any worse. Well, you know, not a lot of African-Americans
say that to me. I– Sometimes when women say
that to me, I say, you know, women haven’t voted in this
country for a 100 years yet. It’s been 98. Marriage equality has
only been possible in the United States
for three years. Things do change. They change too slowly,
but perspective proportion, we have to judge the present
to some extent and some degree by what’s come before. I think that the soul of
the country is an amalgam. In Hebrew and in Greek,
soul means breath or life. I dislike it when people say,
oh, some party that I disagree with has captured the
soul of the country. It’s not quite right in my view. In my view, the American soul
has proven itself capable of accommodating the Ku Klux
Klan and Martin Luther King. And every era is
defined by the degree to which our better angels went
out over our worst instincts. It’s true again and
again and again. We are the sum of our parts. And I don’t know about
you all, but if I listen to my better angels,
51% of the time, that’s a hell of a good day. My wife will tell you, it’s–
I’d not often achieved, but we can’t let the perfect
be the enemy of the good. And so the soul of the
country is tested from period to period, age to age. The soul of the country
did the right thing heading into Appomattox. Our better angels won. Emancipation was ratified. Slavery was abolished. But what did we do? Reaction immediately sets in. Segregation prevails. We still deal with the racial
injustices that grow out of that almost unimaginable, almost
unimaginable American drama. We stand on land, I live on
land that belonged more properly to the Cherokee Nation. The twin original
sins of American life, our Native American removal and African-American
slavery without doubt. [ Applause ] And so– And so, our goal
has to be to make it right. And how do we do that? Seems to me we do that by for all his faults expanding
more generously as best we can. The implications of what Thomas
Jefferson meant when he wrote that all men were created equal. The generations that we honor,
the generations that we wish to emulate are not those
who shrunk the definition, it’s those who expanded it. The nation was fixated
this morning on the funeral of a man whose political
life was largely about hope. It was largely about opening
our arms not folding them across our chest. The most important
sentence ever written in the English language was
that we are all created equal. I am very careful when I
say that because when you– when I mentioned the
English language like that, I always remember
there’s a story about a school board
candidate in Texas who was against teaching
Spanish and so on. The campaign trail, he said,
if English was good enough for our Lord Jesus Christ,
it’s good enough for Texas. [ Laughter ] As a Tennessean, we always
say thank God for Texas. I want– so here’s a
total parenthetical. I have a list of two
stupid things I’ve said to sitting governor, so I’ll
give them to you quickly. One was when George W. Bush was
first running for president, I went down to Austin to– was part of a journalistic
delegation. And I said, you know, governor–
because of the Mexican War, I said, you know, if it
weren’t for my people, you all would still
be part of Spain. He went, he-he, that’s
funny asshole. [ Laughter ] Eight years of audits. The other, the other was
when I was out talking about Thomas Jefferson
five, six years ago. I got a call from Chris
Christie is before he became Patty Hearst. And Christie’s good
company, right, he’s funny. So he said, I want to talk
to you about Jefferson. So– And so, I went out to
lunch, so we went to lunch in Trenton and we’re
sitting there. And he said, you know, I’m
really more of a Hamiltonian, which usually means you’re
an investment banker. That’s what that means. I said, that’s great, governor,
I really wasn’t thinking. I said, yeah, but at least my
guy didn’t get shot in Jersey. And the damnedest thing
happened, I couldn’t get back into the city, all the bridges–
OK, back to the soul of America. How do we expand the definition
that Jefferson laid out? That’s the mark of progress
in terms of the American soul. Civil War? Yes. Reconstruction? No. Cut to the 1920s, 1915,
Birth of a Nation is released, virulently racist movie revives
the Ku Klux Klan’s the Saturday after Thanksgiving in 1915
at Stone Mountain Georgia, the second Ku Klux Klan
is founded in an attempt to recover the great
white empire of the south. But it wasn’t just the south,
it became a national phenomenon. And see if any of
this sounds familiar. Why did the Ku Klux Klan get
three to five million members from 1915 to 1926 or so? How was it that there were six
governors, maybe 17 senators and maybe 75 congressmen who were members of
the Ku Klux Klan? How was it that there
were a 103 ballots at the 1924 Democratic National
Convention driven by the fact that there were 347 Klan
delegates who would not vote for Al Smith an Irish-Catholic? How was it the 50,000 Klansmen
marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in this– in the summer of 1925? Fear of immigration,
anxiety about crime, anxiety about a shifting
economy from a largely agrarian and understandably industrial
one to a more complicated one, the introduction of a
national culture as opposed to a local one with the spread
of radio starting in 1921. Think about it, if
you were a householder and what we would now
think of as a red state, you totally control the
media, the information, the experiences your
family had until about 1922. And then you bought this box to have the world
come into your home. And suddenly people you didn’t
know and didn’t know anything about were programming
things in New York and some place called Hollywood. It was disorienting. And a reaction to that
disorientation was fear. And fear is what drives
eras like our own. Aristotle said that fear is the
anxiety produced by the loss of what we love, the
loss of what we love. And what happened from 1915 to 1925 is largely
what’s happening today. There is a fear among an
extraordinary number of people who look a lot like me and
who come from states like mine that the demography of
the country is changing, the economy of the country
is leaving them behind and they don’t want to live
in Barack Obama’s America, they want to live
in Donald Trump’s. And let me tell you something
from the bottom of my heart. Twenty years from
now, we will be living in Barack Obama’s
America not Donald Trump. [ Applause ] And it’s OK for people
like me to say that. And I think that’s
kind of my job. I think that’s kind of the way
I’m in the arena, but it’s going to require a heck of
a lot more than that. It’s going to require the
institutions of democracy to do what they did
in the 1920s. So how did that break,
how did that fever break? 1925 or so, three to
five million members, Supreme Court justices,
congressmen, governors of Oregon,
Indiana, Colorado, Texas. The governor of Georgia lost an
election when he wasn’t a member of the Klan, joins
the Klan, runs, wins, gives a speech saying he wants
to build a wall of steel as high as heaven to keep
immigrants out. As Mark Twain once said,
history may not repeat itself, but it does rhyme. So what happened? The press did its job. Joseph Pulitzer’s newspapers in New York ran expose
after expose. And here’s a sentence you
don’t hear much Harding and Coolidge did
the right thing. I do love Coolidge though. My favorite story is, you know,
the woman who came up to him at the White House and said,
I have a bet with my husband, I can make you say three words. And he said, you lose. I just love that guy. They spoke out somewhat subtly but they took a stand
against the Klan. The Supreme Court in two critical decisions
ruled against the Klan. One was an Oregon case that had
a Klan dominated legislature in Oregon, had passed a
law saying that every child of school age had to go to a public school could
not go to a private school. What do you think
that was about? The nuns. They were going
to break the Catholic Church because the Catholic
Church was German and Irish. It was it was seen
as a foreign entity. Supreme Court threw it out. Case out in New York. The– Because there
were so much violence, the New York legislature passed
a law saying that the Klan had to publish lists of its members. The Klan countersued saying that
they were like the Kiwanis Club, they shouldn’t have to do that. Supreme Court threw it out
saying, no, if you’re going to act in political ways
and terroristic ways– they use that word
terroristic ways, you’ve got to publish the names. It wanes. And thank
God for all thousand– for all kinds of reasons
it did, but it takes us to our next moment
which is 1932, ’33. Franklin Roosevelt said
in the summer of 1932 that the two most dangerous
men in America were Huey Long and Douglas MacArthur because
Huey Long could lead a pompous revolt from the left and Douglas
MacArthur from the right. March 4th, 1933 when he
gave his inaugural address, the line we all remember from
the East front of the Capitol is that “the only thing we have
to fear is fear itself.” The line that got the
biggest applause and kind of a bloodthirsty cheer
according to Eleanor Roosevelt who wrote about it that night
was when FDR said they served– the circumstances of
the present crisis are such that I may require
wartime like executive powers. And they roared and it
chilled her, she said, because she realized
they were ready as the Europeans had
proven themselves ready for a strongman or a dictator. It terrified her. That night, FDR’s having a
drink before he goes to bed and Rexford Tugwell, a
brain trust her comes to him and says– rather pretentiously
actually, Mr. President, if you succeed in
saving capitalism, you will go down as our greatest
president, but if you fail, you’ll go down as our worst. And FDR looked at him
and said, Rex, if I fail, I’ll go down as our last. So don’t tell me we
haven’t been here before. The 1930s were a decade
where we did not know if democracy would succeed
against dictatorship. Churchill saw it, Churchill saw
Roosevelt as a hero early on, wrote a piece in the early ’30s. They didn’t know each other, but he said that FDR
represented a bright light between the baleful
flames of Soviet Bolshevism and the lurid flames, I love
Churchill, the lurid flames of Nordic self-assertion. Only Winston Churchill could
write the phrase lurid flames of Nordic self-assertion. FDR was the hope, but he was the
hope because he had a country that responded to him. He couldn’t do it by himself. He appealed to those
better angels. He understood that we
were stronger together. He understood that America
required an elevation. And that if in fact
we were going to live to fight another day, if
democracy was going to live to fight another day, it would
require a breadth of vision and an understanding that
the country was bigger than any single interest group. And that’s not to lionize– that’s not to overly
lionize Franklin Roosevelt, but imagine what it was
like to be 39 years old to be the most popular
Democrat in the country, he’d run for vice
president in 1920. And to wake up on an
August morning in 1921 with the most famous name
in American politics nothing but a future ahead and
not be able to walk. Churchill, again,
said not one man in a thousand could have
ever left his house again, not one man in a million could
have run for office and not one in 10 millions could have
risen to the pinnacle in the hurly-burly of
the great republic. I am absolutely convinced
that the Greeks were right when they said the character
is destiny and I’m convinced that Democratic capitalism
survived the 1930s and that socialism or communism or some god-awful
connect the mix of the two from either Father Coughlin and
his anti-semitism or Huey Long and his populism, I am convinced
that Franklin Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt’s America
won because he knew what it was like to be knocked down
and yet to come back. The New York Times wrote
on the day he died, published on April 13th,
1945, that men will thank God on their knees a
hundred years from now that Franklin Roosevelt was in the White House
when the crisis came. But he always knew that he was
an instrument of all of us. He also knew that he shouldn’t
be in our faces all the time. [ Laughter ] I must say, you know, whenever I
talk about Roosevelt, you know, really through really–
certainly through Obama, I feel as though much of the current moment
does disprove Darwin. [ Laughter and Laughter ] But if– I stole that
line from Henry Adams. But it’s– if you’re going to
steal, steal from Henry Adams. Write that down. It was– he wrote it,
the letter in 1935. Someone had said, oh you need
to get on TV, you need to get on radio more, you
have to talk more, you have to be more present. And he wrote that there is
something in the human psyche that will not stand
the highest note in the scale being played
at a constant level. If you can fit that
into a 140 characters, tweet that out for me. He understood how to
husband his capital, how to lead in a democracy. And it was incredibly
frustrating, Mrs. Roosevelt, it was really– was the
conscience of the White House, one of the greatest women who ever drew breath grace
people ever drew breath, represented our better angels
in every sphere of life. And also I think endured
what I must think– what I think of as whenever
I’m in domestic trouble, which is often, I will say
well at least I never– FDR didn’t tell Mrs. Roosevelt
that Winston Churchill and 35 of his aides were coming to stay
in the White House for a week and stay for Christmas until
Christmas Eve afternoon. It’s amazing she didn’t
just kill him right there. The other amazing thing that we’re all not all speaking
German is FDR drank these odd martinis that were
three quarters for muth, one quarter gen, it’s amazing
we won hissing growling. Churchill hated them and
he would pour them out and he actually killed a
plant during one summit because he kept pouring about. And believe me for Winston
Churchill to pour how to drink, it was bad, it must
have been horrible. He wasn’t perfect,
Franklin Roosevelt, because what’s the
greatest– if you ask anybody, what’s the greatest
American moment? People will say, well,
World War II right up there. He’s– That’s absolutely right. But, but, but, remember
that soul the clan and King so here we are projecting
power to defeat tyranny around the world and
what’s the reality at home, a segregated America,
a segregated military, Franklin Roosevelt signing
Executive Order 9066 and turning the
American-Japanese Americans simply because he thought they
might be a security threat no evidence of it. A couple of steps forward
step back, you know, what George Eliot called dim
lights and tangled circumstance. That’s our story, but
pushing on, pushing on. Last example is Joe McCarthy. I don’t know if this
will at all resonate. I’ll wait. It’s, you know, it’s right,
so Rudy Giuliani as Roy Cohn. It’s kind of funny, you know? I mean, this doesn’t–
sometimes you didn’t have to work at this stuff. So, Joe McCarthy,
backbencher, Wisconsin, not a particularly
interesting senator. He’s looking for a
national issue in 1950. There were communists in
the government in the ’40s, but Harry Truman got
rid of most of them. In a loyalty program, the
Civil Liberties folks hated but still got rid of them. McCarthy comes along, he’s
soul– Cohn later wrote– his lawyer later wrote that he
bought anti-communism the way other people might buy a car. It was an issue, it
was something to ride. Lincoln’s birthday, Wheeling
West Virginia, he says, he has in his pocket a 205
communists, the number wandered down to 57, he never
really found any. Reign of terror of four years. Now, think about that, four
years from Lincoln’s birthday, 1950, February until late 1954. Parenthetically, as well, June
17th, 1972 to August 9th, 1974, people want these things
to move more quickly, but that’s not the way
history actually unfolds. For almost 48 months, Joe McCarthy terrorized the
United States of America. And he did it through the
manipulation of the media through an appeal to
broad popular fear at a time of transition. He did it kind of promising
to make America unpinch again. He understood the means of
communication of his time. The afternoon papers
used to close at noon, so McCarthy would call
press conferences at 11:30 in the morning and say
I am seeking a communist in Des Moines, headlines
all around the country. Senator seeks red in Des Moines. He did it 11:30 so they
couldn’t have time– they didn’t have time to check. Then he waited till 11:30 p.m. because the morning
papers closed at midnight. And he said, the read
in Des Moines is eluding but I’m redoubling my efforts, flashes across America,
redoubles efforts. Radio helped him. When he took to the stump
in Wheeling, in 1950, there were 3.1 million
televisions in American households. When he was censured in 1954, there were 30.6,
immense sea-change. And the good news about that, if
you believe that the truth will out and that leaders who are not
appealing to our better angels but are in fact dealing in
hope traffic, I mean traffic in fear is exposure killed him. People watched him long enough to think this is not
who we want to be. But let me tell you who you
definitely want to have been. And I thought about her
all morning and you want to be Margaret Chase Smith, the
Republican senator from Maine who within a month of the speech in Wheeling gave a speech called
the declaration of conscience in which she laid out the
exact case against McCarthy. I urge you to go read it. There was no further
intellectual or moral movement by 1954 when the
censure vote happened from what Senator
Smith laid out. McCarthy dismissed– and
she only got six senators to sign it with her. McCarthy dismissed them as “Snow
White and the Six Dwarves”. But here we are in
2018 talking about her. We’re not talking about the
senators who took a dive or who wanted to wait to
see the next poll or wanted to wait it out a little bit. We’re talking about the one who
stood and said this is wrong. And that’s what we need more of. And whenever I talked to
folks who actually have power, one of the things I try to say
is what do you want us to think when we look at your
oil portrait? And it works because they
can’t imagine a world where we’re not gazing
adoringly at their oil portrait. So it’s kind of a passive
aggressive thing, it works. And I was thinking
all morning, you know, I was sitting outside
the cathedral and all those senators
sitting there and what do they
think people are going to be saying about them? You’re afraid of a guy
with a Twitter finger and a 36% approval rating? Yeah. Anyway– [ Applause ] So, you want to be
Margaret Chase Smith, you want to be Margaret
Chase Smith, and you want to urge people not to agree– we don’t have to agree all
the time, we never have from loyalists versus
patriots to isolationist versus interventionists to
globalist versus protectionism, we’re always going to fight. The country was built to fight. The country was built to have
guardrails so that we would at least stay basically
on the road. But here are a couple of
three characteristics given to you fast that I think
we need and I think that presidents need, and public
officials need in order to win that battle within the soul. The first is curiosity. Absolutely essential. The greatest eras, the
greatest presidents are ones who are intellectually curious. Thomas Jefferson was able to
write that sentence not simply because he was a rising
young politician of Virginia in the third week of June
1776, but because he was in a broad conversation with
the European enlightenment, the Scottish moral
enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution,
the Protestant Reformations, the introduction of Gutenberg,
an entire reorientation of the world from being seen
as being run by kings, popes, prelates, prince’s, people who
either by an accident of birth or an incident of election were
given power over all of us, a vertical understanding. And what was happening with the
American Revolution is it was becoming more horizontal,
that we were all born with that capacity to
determine our own destinies and that it wouldn’t
simply lie in the hands of a pope or of a prince. Jefferson was able to set that
in motion incomplete as it was because he was voraciously
curious about what was going on in the rest of the world. And I think that this– the
baseline of citizenship always but particularly
today is realizing that the American Revolution
was the political manifestation of the idea that reason has
to have a chance in the arena against passion that
we’ve been given a brain, we’ve been given the capacity
to weigh different arguments and come to a reasoned
conclusion. And if we don’t reflect and
use reason and if we fall prey to reflexive partisanship,
then we’re not being true to the reality of
the revolution. Partisanship is fine. Partisanship is the air
we breathe, is the price of free government,
but we have to, we have to make it
reflective not reflexive, so curiosity is one. The second is humility. We’ve got to figure out
how to admit mistakes. We wouldn’t be here if Jack
Kennedy hadn’t been able to admit a mistake
from the Bay of Pigs to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Remember after the Bay of
Pigs in April of ’61, he said, how could I have been so stupid? In a parliamentary system,
I would have resigned. He calls the last men on earth
before him he wished to appear in need of tutelage, and
that was Dwight Eisenhower, ask him to come to Camp David. Eisenhower says, you have
to have everybody in a room, you have to weigh the pros and
cons, you can’t run these things out of your back pocket. Cut to October 1962,
casualty estimates of a possible hemispheric
exchange of nuclear weapons in the Cuban Missile
Crisis range between 70 and a 100 million Americans. They could have gotten to
this city in 20 minutes. Many of the people in this
room would not have been here. The whole structure of
life might have ended if Kennedy had not had
the humility to admit that he made a mistake
and he needed to learn. One of the many tragedies
of Dallas is that Jack Kennedy is one
of the few presidents, Lincoln’s another, who were
self-evidently learning as they held that office. It’s so hard to learn
at that level. It just– it– the
pressures are such. But they were able to do it and
we are better off because of it. The last is empathy. And I want to leave
you with this. If I don’t care about
you and if you don’t at least nominally
care about me, democracy doesn’t really work
because why should you pay taxes to help me and vice-versa if we don’t have a
sense of sociability? But Gordon Wood, the great
historian, I know has been here, called sociability,
neighborliness, if we don’t understand that
we’re in this together, what Dr. King called a
mutual garment of destiny. That requires empathy. I don’t have to love
you to death. We don’t have to spend
a lot of time talking. But we have to be– we have to have a fundamental
empathy with each other. And I think the most empathetic
man who ever held the presidency of the United States is
George Herbert Walker Bush. And I want to read you
quickly a letter that is– it’s from another
planet basically. But, this is the kind of
person who was elected to the presidency 30
years ago this year. This is a letter that
President Bush wrote to his mother in the late 1950s. After the loss of the Bush’s
daughter Robin to leukemia in the– in 1953, they
had the four boys, Doro, their last child had
not yet been born, she would be born in ’59. And this is the voice of
a son writing his mother about the loss of
his own daughter. And I share it with you
not least because it is of its unique in the
literature of the presidency, but I often think that if
I could be 5% of the man who wrote this letter,
I’d be ahead of the game. So this is the voice
of George H.W. Bush. “There is about our
house a need, the running pulsating
restlessness of the boys needs a counterpart. We need some starch
Chris frocks to go with all our torn neat
blue jeans and helmets. We need some soft blond hair
to offset those crew cuts. We need a dollhouse to
stand firm against our forts and rackets and thousand
baseball cards. We need a legitimate
Christmas angel, one who doesn’t have
cuffs beneath the dress. We need someone who’s
afraid of frogs. We need someone to cry
when I get mad not argue. We need a little
one who can kiss without leaving egg
or Jam or gum. We need a girl. We had one once, she’d
fight and cry and play and make her way just like
all the rest, but there was about her a certain
softness, she was patient. Her hugs were just a
little less wiggly. She’d stand beside our bed
until I felt her there, silently and comfortable. She’d put those precious
fragrant locks against my chest
and fall asleep. Her peace made me feel
strong and so very important, my daddy had a caress,
a certain ownership mode that I loved even more than the
‘hi dad’ that means so much. But she is still with us, we
need her and yet we have her. We can’t touch her and
yet we can feel her.” In the course of writing the
book about the president, I asked him to read that
letter aloud to me and we were in his office in Houston,
and long before he finished, he broke down an extraordinary
level of physical sobbing. So much so that his chief
of staff came in the office and looked and saw what we
were doing and said, why did– she asked me, she said, why
did you want President Bush to read that? And I said, well, if you want
to know someone’s heart– and before I could finish, the
president jumped in and said, you have to know what breaks it. That’s the best part
of the soul of America. Thank you. [ Applause ]>>Carla Hayden: You
could have kept clapping. I just wanted to say,
thank you Jon Meacham. You were the perfect person
to close the main stage today. You are what we needed. And I want to also
bring up another person, Mr. David Rubenstein, who is– [ Applause ] — the person who brings
this festival to us, who is the major sponsor
who believes in literacy and learning and
the power of words. Thank you both. We appreciate you so much. [ Applause ] And I feel like we should just
keep clapping and standing. I want to thank all of you
for your patience today. I know there were long lines
for the signings and everything, but we can’t thank you
enough for making this one of the premier events. And I have just news in that the
next date for next year will be on Saturday, August 31st,
Labor Day weekend again. We just got the confirmation, so
thank you all and keep reading. [ Applause ]

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