Historian John Meacham’s new book shows us America’s politics will probably get better

“A well-organized minority can always outmaneuver an unorganized majority. … Mass frustration could bring about anything.”

— Rep. John McCormack (D-Mass.), Speaker of the House from 1962 to 1971

Sobering bon mots such as those pepper Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Jon Meacham’s newest book, “The Soul of America,” a discerningly focused analysis of key turning points in American history that illustrate how we previously weathered destabilizing crises and norm-defying demagogues.

Meacham discussed the book for Live Talks Los Angeles on Monday in front of a packed audience at New Roads School’s Ann and Jerry Moss Theatre in Santa Monica. Live Talks Los Angeles just launched a weekly TV show on Spectrum News 1 and will post video of Meacham’s presentation on its Vimeo channel next week.

“The Soul of America” is a reassuring read, but it is not rosy-hued revisionism. Relevance to current dramas is unmistakable when Jane Addams and Eleanor Roosevelt advise against tribalism, and John Adams famously insists “facts are stubborn things.”

The most absorbing chapters trace Abraham Lincoln’s deft marshalling of political forces to end slavery; the rise of the pro-Confederate Lost Cause movement; Woodrow Wilson’s high-minded hypocrisy; Huey Long’s wily demagoguery; FDR’s bedrock belief in fair play; and the KKK’s 1920s resurgence. (Newspaper editor William Allen White’s description of “Kluxers” is breathtaking in its similarity to commentary on certain contemporary political factions.)

Harry Truman emerges as an inspiring figure, mostly because he rose to the occasion of his presidency with such asperity and conviction. In striving to offer “hope rather than fear,” “The Soul of America” parallels Truman’s aim when he read the Bill of Rights to a Southern constituent horrified by his championing of civil rights. “It’s not a bad idea to read those ten amendments every once in a while,” Meacham records him saying. “Not enough people do, and that’s one of the reasons we’re in the trouble we’re in.”

— Bliss Bowen

Watch Live Talks LA videos at vimeo.com/channels/livetalkslosangeles.

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