August 24, 2019

Reading Uncertainly? ‘The Soul of America’ by Jon Meacham

This is an engrossing reflection on past American leaders, elected and publicly acknowledged, and how they have shaped our peculiar, yet resilient, form of governance.

Meacham leads us in a thorough review of our history: early (and conflicted) visions, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War, its aftermath (Reconstruction, the Klu Klux Klan), Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and our entry into world affairs, the Depression, FDR, McCarthyism, Martin Luther King, and LBJ. Throughout he gives us the sense that all human beings, and, indeed, our so-called “leaders,” are both selfish and altruistic, often at the same moment.

We are both hopeful and fearful. It is, again, a story of trying to organize ourselves when we are simultaneously rational and irrational.

Meacham is a storehouse of relevant quotes from earlier observers. As an example, his last six pages cite 28 comments of others, often at length.

But his narrative ends with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Yes, that was a momentous achievement, but our scrambling did persist thereafter. As Sean Wilentz, in his New York Times review on June 10, 2018 explained, “Suddenly we are thrust back into the present with little understanding of how we got here from there”. What has gone wrong, or has, indeed, anything gone wrong? Are we simply, as so often in the past, struggling to find reasonable courses of action, both domestically and internationally?

Perhaps an answer lies in his quote of Eisenhower on leadership: “It’s persuasion – and conciliation – and education – and patience.” But are we ready, even willing, to accept that rational guidance?

Throughout, the author cites our very human compulsion to accept ”the most ancient of institutions, a powerful chief” connected to “the more modern of institutions, a free, disputatious populace.” Can they work together? Is our system really worthwhile (a strong executive, balanced by an equally strong legislature and judiciary)?

I continue to look with envy at a system almost as old (created in 1848), the one in Switzerland: seven rotating presidents, each serving a one year term, with a strong Assembly and local cantonal legislatures. And the Swiss employ four languages! It works and it has much less publicity …

Meacham’s five concluding “ideas”: (1) Enter the Arena, (2) Resist Tribalism, (3) Respect Facts and Deploy Reason, (4) Find a Critical Balance, and (5) Keep History in Mind.

Keep listening, reading, and thinking!

Editor’s Note: ‘The Soul of America’ by Jon Meacham was published by Random House, New York in 2018.

Felix Kloman

About the Author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction, which explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there. For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farm Coffee, where he may be seen on Friday mornings. His late wife, Ann, was also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visited every summer.

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