Review: His Truth is Marching On

His Truth is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope, Jon Meacham (Afterword by John Lewis). New York: Random House, 2020.

Summary: An account of the life of Congressman John Lewis, focusing on the years of his leadership in the civil rights movement and the faith, hope, commitment to non-violence and the Beloved Community that sustained him.

We lost a hero this summer in the death of Congressman John Lewis. We may remember the last photos of him, days before his death on Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, DC, one more expression of the arc of a life spent in the hope that the nation would recognize the gift that his people are and that one day, his hope of Dr. King’s Beloved Community would be realized. We might also remember the image of him being clubbed to the ground on the approaches to the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, a day he nearly lost his life. There is so much that came before, and between these images. In this new work, historian Jon Meacham offers a historical account coupled with Lewis’s recollections, that helps us understand not only the heroic work of this civil rights icon, but the wellsprings of motivation that spurred his long march.

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Meacham begins with his ancestry, great-grandchild of a slave, child of sharecroppers in Troy, Alabama, growing up deep in the Jim Crow South in segregated schools, where a look, an inappropriate word might cost one’s life if you were black. Lewis was a child of the black church who knew he wanted to be a preacher, and practiced on the chickens on his parents farm. His faith, and early uneasiness with the inequities that did not measure up to the American dream meant “that the Lord had to be concerned with the ways we lived our lives right here on earth, that everything we did, or didn’t do in our lives had to be more than just a means of making our way to heaven.” Then he heard the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. on the radio and heard someone who gave voice to his growing calling and conviction., leading to pursuing seminary studies at the American Baptist Seminary in Nashville.

Meacham accounts how this led to sit-ins at restaurants, the Freedom Rides, the Children’s Crusade and the March on Washington, where he gave one of the most impassioned speeches as a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), refusing to back away from criticism of the Kennedy administration. Meacham describes the death of Kennedy, the civil rights leadership of Johnson, and Lewis’s growing exile from SNCC, from those like Stokely Carmichael who had tired of the slow progress of non-violent protest, that left him to go to Selma alone rather than with the SNCC. Again and again his principles led him to get into “good trouble.”

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Through it all, including the deaths of King and Bobby Kennedy, he persisted, through multiple beatings and arrests. Much of this work chronicles his years in the civil rights movement, leaving the final chapter to summarize his years in Congress and legacy. What Meacham focuses on throughout are the theological convictions, rooted in Lewis’s belief in the Spirit of History, his faith in a loving God, and his belief that America’s ideals would prevail over America’s failings. Second is a focus on Lewis’s bedrock conviction of pursuing non-violent resistance rooted in a belief of the dignity of all people in the image of God, even one’s enemies, developed from the Bible, Dr. King, James Lawson and the Highlander Workshops, and the principles of Gandhi. The narrative is one of how Lewis “walked the talk” bearing numerous beatings without retaliation, sacrificing his leadership for his principles. Finally, Lewis lived toward a vision of America as Dr. King’s “Beloved Community.” From marches and activism to his years in politics, Meacham shows how he strove for the peace with justice that would overcome divisions between black and white. Meacham gives John Lewis the last word in his afterword:

We won the battles of the 1960’s. But the war for justice, the war to make America both great and good, goes on. We the People are not a united people right now. We rarely are, but our divisions and our tribalism are especially acute. Many Americans have lost faith in the idea that what binds us together is more important than what separates us. Now as before, we have to choose, as Dr. King once put it, between community and chaos.

John Lewis never lost faith that what binds us together matters most and never stopped pursuing community rather than chaos. Meacham’s book leaves us the question of what will we believe and pursue in the days ahead. How we answer that may be decisive not only for our lives but also for our country.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: In the Hands of the People

In the Hands of the people

In the Hands of the PeopleJon Meacham. New York: Penguin Random House, 2020.

Summary: A collection of the sayings of Thomas Jefferson, reflecting his belief in the critical responsibility of the people to the health and growth of the new Republic, with commentary by the author.

Thomas Jefferson was the optimist to the pessimism of a John Adams. He once remarked in their correspondence: “I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.” A significant reason for that was his belief in the citizens of the new nation, and in the government that they had formed.  It can be readily granted that Jefferson was a flawed individual. His university was a gentleman’s university. He owned slaves who had to be sold off after his death.  It was not his example, but the ideals of equality, of the consent of the governed, of an educated citizenry, of the important of religion and keeping the state out of it, of patriotism above partisanship, the value of immigration, and of compromise.

Historian Jon Meacham has collected the statements of Jefferson on all of these topics and more around the central idea of citizenship, how it may both be trusted, and how important the practice of good citizenship would be to the future of the Republic. He groups these under eleven topics, devoting a chapter to each. Meacham provides brief introductions in each chapter, followed by quotes from Jefferson, and others talking about Jefferson’s ideas.   The last two chapters are statements by an assorted group of others about Jefferson, and by other presidents on Jefferson.

Here are a few of those quotes:

On the right and responsibility to vote:

It has been thought that corruption is restrained by confining the right of suffrage to a few of the wealthier of the people: but it would be more effectually restrained by an extension of that right to such numbers as would bid defiance to the means of corruption.

On the vitality of a free press:

But the only security of all is in a free press. The force of public opinion cannot be resisted when permitted freely to be expressed. The agitation it produces must be submitted to.

On education:

It is safer to have a whole people respectably enlightened than a few in a high state of science and the many in ignorance. This last is the most dangerous state in which a nation can be.

On threats to the Republic:

I am not among those who fear the people. They, and not the rich, are our dependence for continued freedom. And, to preserve their independence, we must not let our rulers load us with perpetual debt.

One more, from the collection of presidential quotes on Jefferson, this one from Jimmy Carter:

Thomas Jefferson conceived our United States of America as no other nation had ever tried to be–dedicated to human fulfillment, where individual liberty was guaranteed. But Thomas Jefferson also founded a university, collected a national library, planned beautiful cities, mapped the wilderness, and being a farmer, he invented a better plow!

This book comes out at a time riven with controversy where we may be greatly tempted to fear for the future of the republic. Yet it strikes me that so many of our protests concern the disparity between our ideals of unalienable rights and the equality of all, and realities that fall short for some. Jefferson would challenge us all to patriotism above partisanship, and to the hard work of responsible citizenship that seeks the common good above our personal profit.

I could wish that all of us would buy a copy, and read it as we prepare to celebrate another July 4 and look ahead to national and local elections in November, as we consider what obligations we have to one another in time of pandemic. If ever there was a time for the renewal of an understanding of responsible citizenship and civic engagement, this is time. Jefferson offers guidance both about what we must value, and why we might hope.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Soul of America

the soul of america

The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels, Jon Meacham. New York: Random House, 2018.

Summary: A review of American presidential leadership and the battle between the politics of fear and the politics of hope for our national soul.

Jon Meacham thinks that even more crucial than an affirmation of the American creed is the fight for the American soul. Meacham characterizes this fight as a struggle between fear and hope, and surveys the forces in American history that appeal to each and the crucial role of presidential leadership. He summarizes his thesis as follows: “Our greatest leaders have pointed toward the future–not at this group or that sect.” Among others, he quotes Harry S. Truman as one who upheld this ideal:

“You can’t divide the country up into sections and have one rule for one section and one rule for another, and you can’t encourage people’s prejudices. You have to appeal to people’s best instincts, not their worst ones. You may win an election or so by doing the other, but it does a lot of harm to the country.”

Meacham’s book is a survey of this struggle throughout our history. We begin with George Washington’s expansive vision: “The bosom of America is open to receive not only the opulent and respectable Stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all Nations and Religions.” He was followed by John Adams who passed the unpopular Alien and Sedition Act, leading in turn to Jefferson’s presidency. He explores our “peculiar institution” of slavery that eventuated in the Civil War, Lincoln’s movement to an emancipation vision and a generous peace, and the cruel reaction of the rise of Jim Crow, the Klan, and lynchings during the failed Reconstruction.

His chapter on Teddy Roosevelt focuses on the mixed record of this president whose progressive agenda fought for the poor and who was the first to welcome a black, Booker Washington, to the White House and invoked high ideals, yet also made racist remarks and yield to the forces of the Lost Cause. Nevertheless, he worked with Jane Addams on poor relief and the rights of women. He epitomizes the struggle between fear and hope in his person and yet articulated a vision of one America:

“There can be no divided allegiance….We have room for but one flag, the American flag; for one language, the English language [an idea some would contest today]; for but one soul loyalty and that is loyalty to the American people.”

The post World War I era brought new struggles even as America prospered. Women’s suffrage finally became the law of the land, yet fear over the rise of communism and a resurgent Klan aroused the fears of Americans against enemies without and within. Prosperity gave way to Depression. Politics contrasted between the demagoguery of Huey Long, and the expansive vision of Franklin Roosevelt who declared that we had nothing “to fear but fear itself.”

Post World War II found America with an expanding middle class thanks to the GI Bill, and a renewed paranoia about communism, incarnated in McCarthyism. Later when Lyndon B. Johnson succeeds assassinated President Kennedy, he uses all his political skill to pass Kennedy’s civil rights agenda, losing the South to the Democrats, but ending desegregation, establishing many civil rights protections, and giving blacks the vote.

He concludes this work with a ringing plea for Americans to enter the arena, to resist tribalism, to respect facts and use reason, to find a critical balance between the extremes of our politics, and to keep our history in mind. It is clear that he has our current political administration in his sights in tracing this struggle between the rival visions of hope and fear that many have used to try to capture the American soul. His argument falls on the side of hope, as he cites examples over and over of how leaders have appealed to our “better angels” to overcome hate, and that this hope should animate us even in a time of fear.

What is somewhat troubling to me in this book is that the book uses, even quotes rhetoric I’ve heard since my childhood–in fact the quotes are one of the highlights of this book–they are so good. And yet, there is a humanistic optimism here that I think does not adequately reckon with the darker angels of our nature as a country. It is evident in the underlying struggle with racism and white supremacy that runs through the book. I don’t think Meacham reckons with how strongly and unrepentantly embraced this is in many sectors of white society, even the parts that try to deny we are racist; that try to pretend we are colorblind. I think Meacham is right to contrast fear and hope, but I would suggest he neither adequately assesses the roots of fear, nor explores the faith and convictions that animate hope amid desperate circumstances. The closest he gets is Martin Luther King, Jr.’s encounter with an inner voice when his home was bombed and his family threatened. The voice said,

” ‘Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And, lo, I will be with you even until the end of the world.’ I heard Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone.”

We live in an age of sentiments rather than convictions. Meacham reminds us of people motivated by compelling ideas and moral principles. If hope is nothing more than a preferable feeling to fear, it won’t take us very far. But if a hope grounded in deep conviction takes the measure of the deep roots of fear and hate, and “stands up,” there is yet a chance that the soul of America might be turned. I hope.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Destiny and Power

Destiny and PowerDestiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush, Jon Meacham. New York: Random House, 2015.

Summary: Meacham traces the life of our 41st president from his family’s roots and values that shaped a man both deeply committed to service and country, and also highly competitive and ambitious. The biography traces both his skillful leadership in handling the transition from the Cold War era, and the inability of this deeply private man to communicate his deep care for and desire to serve his country that cost him a second term.

Reading this biography suggested to me that George H. W. Bush is perhaps under-rated both as a president and a person. For many, he is regarded as an asterisk between the Reagan and Clinton years. And yet, as President, he skillfully navigated the nation in international relations at the end of the Cold War era that avoided provoking hard-line reactionaries in the former Soviet Union, facilitating the reunification of Germany, the freedom of Soviet satellites from Communist domination, and the establishment of warm relations between the U.S. and Russia. He built an international coalition to decisively defeat Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait and bring relief to the atrocities against Kuwaitis, containing Hussein without becoming embroiled in another “Vietnam”.

While growing up in a privileged New England family, he was a genuine war hero, surviving being shot down after a bombing run at Chichi-Jima. Before going off to war, he married Barbara, beginning a lifelong partnership between two very strong individuals. They experienced tragedy that deepened their compassion early in marriage, losing their daughter Robin to leukemia. They built their own fortune in the Texas oil industry of the 1950s. He served in the U.S. House of Representatives, then lost a Senate race in 1964 in the midst of Lyndon Johnson’s landslide victory over Barry Goldwater. Subsequently, he served in Republican party leadership, as U.N. ambassador, our ambassador to China and as C.I.A. director.

There was the complicated relationship with Ronald Reagan. Losing to Reagan after a promising beginning in Iowa, criticizing Reagan’s age and “voo-doo economics” he is selected as running mate, despite Nancy Reagan’s opposition. He turns out to be the ideal Vice-President who becomes a trusted friend by never stealing the limelight, and is asked by Nancy to give Reagan’s eulogy, which he did paying tribute not only to Reagan but to Nancy.

The drive for success, for power accounted for the weaknesses and flaws in his story–compromised positions on civil rights in the early years, the Willie Horton ads in the Presidential campaign, the famous “read my lips” promise that he broke when it became clear that only additional tax revenues could address the nation’s fiscal problems in the early 1990’s. Meacham explores the drive in his character that led to these compromises. At the same time, we see a president willing to do what he saw in the best interests of his country even though it contributed to his loss of the presidency, ironically laying the groundwork for budget surpluses in the Clinton years. We also see a very private man torn by the political necessities of glad-handing, wearying of the process in the 1992 election, outshone by the young Democrat from Arkansas.

As impressive as anything else is the life he lived after his one term presidency. He kept a low profile and eventually became good friends even with Bill Clinton, as the two former presidents worked on tsunami relief. Meacham writes about his relationship with his presidential son and there is no evidence of the father second-guessing the son, even on Iraq. He dismissed comparisons on this score with the response that these were different circumstances, different wars. Rather the relationship was one of pride and support, allowing the son to be his own person and only offering counsel when asked. Generally, he was generous with his words even of political foes. The few exceptions: Donald Rumsfeld (always a rival) and Dick Cheney, whose vice-presidency Bush 41 criticized after the fact.

Years earlier, I read Kevin Phillips American Dynasty, which is a much more sinister view of the Bushes as an inter-generational political dynasty. His account and Meacham’s are very different. Perhaps it was the fact that Phillips book was written during the height of criticism of Bush 43’s Iraq policies just before the 2004 elections. This seems a much more measured appraisal and a pleasure to read. It presented a man of both great ambition and generally high principle as well as one far more decent than he was given credit in his 1992 defeat. While acting in his own best political interests at times, what was more striking were the times he acted in service to the country, even at the expense of his own interests, whether as CIA director, vice president, or in the 1990 budget deal raising taxes. I was struck with how fortunate we were to have one with his foreign policy skill at the denouement of the Cold War. While his presidency is still in the recent past and will be subject to continuing discussion, Barack Obama’s assessment on awarding the Medal of Freedom to George H. W. Bush in 2010 may be the most fitting:

“As good a measure of a president as I know is somebody who ultimately put the country first and it strikes me that throughout his life he did that, both before he was president and while he was president, and ever since.”