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"Soul of the country" is worth preserving, Meacham says

  • Jon Meacham stands at a podium and gestures to the crowd in the middle of a packed auditorium. The backs of the heads of the audience are blurred in the foreground, Meacham is in sharp focus in the back.

Posted on January 10, 2019

The United States is a country shaped by a perennial struggle between tendencies to want to open our arms and clench our fists, argued Jon Meacham, noted presidential biographer and author, at a lecture hosted January 10 by the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies.

Meacham addressed a standing-room-only crowd of several hundred guests at the Eberhard Center as part of the Hauenstein Center's Common Ground Initiative lecture series. He said the divisive politics of modern-day America are remarkable, but not unprecedented. 

He cited examples from the Cold War and the Great Depression to explain that moments of crisis generally bring about the worst tendencies of American politics, but also reveal "our better angels."

"One way to think about the country is that it's not all good, and it's not all bad. It's a struggle between our better angels and our worst instincts," Meacham said. "And this isn't a radical view, that's what has been said from everyone from James Madison to Alexander Hamilton."

But Meacham didn't shy away from the current situation in Washington, where he acknowledged that politics in the country today are "far more representative of us than we might want to acknowledge," describing politicians as "more like mirrors than molders."

He also described modern politics as a "guerilla battle" and said President Donald Trump has a propensity for creating conflict.

"If you voted for Trump two years ago, you were saying the prospect of things getting worse was enough to send the most unconventional major party nominee in history to the pinnacle of power," Meacham said. 

Meacham said modern politics is exhausting and depleting, but said the public must resist being exhausted by the political cycle.

"We have to resist that exhaustion because the experiment for a more perfect union is so vital. If we act as though the problems of this moment are unprecedented, we do two things worth avoiding," Meacham explained, "we won't learn from the past ... and we don't do justice to the people who brought us here, who gave us something worth defending."

Meacham closed with thoughts on immigration and said the "soul of the country" has created a place where people want to come. 

"Do people want to be part of this experiment or not?" Meacham asked. "There's something worth preserving and refining, and it will be a struggle from moment to moment.

"The country is shaped by this perennial struggle between a tendency to want to open our arms and to clench our fist. Sometimes clenching a fist is the right thing, sometimes opening arms is the wrong thing. But, can you think of a moment or an era in history that you would want to go back to, to emulate or commemorate, that was about constricting the ability of people to join the mainstream by dint of hard work in our capitalistic and democratic world? I can't think of a moment where I'd say 'I'd really like to be in that year' when we were, in a metaphoric sense, building a wall or keeping people at bay."

The program was supported by a partnership with the Ford Foundation and the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library & Museum.

The Hauenstein Center's Common Ground Initiative continues February 7, when H.W. Brands will discuss "Comedian-in-Chief: What Presidents' Humor Says About Them, and About Us."

For more information or to RSVP, visit gvsu.edu/hc.