Don't Lose Hope, Historian Jon Meacham Tells Capacity Crowd at Carlson Lecture
Using his deep knowledge of American history as a reference point, noted author and historian Jon Meacham delivered a reassuring message to an enthusiastic capacity crowd at Northrop last week: Do not abandon hope in these tumultuous times.
“We have been here before in many ways, and we have persevered,” Meacham told more than two-thousand people who attended the Distinguished Carlson Lecture November 14, presented by the Humphrey School of Public Affairs.
Meacham’s lecture was based on his latest book, The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels, in which he puts our current divisive political climate in perspective.
“In a world that seems to be growing more divided every day, Jon’s work provides perspective, and it offers hope,” said Dean Laura Bloomberg in her welcome to Meacham. “I don’t know about you, but I think hope is something this world could use a little more of right now.”
Meacham, a Pulitzer Prize-winning presidential biographer, described previous dark times in the nation’s history such as the Civil War, the Great Depression, the Cold War, and the Vietnam War era, when Americans and their leaders eventually came together to overcome those struggles.
“We came through the Great Depression because we had a president (Franklin Roosevelt) and a populace that was not ready to give up,” said Meacham. “We were bound together because we knew each other, and we believed that we were stronger together than we were apart.”
Meacham peppered his remarks with gentle ribbing of many political figures, including Presidents George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, John F. Kennedy, and others. He also poked a little fun at himself, noting his audiences can be “particularly dorky. And let’s be honest, if you’re here, you’re in the club.”
Calling himself a huge admirer of Minnesota political icons Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale, Meacham said Humphrey’s 1948 ‘bright sunshine’ speech to the Democratic National Convention, in which he argued in favor of a strong civil rights plank, was a pivotal point in political history.
“That speech, in many ways, inaugurated the modern era of politics in its best sense. It was clearly a delineation for the good,” said Meacham. When delegates from Southern states, led by Strom Thurmond, walked out to begin running the Dixiecrat campaign, “you could see a clear line separating the politics of hope, preached by Humphrey, and the politics of fear, embodied by Thurmond.”
Meacham said the Joe McCarthy “red scare” of the early 1950s is similar to the current era. He noted that McCarthy understood how to manipulate the media, and he used hyperbole and false charges to become the most powerful politician in America at that time.
“But McCarthy fell from power with the rise of television usage, which increased tenfold in four years,” Meacham said. “Americans could look at him, they could watch the Army-McCarthy hearings, they could see what they seemed to be becoming, and they didn’t like it. The fever broke. The notion of fair play won out.”
President Trump gained political power through his use of the media, particularly his constant use of Twitter, and “his cultural ubiquity is something we will reckon with forever,” said Meacham. “It’s clear the presidency has not changed Donald Trump. We don’t know yet to what extent he has changed the presidency.”
The Distinguished Carlson Lecture Series is supported by Carlson and the Carlson Family Foundation. They were represented on stage by Wendy Nelson, chair of the Carlson Family Foundation (pictured at left), who presented Meacham with a framed set of photos from Hubert Humphrey’s 1968 presidential campaign that were taken by TIME/Life Magazine photojournalist Ben Martin and donated to the School.
“My grandfather’s vision to start this lecture series as a means to contribute to the intellectual life of Minnesota could be identified as a push for our better angels to take flight,” said Nelson. “And I am certain that he would be applauding you, as we are, for using your voice at this moment in history to stoke hope and encourage breath for our more noble selves.”
Meacham closed the night with a reminder that every era is defined by how our “better angels win out over our darker instincts.”
“The soul of our country is neither wholly good nor wholly bad. We have the capacity to be like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and to be like the Ku Klux Klan, ” Meacham said. “It’s a perennial struggle. There’s never going to be a moment when we look around and say everything is perfect. There’s a reason the framers of the Constitution said we are seeking ‘a more perfect union.’”
ABOUT THE DISTINGUISHED CARLSON LECTURE SERIES
For 35 years, the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, with support from Carlson and the Carlson Family Foundation, has presented the Distinguished Carlson Lecture Series, bringing to Minnesota world-renowned speakers to participate in a forum dedicated to the presentation and discussion of the most important policy issues of the day.
The series began in 1980 with a gift from Curtis L. Carlson to honor his late friend, Hubert H. Humphrey, and to “contribute to the intellectual life of the greater Twin Cities community by sponsoring lively forums of broad interest.”
To date, the Carlson Lecture has presented more than 50 speakers, including Bill Clinton, Condoleezza Rice, Elie Wiesel, the Dalai Lama, and Beverly Sills. See the complete list here.
The Distinguished Carlson Lecture Series is made possible by a gift from Carlson and the Carlson Family Foundation.