On this episode of Dare to Lead
In this episode, I talk to Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Jon Meacham about what history can teach us about leading through crises and deep political divides. We discuss the importance of humility, candor, and how our history reflects the ongoing fight between our better angels and our worst instincts.
Listen to the episode
Hope, Through History explores some of the most historic and trying times in American history and how this nation dealt with these moments, the impact of these moments, and how we came through these moments a unified nation. It takes a look at critical moments around the 1918 flu pandemic, the Great Depression, World War II, the polio epidemic, and the Cuban missile crisis.
It Was Said is a limited documentary podcast series looking back on some of the most powerful, impactful, and timeless speeches in American history, taking us through 10 speeches for the inaugural season. Meacham offers expert insight and analysis into their origins, the orator, the context of the times they were given, why they are still relevant today, and the importance of never forgetting them.
The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels, by Jon Meacham
His Truth Is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope, by Jon Meacham
Brené Brown: Hi, everyone. I’m Brené Brown, and this is the Dare to Lead podcast. Oh! I’m so excited about this episode. I am talking to Pulitzer Prize–winning historian, one of my favorite people to read and listen to, Jon Meacham. We’re going to talk about what history can teach us about leading through crises and deep political divides, we’re going to discuss the importance of humility, candor, and how our history reflects what Jon describes as the ongoing fight between our better angels and our worst instincts. For many, many years, I wanted to study history, I wanted to be a historian, that’s what I wanted to do. I tell a little bit of the story in the podcast, but as someone who really loves history and loves reading Jon Meacham, what a thrill to talk to just one of my favorite analysts and writers. Just exciting.
BB: So let me tell you a little bit about Jon Meacham. As I mentioned, he has a Pulitzer Prize, incredible historian and biographer. His latest work is entitled, His Truth Is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope, and it was published in August of 2020 with Penguin Random House. He is the author of the number one New York Times best-selling books, including The Hope of Glory: Reflections on the Last Words of Jesus from the Cross, and The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels.
BB: I have to say just The Soul of America and his two podcasts, which I’m getting ready to talk to you about, have given me so much hope and strength during what feels like just the longest struggle, at least in my lifetime and memory politically. So the two podcasts I’m talking about, he has created them and he hosts them, and his co-creators are the Peabody nominated C13 Originals Studio, and they were also done in association with the History Channel. The first one is called “Hope, Through History,” and it explores some of the most historic and trying times in American history, and how we dealt with these moments, the impact of these moments and how we came through them as a unified nation. It’s just really, I’m obsessed with this whole Hope, Through History podcast series. I’ve listened to it probably three or four times, we’ve listened as a family, when we drive between Houston and Austin, we listen to it in the truck kind of over and over, and we pause and have conversations. He takes on the 1918 flu pandemic, the Great Depression, World War II, the polio epidemic, which wow, just talk about giving you pause as we’re working our way through COVID and also the Cuban Missile Crisis, which Charlie happened to be studying at the same time we were listening and it was just… It’s fascinating.
BB: The other podcast that he has with Cadence13 in association with the History Channel is called “It Was Said.” It’s another limited documentary series, looking back on some of the most powerful and impactful speeches in American history. And not only do you get to hear the speech, but you hear expert insight and analysis into the origins of the speech, the person giving the speech, the context of the times, why the words are still relevant today, and the importance of never forgetting them. “It Was Said,” oh lordy, start with Barbara Jordan, 1976, Democratic National Convention. Lay down, sit down, prepare yourself, it’s just incredible. Jon also has a new documentary on HBO based on his book, “The Soul of America,” a documentary of the same name, and we also watched this as a family and just really, hope and strength and understanding. Jon’s a distinguished visiting professor at Vanderbilt University, he’s a contributing writer for The New York Times Book Review, and he is a fellow of the Society of American Historians. He lives in Nashville with his wife and kids. Let’s jump in.
BB: Alright, first question for you, Jon, history. Why? How? Why were you drawn to studying history?
Jon Meacham: Because it’s the only data set we have about where we are and where we should go. It is the story of great nobility and our worst derelictions. And so if we don’t draw lessons from the moments of great nobility and warnings from the terrible derelictions, then we confront the present and the future without sufficient arms.
BB: Is this what you were thinking when you were in elementary and middle school? Did you love history then? Were you the history kid in high school?
JM: So I grew up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on a civil war battlefield, Missionary Ridge, and you could still find minié balls from the Battle of Missionary Ridge when I was growing up. I grew up about 700-800 yards from Braxton Bragg’s headquarters, and about three miles away the other way from Chief John Ross’s house, the head of the Cherokee Nation, and so the twin original sins of American life were quite tangible to me, both the war over slavery and the removal of Native peoples. So to me, history was never remote, it was always genuinely in the yard. So I loved big books, I know this will surprise you, I was a relatively odd child, I know that will come as kind of a shocker, but I read Churchill’s war memoirs early on, I read David McCullough, Herman Wouk, The Winds of War and War and Remembrance and The Caine Mutiny, All The King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren was hugely important to me. And so what I was always trying to do as I went through secondary school and into college was to find a way to make a fascination with narrative intersect with a fascination with politics and history, and so journalism presented itself as kind of a gateway drug.
BB: So is it fair to say, based on what you’ve just said, that you found value in storytelling early on? You knew there was power in story?
JM: Absolutely, I think it’s the thing that has sustained me most actually. I just went through this experience and in a vivid way with a little book I wrote about John Lewis. And I was not telling a particularly new story, but I felt that someone with the kind of platform I’ve been lucky to get should do this because John himself understood the power of narrative. He went back to Selma, Montgomery, and Birmingham every year. He’s the only man I know in public life who could take you to a place of his heroics in a way that was not self-aggrandizing, but was about the story of the many and not the story of the few. And so, yes, I believe in that story is the essential element that prompts our capacities for reason to operate, honestly. It’s not an original insight, the guy who wrote Genesis figured that out, Homer understood it, right? When I’m writing a book and I feel that I’m sort of analyzing and holding forth for too long, I always try to return to whatever the human story is at the moment, even if it’s FDR’s cigarette or… [chuckle] right? Or Churchill’s cigar, John Lewis’s love of music, whatever it is, because I think history broadly put, human experience tells us that we learn narratively as opposed to didactically.
BB: I have to ask you this before we jump into my great challenge for you for this podcast, I have a data challenge for you, which you’ll find really exciting, I know.
JM: I’m looking forward to it already.
BB: There is this truth when I’m writing that I try to hold on to, and it’s counterintuitive, and it scares me sometimes, but I had been reminded of it as I listen to your podcast and I read your books. That the more specificity, the greater the generalization, it’s like a little hidden nugget fact of the heart of writing, that the more specific you can get in a story, the more detail, the more attention to small things. As a writer, I get afraid sometimes that I’m getting too specific and I’m going to alienate people, but specificity leads to generalization, like we can see ourselves and smell those stories and you do that, don’t you?
JM: Yeah, it’s funny you should hit on the senses there. I remember when I was writing about Roosevelt and Churchill, I wanted people to be able to smell the cigarette smoke. That was an explicit goal I had.
JM: Yeah, it’s cinematic, right? It’s not off-putting.
JM: It’s portraiture. Look, we all fall in love with our details and can do too much. Here’s a tiny, tiny example. When I write a date in a book, “On December 7, 1941, the empire of Japan struck Pearl Harbor,” I never say “On December 7, 1941,” I always say “On Sunday, December 7, 1941,” or “On Friday, May 10, 1940, Winston Churchill… ”
BB: Oh my God, that made a difference just now.
JM: The dates don’t mean anything, the day means something. It’s like, “Oh, Churchill became Prime Minister on Friday. That must have been a hell of a weekend.” It makes you stop and think and suddenly you’re there. You don’t go to a date, you go to a day, if this was worth it for you right there. [chuckle]
BB: No, it really was because… Yeah, there’s something really kind of unholy for me about Pearl Harbor on a Sunday.
JM: Yeah, and there’s a great Google thing where you can put in any date and to know that something happened on a winter Wednesday or a summer Thursday, no matter what it is, it just changes the narrative, it makes it less remote and more real. And isn’t that the point of writing?
BB: Yes, to bring us into the story. Okay, let’s talk about your two podcasts that you have done in collaboration with our friends at Cadence13. So “Hope, Through History” and “It Was Said.” Everyone in the room right here is looking at me shaking their head because I’m borderline obsessed with both of these podcasts.
JM: Do we need to do an intervention?
BB: We may need to do an intervention. So let me tell you what I’d like to do with you. I’d like to go through Hope, Through History and take four of these and walk through them because I, as a qualitative researcher, I’ve listened to each of them three or four times, and I have seen some thematic things that scare me a little bit. They give me hope, but they also scare me. So can we walk through just the basics of the four of these podcasts, and then talk about some questions that I have?
JM: Sure. Do we need to hold hands? Are you going to be okay just talking?
BB: We don’t need to hold hands yet, but we may when we get to the end.
JM: I mean I’m fine with it, I just want to know exactly what you need from me therapeutically.
BB: No, I need you to lean in, I need some comforting, like eye contact, that kind of stuff.
JM: So I’m kind of a historical service dog right now.
JM: Okay, got it.
BB: Yeah, like a golden retriever.
JM: Go for it, I’m ready.
BB: Okay. Alright, let’s start with FDR and the Great Depression, and before we even go there, here’s the thing that has been helpful about your work for me, not just… Helpful is a kind of an understatement. My whole family has leaned into it, we have watched your documentary on HBO together, we’ve listened to the podcast in the truck together. You write this, you say, “History gives us the ability to see what is the scope and nature of our current crisis, how people in previous generations address those crises and are there lessons to apply?” True?
JM: Absolutely. Well put. Did I write that?
BB: Okay. You did.
JM: Okay, I like it.
BB: And I’ve watched tons of footage of you at universities and the media, Stephen Colbert, and everyone always has the same questions for you, which makes sense to me. “Has it ever been this bad? And how in the hell do we get out of it?”
JM: Yep, those are the big two, those are the big two. And the answer to the first is “Yes, depending.” When people say, “Things have never been worse than they are in the fall of 2020,” I say, “Okay, was that true if you were Emmett Till in the summer of 1955? Is that true if you were Alice Paul, being force-fed as a suffragist who was arrested and basically held as a political prisoner 103 years ago? Was that true if you were Frederick Douglass before you escaped to freedom?” So that’s not to say that our problems are not ambient and existential, but I think there’s a sin that I think is worth avoiding, which is the narcissism of the present. The idea that our problems and our issues are so insuperable and so unique that we can’t look to the past for any kind of guidance. A cousin to that sin is the narcotic of nostalgia.
BB: Oh, God.
JM: “Why can’t we go back to when things were better?” Okay, when was that exactly? I’m a boringly heterosexual, white, Southern male, Episcopalian, I’m fine. I’ve been fine for 400 years, right? But women haven’t, and folks with a different sexual identity than I have haven’t, and God knows Black folks haven’t. We came on the Mayflower, so we were an early immigrant. So, I come at this from a position of immense privilege and immense security. And so, I just think that God gave us a brain for a reason, and if we don’t apply reason to passion and think this out and think about what has truly made us great, and what’s made us great is when we have fully applied the implications of what Jefferson meant when he wrote, “We’re all created equal.” And every moment in American life that we tend to commemorate and celebrate are not moments of captivity, but of liberation.
BB: You said that, or pointed to that, when you talked about internment during World War II, but also about what we’re doing on the border right now. We don’t look back with pride at moments where we have been.
JM: Sure. You look back at Franklin Roosevelt, at least I do, I’m an immense admirer of FDR’s, I’m an immense admirer of Ronald Reagan’s. I think that, in many ways, the last 80 years of American history can be described as a figurative conversation between FDR on one side and Reagan on the other. And every president from FDR to Obama governed on a field defined by those poles. This is not a sequential chapter to that. If there’s a President Biden, it would be sequential. And it may be that enough people don’t want a sequential chapter. The reason ’16 went the way it did is because people found that that rough American consensus was not commensurate with their cares and concerns. And I understand that, I understand that then, I will say, what I don’t understand is how you could take the evidence of the last four years and rationally say, “Yeah, I want four more years of that.”
JM: So, it’s very specifically the children on the border or the Japanese internment, or our failure to respond vigorously to the Holocaust, which people say, “Oh, we didn’t know,” but we knew, is because people make huge mistakes. And we often do so because of our appetite and our ambition, and the trade-offs that we have to make to move through what George Eliot called, “A world of dim lights and tangled circumstance.” My point, to go back to your very first question about, “Why history?” history, because you can look back and say, “Franklin Roosevelt was an amazing figure, he redefined the role of the individual and the State, he created a safety net. He led us to victory against the forces of tyranny,” but he also did some reprehensible things. Because guess what? He was a human being, and so are all of us. So, I’m not saying, “Look back and kick FDR in the head because of this stuff,” what I am saying is, “Let’s look around, figure out what we’re not addressing now, that posterity will rightly say of us, ‘What the hell were they thinking?'”
BB: I want to share another quote. It’s just it’s the perfect time. You write, “If we don’t arm ourselves with a historical understanding of how complex our history was, we’re not going to be able to think clearly enough to react in real time to save the country.” Walk with me through a couple of these episodes from your podcast, “Hope, Through History.” Let’s start with FDR and the Great Depression. Paint that scene for us.
JM: Winter of 1932, ’33, one out of every four American men is out of work. There are predictions that there would be a revolution in the country. There were riots over food and scarcity in the Midwest. FDR, on the night he became president, an aide came to him and said, “Mr. President, if you succeed in solving the crisis of the Depression, you’ll go down as our greatest president, but if you fail, you’ll go down as our worst.” And FDR looked at him and said, “If I fail, I’ll go down as our last.” There were two live possibilities in the world. There was Bolshevism coming out of Moscow, there was European-style totalitarianism. Democratic capitalism was not seen as what Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Charles Lindbergh’s wife, called “the wave of the future.”
JM: Huey Long was challenging FDR from the left. There were fascist forces in the country. A group of Wall Street bankers tried to bribe a two-time recipient of the medal of honor, a man named Smedley Butler, a Marine general, to come to Washington to summon the American Legion, he was the head of the American Legion, arm them, and that would turn into a right-wing army that would depose Franklin Roosevelt because Franklin Roosevelt was seen as a socialistic dictator. And Huey Long thought FDR was moving too slowly. So, we didn’t have Twitter, but that wasn’t all great. And so, how did we get out of it? We got out of it not least because FDR and just enough of us insisted that we see each other not as adversaries, but as neighbors. And that if you could reach out a little bit, you’d lift up somebody else. And if they were lifted up, it would lift up everybody.
JM: And that sounds sentimental and soft, but in many ways, that’s the story of the New Deal. And some of the New Deal worked and some of it didn’t. FDR said, “I think what we need now is a spirit of bold, persistent experimentation. If a method works, admit it, then repeat it. If a method fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.” And so, there was a conscious effort to underscore the commonalities of the American experience as opposed to exacerbating intrinsic, ethnic, racial, gender divisions which would have been the easy thing to do. That’s what a strong man demagogue would have done in the 1930s, and a lot of them tried, is you’d take advantage of a crisis, you get people pointing at each other because it’s too hard to point ahead.
BB: I was really moved by a couple of things from this story. One, and this seems thematic across all these I want to talk to you about, the candor, the honesty in how he spoke to the American people. He did not BS us at all.
JM: He said, “The news is going to get worse and worse before it gets better and better, and the American people deserve to have it straight from the shoulder.”
JM: And he established what I think of as a covenant of modern democracies, “If you give it to us straight, we’ll do what it takes.” Churchill was the same way during the war in England. He said of January 1942, which was a miserable moment in World War II, we had no capital ships in the Pacific, Pearl Harbor was still in flames, Singapore was about to fall. Churchill faced a vote of confidence in the House, and he said, “The British people… ” or the American people, “Can face any misfortune with fortitude and buoyancy as long as they are convinced that those who are in charge of their affairs are not deceiving them or are not themselves dwelling in a fool’s paradise. There’s no worse mistake in public leadership than to hold out false hopes soon to be swept away.”
BB: God. Do you know how to stop that? Because it’s one of the great things about the podcast, is you have the actual footage… So, my son is 15, was like, “Is that Churchill talking?” I’m like, “Yeah, that’s the audio recording.” I had to stop it there because… I’m just going to fast-forward us to the end of this study that I wanted to do with you. This is a guy… And correct me if I’m wrong, because I’m not going to be able to say this eloquently, and I certainly can’t quote him, but basically, just said, “No, we’re not going to negotiate with Nazi Germany. We’re not going to negotiate with Hitler. And your sons and husbands will die in the streets before we give up.” Is that a bad interpretation of what he said?
JM: No, it’s a wonderful quilt of two things. One is from June 4th, 1940, Churchill addressed the country and the House, and he said… And it was the urtext of modern defiance. This is after Dunkirk, they’re losing the war, and Churchill says, “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on landing grounds, we shall fight in the hills and the streets, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall fight on the seas and the oceans. And if this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British fleet, would carry on the struggle until, in God’s good time, the new world in all its power and might steps forth to the rescue and liberation of the old.” That’s the great speech. And what’s so wonderful about that is, it’s part of the candor.
JM: He gets to the end and says, “We need America. We need FDR. We need the new world. But we’re going to do all of this until they come help us.” The even more intimate bravery was, he said to the war cabinet, “If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it only end when we are choking in our own blood upon the ground.”
JM: And he was totally willing to do it.
JM: And we now think of this as the vast heroic story, and of course, Hitler didn’t invade, but they didn’t know that. Hitler made three mistakes, parenthetically, from which he would never recover, and if you take one of them out, the world is different. One is he didn’t finish the job at Dunkirk. He let the British Expeditionary Force return to England, partly because he was so convinced he was going to win that would then become his army. Secondly, invading the Soviet Union in June of ’41, creating a two-front war that he didn’t need. And third, was declaring war unilaterally on the United States in the first week of December, after Pearl Harbor. Because before Americans spend a lot of time congratulating themselves on their nobility, let us always remember… And when I say this, genuinely people quasi gasp in audiences. We did not declare war on Hitler until he declared war on us. We were genuinely dragged into the war by his decisions, not by our own.
BB: I gasped, I think, when I learned that from you. It’s not the story that I was told. And is isolationism a real thread through our country’s history?
JM: Absolutely, absolutely. Understandably, in many ways, our geography has encouraged it. It was… Our culture has encouraged it because we were a revolutionary people, we did break away because of the entanglements and the difficulties of the old world, but as FDR said, every ship that sails at the sea, every plane that flies through the air does affect America and America’s future. And one of the reasons the 1930s turned out as poorly as they did is because in the 1920s, because of the cataclysm of the First World War, because of racism, because of anti-immigrant feeling, we built walls. We raised tariffs, we capped immigration, we wanted to put America first, which of course became the name of the group that lobbied against our intervention against Nazi Germany and then became the slogan of an American president a hundred years later, 70 years later.
BB: Make America great again?
JM: America first.
BB: America first. It was just weird when I was watching the documentary on HBO, I kept thinking, a lot of these movements had a lot of Make America Great Again sentiment.
JM: Yeah. They’re trying to leverage nostalgia. And I understand it as a political calculation because you want to create a kind of Brigadoon to which people can reach back. And it’s narratively powerful, but it’s not particularly rational.
BB: As someone who studies human affect and emotion, I always think of nostalgia as it’s almost like emotional pornography because it’s… The first part of it is the way it used to be, but the silent second part is when people knew their place.
BB: But there is something very emotionally seductive about remembering, actually, the television version of the way things used to be. I don’t think they actually used to be the way that we hold them in our nostalgic minds, but it is very emotionally compelling, especially when we’re afraid.
JM: Absolutely. And you just put your finger on sort of the common denominator of all this, which is fear. And fear is, I think this was Aristotle who said, “Fear is the feeling produced by the prospect of the loss of something you love. The feeling produced by the prospect of the loss of something you love.” And then Edmund Burke said, in the 18th century, “There is no emotion more unreasoning than fear.” Because when you feel you’re at a precipice, you’re going to lash out, you’re going to hold on as tight as you can. And so… And hope is prospective, fear is momentary, of the moment. So one is real and the other is ideal, and so it’s harder to sell hope than it is to exploit fear. That’s just a political cultural reality.
BB: It’s interesting because one thing I learned from you that really kind of shook me, to be honest with you, is the biggest applause that FDR received… Place me in year in time when the speech happened, the fear…
JM: Friday, March 4th, 1933. [chuckle]
BB: Got it.
JM: East front of the Capital.
BB: Right. And so I thought the big line from that speech was, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” but you hold that it was another line that got the roaring applause. Tell us.
JM: He said that the current crisis, the depression, was of such scope that he might require wartime-like executive powers as if we had been invaded by a foreign foe. And the crowd roared. And Mrs. Roosevelt said, “I was chilled by this,” because it suggested that the people were ready for a dictator. And this was the age of dictators.
BB: Oh, across the world. Right.
JM: Yeah. Hitler, Mussolini, the Soviet Union, the Emperor. There was a rise out of the chaos and the emergent but stumbling nationalism of the First World War, there was a return, because of the depression, to a kind of tendency toward autocracy. And, again, live anxieties that FDR could become a dictator, that… He once said that the two most dangerous men… This is the summer of ’32, FDR said, “The two most dangerous men in America are Huey Long and Douglas MacArthur.” That Long from Louisiana could have lead a revolt from the left, and MacArthur, who was a right wing darling, could do it from the right.
BB: Okay, let’s shift gears for a second. Last one, and then I want to ask you if something I’m seeing in here is real, and how do you fix it for our nation before we wrap up, just a quick fix for the country.
JM: You got it.
BB: JFK and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Again, I have to say that I was absolutely shocked. I could not believe the level of honesty in his conversations with the American public. We were getting updates almost like, it felt like daily from him about how scary and real this was. How did that happen?
JM: Part of what happened… There’s a lineage to this. Really, during the American Civil War, civilians became combatants. Total war brought everyone into the conflict. This was not 18th-century war where soldiers would make an appointment to line up and shoot each other. It was suddenly a much more consuming and destructive thing. Then World War II, particularly the experience of the English and the French, was the same thing. So everyone in England was a combatant, whether they were in uniform or not because everyone in England was a target.
BB: Makes sense.
JM: We now know this in the age of terror too, right?
JM: The Cold War was like that. The nuclear stand-off, which was the deadliest stand-off in human history, was explicitly designed not to take out strategic targets, but to take out civilization. And so part of Kennedy’s thinking was, he had a moral obligation, a political obligation, to brief us as much as he safely could. President Kennedy is a complicated figure particularly, and from this perspective, but if we were redoing Rushmore, I don’t know how you keep a guy off who saved us from Armageddon, and I don’t think that that’s…
BB: Was the threat that… I have to stop you here. Was the threat that real?
JM: Totally. It was an existential threat. Some of those days in October of ’62, we were as close to Armageddon as we’ve ever been. And the miracle of it, as JFK said a couple times, there’s always some poor son of a bitch who doesn’t get the word. A Soviet naval commander could have done something. An American naval commander could have done something. Command and control is a great idea, but a lot of history is shaped by people far from the centers of power overreacting. And so yeah, we were as close as we’ve ever come to seeing everything wiped out. And I think the lesson is President Kennedy was willing to admit he’d made mistakes. He’d blown the Bay of Pigs in 1961, the invasion of Cuba, we were obsessed with Cuba, having Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba was an unacceptable shift in the balance of power. Of course, classically American, we didn’t think that our having missiles in Turkey was that, but that’s what he gave up, he cut a deal and saved us.
JM: And part of the reason he did it, was able to do it, was he was decidedly unemotional, ferociously rational, and focused in a way that I think was incredibly fortunate for all of us, that he could see us through that. And when you decide who to vote for for President, the Cuban Missile Crisis test is a pretty good one. The shorthand now is the red telephone ringing. Well, why is there a red telephone in our imaginative vernacular? It’s because of the Cold War. They put in a hotline after the missile crisis, because they were having to communicate with Khrushchev through Telex, and they realized that it would be better if they could actually speak. And so, again, kind of ambient sense of danger during the Cold War comes out of those weeks in October of ’62.
BB: So you’ve got Winston Churchill, the blitzkrieg, World War II, you’ve got FDR, the Depression, you’ve got JFK, the Cuban Missile Crisis. I think you’ll see the same thing if you looked at FDR and Polio, which, God, man, as a parent trying to parent through COVID, that was… I just would invite everyone to listen to that podcast because talking about this feeling that we’re alone, we’re up against something that we’ve never seen before, just how chilling it was even when FDR would talk about, when kids go back to school, they’ll see friends in braces and wheelchairs, they’ll see empty desks.
BB: This was like a COVID that targeted… A pandemic that targeted children. So here’s a thematic piece that I see. First of all, I see courage, I see real courage. The other thing that I just have not seen for sure for the last four years under the Trump administration, but maybe even before that, is why is the president or the administration not shooting straight with us anymore? What is this plague of needing to be happy and comfortable all the time at our own demise? I don’t understand what’s happening. No one talks to us like this anymore.
JM: No. What’s happening is the self-interest of an administration has prevailed against the broader common good of the country.
BB: You have to say that one more time.
JM: The personal political interest of a given administration has prevailed over the public and common good because it is not in the interest of the incumbent administration to admit that they made mistakes. And to go straight to your point, Jack Kennedy admitted he made a mistake and he learned from it, and we’re here because of that. The incumbent president has shown no capacity to acknowledge uncomfortable reality. Then it’s his wager, to go to part of the premise of your question, that more Americans would prefer to live in a world of wishful thinking, than they would like to make the somewhat difficult, but not all that difficult, sacrifices. If we think that wearing a mask and not going to dinner is a crippling sacrifice, God knows what these folks would have done in 1942 when we had to sacrifice for the war. I don’t know, this might be hopeful, and I don’t think it’s wishful thinking on my part. I don’t think a majority of the country shares that view, and I think we’ll know soon.
BB: You don’t?
JM: I think we’ll know… The results of the 2020 election will tell us. I think people are willing, if asked and leveled with to do what it takes in the same way we were willing to do what it took when we’re leveled with and asked in war time. And it’s a… Often a failure of leadership is also a reflection of a failure of what I think of as followership, that somehow or another, the leader has accurately gauged the dispositions of heart and mind and will of the people and is giving them what they want. I don’t think that’s true here. I think that part of the outrage, if you will, part of the puzzlement of the era, for me anyway, is Americans would respond to a great challenge, it’s just odd that the leadership of the country underestimated the capacity of the American people to accept the truth, and that’s not always the case. Sometimes when leaders sell us short, they’re right, but in this case, he was wrong.
BB: Trump was wrong.
JM: Trump was wrong. The American people, I believe, broadly put, and let’s say it’s 80%, and 80% is a big number, would have worn the mask, would have gotten it, if the message had been consistent, honest, fact-based, pointing ahead and not pointing at each other. The president, I think, misread the people, and because he has 40% or so of the country in a kind of mind meld with himself, and because those 40% are loud and their views are amplified, particularly in the information ecosystems that you and I dwell in, I think it gave a false impression to him that he was doing the right thing. And I remember thinking in March, I remember exactly where I was sitting when I thought, “Please God, don’t let this become a partisan pandemic.” And I think the task of the next president, God willing, will be to restore the primacy of fact over raw selfish emotion.
BB: Yeah, just we’re in our 10th year of a study on leadership, and it’s really interesting to me because when leaders are honest, even when times are hard, but it’s… Actually, especially when times are hard, it really galvanizes people and unites people in a way that’s very unexpected. But one of the hardest things that I think I’ve learned, I want you to tell me I’m wrong, but I don’t know if I am, but I’d love it if I were. But one of the things that’s been really surprising to me is not everyone really wants a courageous leader. Not everyone really wants courageous leadership, because there are a lot of people, and maybe not the majority, but there are a lot of people who really seem to me right now, to be gravitating toward comfort over courage that don’t want to turn toward the hard conversations, don’t want to turn toward the racial reckonings that really, if you’re not affected by them because of whiteness or privilege or class, that comfort seems to be… I don’t know, ranked higher than courage.
JM: Well, I think you’ve just put your finger on the default setting of human nature and…
JM: It is.
JM: It’s not?
BB: It is, but keep going.
JM: But again, but you can’t… But you and I have to face the world as it is if you want to make it a little different. So the default setting is food for your family, reproduction for your tribe, security against the other, right? That’s the elemental. So what’s remarkable about modernity is that enough of us have actually reached out beyond those basic needs and have decided that courage ultimately creates more and different kinds of comfort, that the inclusion and the promulgation of liberty creates a republic, creates a world that is ultimately more satisfying because it is in fact more just. But that’s a higher function, and that is the exception, not the rule.
BB: Is that what you refer to when you say, “our better angels”?
JM: Sure. Our better angels constantly do battle against our basic instincts. Constantly.
BB: And those three things are basic instinct, protect our own, feed our family and reproduce basically.
JM: And keep the other out. And keep the other out. And that’s the state of nature. And so that’s Hobbs, and then you move into Locke. But Locke only works if, at least in the American experience, if you appreciate the world the way John Calvin did, that we are sinful and fallen and frail and fallible. And the reason the constitution of the United States makes it so difficult to do anything is because they assumed rightly that most of the things we would want to do were wrong. And so I am able to say the following phrase to you without overclogging the sentence. From Seneca Falls to Selma to Stonewall, America has become stronger the more widely it has opened its arms. From the beaches of Normandy to the Freedom Rides, we have done this. From Jonas Salk to Cesar Chavez to John Lewis, we have done…
JM: But think about it, those are the exceptional moments, those are the moments to bring this full circle about which we tell stories because they’re the moments where if you hang a lantern on them, you want to see them. You don’t want to see Japanese internment, you don’t want to see slavery, you don’t want to see segregation, you want to see the overcoming of those things, and I submit that as a rational historical clinical matter, we are better off when we include and don’t exclude, because we celebrate John Lewis, we don’t celebrate Bull Connor.
BB: Okay, last question for you, and then I’ve got a quick rapid fire. You are a journalist, you’re a historian, I know, just based on the books I’ve read, that you’ve written that you supported a lot of Republicans, you have come out publicly in support of the Biden-Harris ticket for the 2020 election. Tell me.
JM: Existential election. This is not Romney vs. Obama or McCain vs. Obama. This is not Kerry vs. Bush where you could plausibly see that you might not prefer the alternative, but you can see the alternative being part of an unfolding familiar American story. Donald Trump, insofar as he is part of a familiar unfolding American story, is a part of that story that we need to not repeat, as opposed to a story that we need to keep writing. And I believe that… I’ve known Joe Biden a long time, and I believe that however imperfect he is, he will govern with an appreciation of the fundamental question we’re talking about, which is “At the end of the day, do you reach out or do you clench a fist?” And I believe that he would bring a grace and a dignity and an empathy and an open heart to the presidency.
BB: Okay, you ready for the rapid fire?
JM: I’m ready.
BB: Number one, fill in the blank. Vulnerability is?
BB: Number two, what is something that people often get wrong about you?
JM: That I’m a crazy socialist.
BB: What is one piece of leadership advice that you’ve been given that’s so remarkable, you should share it with us or so crappy that you need to warn us?
JM: The good part is, remember how the other guy feels, try to figure out how the world looks through their eyes, and always let them save face.
BB: Big part of the JFK story with the missile crisis. Okay, what is one stereotype or myth of leadership that we just need to let go of?
JM: That it’s a science as opposed to an art.
BB: What would you say to someone who says, “I’m not a leader. I can’t be a leader.”
JM: Then you don’t understand citizenship, because in a republic, we are all leaders because we are all ultimately part of what Dr. King called “a mutual garment of destiny.”
BB: Beautiful. What’s your best leadership quality?
JM: That I have no followers. [laughter] I do not attempt to lead.
BB: That is not true, but funny. Okay, what is the hard leadership lesson that you have to keep learning and unlearning and relearning over and over in your life?
JM: Oh, oh, this is… That if you are in the public eye, you can’t pick and choose how seriously people take something you say. The hard leadership lesson that I’ve learned over and over again is that there is always accountability and people cannot… As much as you might want them to, people are not inside your brain, understanding the nuances of what you meant.
BB: God, that’s a tough one.
JM: It’s horrible.
BB: It’s a horrible one if you got a public…
JM: I did it just the other day. I did it just the other day, and I said something and I knew exactly what I meant, and I wasn’t trying to be clever, but it didn’t land quite right. And one of the things, as you know, in this climate is you can’t… There is this machinery of perpetual conflict, and they just need any kind of fuel. And so if you inadvertently provide fuel, then it looks as though you’re part of the problem, even if your intentions were not to be part of the conflict.
BB: Yeah, my God, it’s news as shame entertainment. Yes.
JM: Yeah, exactly.
BB: Okay, what’s one thing you’re excited about right now?
JM: Election day.
BB: And then tell me one thing that you’re deeply grateful for right now.
JM: That I’m able to offer the kinds of views we’ve talked about in a way that I hope is more unifying than dividing, and it’s why I’ve been very careful about not being snarkily partisan. Because you don’t need me to do that. There are plenty of people to do that.
BB: I’m with you.
JM: I think if you talk historically, you widen the possible aperture for people to actually change their minds, and then every once in a while, I’ll, like Mr. Magoo, I’ll drive into a ladder and say something snarky and regret it.
BB: I’m with you on all of it. Yeah. Okay, you gave us five songs, five of your favorite songs. I’ll tell you what they are. “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” You’re so, you’re so Tennessee. By the Nitty Gritty Dirt band. “Love Me Tender,” by Elvis, “When We Were Young,” Adele, “If You’re Reading This,” by Tim McGraw and “If Hollywood Don’t Need You,” by Don Williams.
JM: Don Williams is an underappreciated genius.
BB: Oh God, I love Don Williams.
JM: He is the absolute best, and Keith Urban loves him. The last thing we went pre-pandemic, we’ve a beautiful symphony hall here in Nashville, and they did this virtual Don Williams concert where they had a lot of video and the orchestra played his stuff, and it’s just… He’s just fantastic.
BB: If you’ve never heard him cover Townes Van Zandt’s song, “If You Needed Me,” he does it with Emmylou Harris, like you’ve just got to listen…
JM: I’ll do that.
BB: It’s, it’s… Yeah, okay, you have to tell me in one sentence what this playlist says about you. From the Nitty-Gritty Dirt Band to Adele, to Elvis, Tim McGraw, and Don Williams. In one sentence, what does this playlist say about you, Jon Meacham?
JM: The boy is clearly from Tennessee. [laughter] Semicolon.
BB: Oh boy.
JM: Semicolon. This isn’t one sentence, but one of the funny… When I was doing the little list, I thought, with the exception of the Adele one, which I just think is a… I think she’s amazing. I think that voice is just stunning, one of the greats of our time, but there’s a kind of self-awareness to both the Nitty Gritty version of that, and Tim wrote that song about a soldier who died, and the Don Williams one is totally self-conscious because the key line is, the drama of it is the woman he loved has gone to Hollywood to try to make it, and so he calls her and says, “If you see Burt Reynolds, shake his hand for me and tell Burt I’ve seen all his movies.” And what I love about that, he didn’t say he loved all his movies, it’s just, “Old Burt, I’ve seen them.” And there’s just something wonderfully plain-spoken about that. It’s like a Will Rogers song sort of.
BB: I love that. I’m going to end with this quick story. I’ve got to tell you that. When I went to the University of Texas, the real UT, FYI to…
JM: Yeah. Got it. By the way, if it weren’t for Tennessee, you’d still be part of Spain. [laughter] So keep talking, big Texan.
BB: That was rude.
JM: Keep talking.
BB: No. And I was going to be a history major, I was really excited about it, and I love history so much. But when I got to the history department, every professor there was like a white guy with this… In their 70s or 80s with huge foreheads, and I thought, “I don’t think I belong here.” And so, on the way back to the C parking lot, which is right between the edge of UT and I-35 in Austin, I had to cut through the social work building, and they were having a protest about something. I was like, “Oh, I didn’t even know this was a profession,” and then I stayed and they’re like, “Oh, you can study history here too.” But I have to say that you are, for me, a real rock star, and you are one of the few people that make me think, “God, I should have been a historian,” it’s just… I know it’s hard because you make it so eloquent and I just love your work. I love your work.
JM: Oh, you’re very kind, but I think you’ve done just fine. [laughter] I wouldn’t re-think a lot of this. Thank you. I really do believe to whom much is given, much is expected, and I’ve been really fortunate to be able to do what I love. And I also think, honestly, my argument intersected with the presidential campaign of a really good man, and Biden has been incredibly generous about the soul of America, and we’ve done events together, and he invited me to speak to the convention, and there are some historians who believe that, as an academic discipline, history is a clinical undertaking. For me, it’s something with moral and contemporary utility.
BB: And obligation, I would add.
JM: Yeah, yeah.
BB: I would add moral obligation. You yourself said, “If we don’t arm ourselves with the historical understanding of how complex our history was, we’re not going to be able to think clearly enough to react in real time to save our country.” I think you have a moral obligation to speak up. And I just had Vice President Biden on our podcast, because I feel the same obligation as a researcher and a social worker. At some point, there is an obligation to say, “I’ve spent 20 years studying people. Here’s what I see.”
JM: Yeah. And people can take it or leave it, right?
BB: Yeah, for sure.
JM: That’s the marketplace of ideas. And I’m not saying one party has a monopoly on virtue. People ask me all the time about, “Would you write a book about Trump?” And the answer is no, but to me, the overarching story of the time is less about him and more about us.
BB: Oh, God, that’s right.
JM: What was it about us, 46.1% of us, in the right number of states, who thought, “Yeah, this is worth it.” And what that number’s going to be, it will be the second part of that story. Did it go up? Are more than 46.1% of the people showing up to vote looking at the evidence of the last four years and saying, “Yeah, I think that’s really great?”
BB: Can I ask you an unfair question?
BB: It’s really unfair. It’s really personal. If Trump is re-elected, will we make it through? Will democracy make it through?
JM: I think so. That’s not an unfair question, I think about it all the time. And I think that because I think about 100 years of segregation and 230 years of slavery, and the fact that you’ve only been able to vote for 100 years. Yeah, it makes it exponentially harder because, not least, there’s what the President would do, but there’s also the fact that for a significant period of subsequent time, he would have self-evidently incentivized his behavior to those who would follow. If he’s blown out and suddenly people are going to start saying, “Trump who?” in the Republic, and try to figure out what to do, that’s a whole different thing. But let’s be clear, the forces he represents are perennial. And he’s not an aberration, he’s a manifestation.
BB: I want you to say both of those things again. I cannot let you go until you say that one more time.
JM: The forces Donald Trump represents are perennial. He is not an aberration but a manifestation of the darker elements that have coursed through American society and history. When we are at our best, we make those forces ebb. And when we’re at our worst, they flow.
BB: You say, “The story of race and fear and anxiety and violence is inextricably intertwined with the soul of the country. We have our better angels fighting against our worst impulses. Our history is shaped by which one of those went out in a given period of time.”
BB: Once the angels win, we need to hold there.
JM: But you won’t.
JM: Because then if you think that, then when the next setback comes, it will be more dispiriting than it should be.
BB: Oh God, you’re right. Okay, that’s right. That’s right.
JM: Temporary dominion, that’s all politics is.
BB: That’s it.
JM: Is temporary dominion, and hopefully you build from strength to strength, and you get a generation or so, but you’re not going to get all of it. And this is what… John Lewis and I disagreed about this for 30 years, 28 years, we debated this. He believed that the beloved community could come into being on earth in time and space. I don’t. Of course, he’s John Lewis, so listen to him. But I’m with King, I’m with Niebuhr, I’m with Obama on this. “The arc of a moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” but it only bends if there are people insisting that it swerve.
BB: This is a really important conversation to me personally, and I know that the people listening to the Dare to Lead podcast will appreciate it. And not only do I appreciate your books, the documentary on HBO. I did see today, Oprah put up The Soul of America, your book, as one of the books getting her through this hard time, and I share her sentiment there. I just thank you for the clinical, academic, rigorous historical work, and thank you for being in the arena when there’s a shit ton of cheap seats and taking a stand and rising up to your moral obligation. I am grateful.
JM: Thank you. Thank you for everything. And we’ll just keep fighting. Keep fighting, keep talking.
BB: Yeah. We will. Thanks, Jon.
JM: Thank you.
BB: Oh man, I just hope you enjoyed this conversation as much as I did. I hope you found it, not just hopeful and strengthening, but instructive. And there’s a quote from Jon that I mentioned that I want to say again right now because I just think it’s so important that history gives us the ability to see what is the scope and nature of our crisis. How have people in previous generations addressed those crises, and are there lessons to apply? And man, I think the answer is, yes, history is so important. And one of the things that was so meaningful for me as a student, I just… I was a community college goer, 12-year college plan, but I had a couple of teachers, both history teachers in junior colleges that changed my life because when they taught history, they tied it to what was happening today and they made it come alive. So to all of you history teachers out there, like my history teacher at San Antonio College, who wore a different Hawaiian shirt every day, God, I wish I remembered his name, and jumped on the desk one time. It was just this “Captain, Oh, Captain” moment like from the Dead Poets Society.
BB: And I do remember her name, Cecile Durish at Austin Community College, who made politics and history just jump off the pages and shake your shoulders. Just thank you to the history teachers. I love this quote too: “History is the only data set we have about where we are and where we need to go.” Now, there’s some truth in that. If you want to learn more about Jon, you can follow him on Twitter @jmeacham and he’s on Facebook @meachamjon, and Jon is just J-O-N, no H. This is being released the day before the 2020 election, so vote, listen, not a political crisis, but an existential one, as our friend, Jon Meacham has explained to us. I’ll borrow one more quote from him. There are so many. “Stop pointing at each other and blaming and start pointing forward and walking together.” It’s just… It’s the only way. We’ll do it hand-in hand, awkward, brave, and kind. And I’ll see you next week. Dare to Lead is a Spotify original from Parcast. It’s hosted by me, Brené Brown, and is produced by Max Cutler, Kristen Acevedo, and Carleigh Madden, by Weird Lucy Productions and sound design by Kristen Acevedo. Music is by the amazing Houston band, The Suffers, and the song is called “Take Me to the Good Times,” which man, o man, take me to the good times. Amen.
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