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Houston Matters

Historian Jon Meacham Says Imperfection Is The Rule When It Comes To American Leadership Throughout History

Meacham’s latest book, The Soul of America, examines some particularly trying times in our nation’s history when presidents and ordinary citizens came together to overcome fear and hate.


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Soul Of America by Jon Meacham

Author Jon Meacham was in Houston on May 11 to discuss his latest book, The Soul of America, which takes a look at some particularly trying times in our nation’s history when presidents and ordinary citizens came together to overcome fear and hate.

Houston Matters host Craig Cohen interviewed Meacham in front of a live audience at Christ Church Cathedral downtown as part of an event hosted by Brazos Bookstore. In the audio above, we hear some highlights from their conversation.

On Performing Barbara Bush’s Eulogy

Meacham said it was “the honor of a lifetime.” He said Mrs. Bush called him two years ago to ask him to do her eulogy. And he said, “We’ll ma’am, you’ll probably bury me.” To which she replied, “Well, that’s the plan.”

After the funeral, featuring former presidents and numerous dignitaries, there was one thing missing, he said.

“At the end of that day…the person I most wanted to call and give her all the details was Mrs. Bush,” Meacham said. “I hope we all have people like this in our lives.”

On the Seemingly ‘Unprecedented’ State of Things in America

After violence broke out during protests and counter protests last year in Charlottesville, Va., and Pres. Trump was slow to condemn it, people decried the violence on social media saying things like, “This is not normal,” or “This has never happened before.”

Meacham said: “I think we have to beware of the narcissism of the present — the sense that everything that we experience is unprecedented because it forecloses the possibility of learning from the past. And it dishonors, really — it certainly discounts — the sacrifices, the remarkable achievements of those who have led us to higher ground.”

When people say those sorts of things, he continued, “Tell it to John Lewis when he was concussed on the streets of Selma. Tell that to Rosa Parks when she was booked at the Montgomery City Police Department. Tell it to the three civil rights workers who were killed in Neshoba County. Tell it to gay Americans, who only three years ago — not quite — were finally granted equal protection under the law.”

He acknowledges the fact that because terrible things have happened in the past doesn’t negate the importance of what’s happening now.

“This is not a message ‘relax we’ve gotten through it.’ The message is ‘lets get to work because we’ve gotten though it.'”

On American Leadership Throughout History

Meacham said there are many examples in our nation’s history of leaders stepping up and leaders falling short.

“Imperfection is the rule — not the exception very clearly,” Meacham said. “One of the reasons I do what I do is the human drama of history is so fascinating. If they were uncomplicated figures they would be less intriguing to write about and to engage.”

MORE: Jon Meacham Discusses His Biography of George H.W. Bush