In his new book, Jon Meacham, the Pulitzer Prize-winning presidential historian and best-selling author, tries to put the presidency of Donald Trump in perspective by explaining how the nation survived past crises.
But when Meacham comes to Lexington on Sept. 17, he also will talk about the late Kentucky-born author Robert Penn Warren, who more than 70 years ago wrote the classic American novel about demagoguery and the politics of fear.
Meacham’s 7 p.m. lecture at University of Kentucky’s Gatton Student Center is part of the annual Bale Boone symposium. It is sponsored by UK’s Gaines Center for the Humanities and Kentucky Humanities, which this year is encouraging people to read Warren’s 1947 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “All the King’s Men.” Meacham said it has been a major influence on his work.
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The protagonist of Warren’s novel is Willie Stark, a populist Louisiana governor modeled after the demagogue Huey Long. Interest in the novel has been rekindled by Trump’s political rise. But, in this case, truth is stranger than fiction.
“I think that to compare Willie Stark to the incumbent president is unfair to Willie Stark,” Meacham said in a recent interview from his home in Nashville, Tenn.
“But unquestionably the novel is about demagoguery; it’s about the nature of power, it’s about the compromises that people have to make,” he added. “It’s a fascinating meditation on how people in the arena wrestle with their own demons, try to heed their own angels.”
Warren was born in Todd County and educated at Vanderbilt, Berkeley, Yale and Oxford, where he was a Rhodes scholar. He is the only person to win Pulitzer Prizes for both fiction and poetry (twice). He also wrote powerfully in the 1950s about his native South coming to grips for racism and segregation. Warren died in 1989.
“He is arguably the great American novelist of the 20th century, (although) you might get a fight from Hemingway and Fitzgerald partisans about that,” Meacham said.
Meacham is a best-selling author who won the Pulitzer in 2009 for “American Lion,” a biography of Andrew Jackson. His other books have profiled Thomas Jefferson, George H.W. Bush, the friendship between Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill and the influence of religion on the nation’s founders.
Meacham said he was prompted to write his new book, “The Soul of America: The Battle for our Better Angels,” by the fatal clash between neo-Nazis and counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Va., on Aug. 12, 2017.
“I thought it was noteworthy to say the least that the president of the United States had a hard time figuring out whether he was for or against neo-Nazis,” he said. “It seemed to me such a singular failure of presidential leadership as we’ve come to understand it that it was time to take stock of what is the relative position of this moment for all of us compared to where we’ve been.”
The book recounts previous times in history when the nation survived thanks to what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” One common theme in history, Meacham said, is that periods of major change, especially involving civil rights and diversity, have been followed by backlash.
“We’re in a remarkably rich moment of demographic and economic and therefore cultural change,” he said. “In many ways, it seems to me, the 2016 election was a kind of last gasp of reaction from a largely white, largely male cohort of people who believe that the country has been theirs and will not long be.
“Demography is destiny,” he added. “I’ve voted for Republicans and I’ve voted for Democrats, but my own view is that in 20 years we’re going to live in an America that looks more like Barack Obama’s than Donald Trump’s.”
To survive change, Meacham thinks it will be vital for Americans to fall back on attitudes and actions that have carried the nation through tough times before. “The best way to guarantee fair play for yourself is to guarantee it for others,” he said. “The idea that you can create an open field and let merit rise as far as it will go, that’s the great American insight.”
Meacham said it is too early to know how history will judge Trump’s presidency.
“The presidents we remember fondly, the presidents we commemorate and memorialize are not the ones who narrow our possibilities and who only govern for their base,” he said. “They’re the ones who point ahead instead of pointing at this group or that group.”
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