Meacham looks for ‘better angels’

Sandra ClarkAround Town, Feature

Jon Meacham brought a message of hope as he sold some books in a conversation with Sen. Lamar Alexander at First Presbyterian Church on Sunday. And while Alexander’s questions were snow puffs, the audience was brutal – in a bibliophilific, gosh-we’re-in-a church sort of way, of course.

Safe to say, the folks who clutched their copy of Meacham’s “The Soul of America: The Battle for our Better Angels,” were not huge fans of President Donald Trump. One woman said bluntly: With Republicans controlling the three branches of government, “I see tyranny by party. … The checks and balances are not working.”


Another asked if Meacham sees Republicans in the Congress who are willing to “stand for the country rather than their party?”

Meacham started his answer by saying, “We’re lucky, for both of our senators from Tennessee are doing the right thing.”

“When?” yelled someone in the audience. The crowd erupted in laughter and applause. On stage, Alexander sat impassively.

Barbara McCoin talks with U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander following his conversation with Jon Meacham at First Presbyterian Church on July 8.

Earlier in the conversation, Alexander offered an alternate title for Meacham’s book: “We’ve Seen It All Before and We Survived It.”

Meacham, a history professor at Vanderbilt University and former editor of Newsweek, attempted to put current events into historic context. He talked of the struggles for voting rights for women, civil rights for people of color, and the right to marry for gay people. He mentioned Joe McCarthy, Huey Long and George Wallace; the Ku Klux Klan, Reconstruction and America First.

“Conflict is the oxygen of democracy,” said Meacham. “This is a unique moment.”

Meacham cited three keys to Trump’s election:

  • Bush/Clinton fatigue: Hillary Clinton was “the only Democrat on the planet” who would have lost to Donald Trump. A Clinton or a Bush (or both) has been on the ballot in eight of the past 10 presidential elections. Voters wanting change would not have reacted well to a Clinton or Bush in 2016, he said.
  • Declining trust in government: Pew Research Center asks, “Can government be counted on to do the right thing?” In 1964, 77 percent of Americans said yes; in 2017, only 17 percent agreed.
  • Declining middle class: Median income has not kept pace with inflation in key consumer areas such as housing, cars, higher education and health care. A family needs an income of over $100,000 to match the median income in the 1950s, yet the median U.S. income in 2016 was $59,039, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Read this study for additional info.

Yet the conversation was lively, even funny at times. “We went from Teddy Roosevelt and his Bully Pulpit to a bully in the pulpit,” Meacham said. And he zinged Alexander who had bragged about being a Presbyterian. “That’s like a Quaker who sings?” asked Meacham.

First Presbyterian is Knoxville’s first church, organized in 1792. Associate Pastor Meredith Loftis introduced the program, saying the current sanctuary was built in 1903. It is currently undergoing renovations. The church was a gracious host, providing seating for 700 and a reception afterwards in the fellowship hall.

The event was sponsored by Friends of the Library and Union Avenue Books.

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