In February 2019, Joe Biden paid the University of Delaware a visit to celebrate the renaming of its public policy school in his honor. Biden, a famously middling student, feigned sheepishness over his alma mater’s tribute and suggested the honor really belonged to his sister and perennial political adviser, Valerie. “She graduated with honors,” Biden explained. “I graduated.”
But Biden had no doubts about the brilliance of the man seated next to him on the stage: Jon Meacham, a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer who has spent the last two decades pounding out bestselling accounts of American presidents such as Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and George H.W. Bush. “You tend to find genius in those with whom you agree,” Biden said in a very loose paraphrase of Ralph Waldo Emerson. “I think he’s a genius.” Meacham, sporting a black suit and wide cornflower tie nearly identical to the vice president’s, gave a hearty laugh through his wide and toothy grin, the faintest of blushes spreading across his face.
To mark the occasion, Biden had invited Meacham to Newark, Delaware, for a conversation about the biographer’s recent volume, The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels, a 416-page meditation on how enlightened political leaders, propelled by a civic-minded citizenry, have rescued America at its darkest hours. Meacham had just finished explaining that the country’s soul “is not all good or all bad” but rather an abiding conflict between “our better angels” and “our worst instincts.” Biden’s praise came in response to Meacham’s assertion that politicians are far more often “mirrors of who we are,” rather than “molders” of it. “That’s an uncomfortable truth,” Meacham said, an oblique reference to the white supremacist who at the time was behind the Resolute Desk.
But history proves not all is lost, Meacham explained. “If we realize that we’ve come through, in this journey to make a more perfect union, storm and strife, and that that’s far more the rule and not the exception,” he said, “that history gives us an orienting capacity.”
In Jon Meacham’s America, “our better angels” always win out over “our worst instincts.”
Two months before Biden announced his third run for the presidency, the intellectual underpinnings of the campaign were already in place. His ensuing candidacy was an exercise in moving Meacham’s thesis from the page to the stump. Biden cribbed Meacham’s book title for his campaign framing, a “battle for the soul of the nation.” Meacham occasionally weighed in on the narrative and thematic elements of Biden’s major speeches. He even made a five-minute appearance at the Democratic National Convention over the summer to endorse Biden and define the stakes of the election on the terms he presented in his book.
As the Biden candidacy gave way to the Biden presidency, the Meacham influence lingered. Biden has an agenda that reflects the center of his party, not the center of the nation, but he remains a staunch institutionalist who insists on bringing the country together through leadership that, in Lincoln’s words and Meacham’s assessment, appeals to the “better angels of our nature.” The question now facing the Presidency According to Jon Meacham is what to do when all those better angels are crushed beneath America’s institutions.
MEACHAM GREW up on a Civil War battlefield in Chattanooga, an upbringing he credits with granting him both a “tactile” and Faulknerian sense of the past—which is to say it’s not even past. After graduating from Sewanee—salutatorian, besting both Joe and Valerie—he took a job at the Chattanooga Times before racing up the rungs of national political journalism at Washington Monthly and Newsweek, where he became managing editor at 29 and editor-in-chief at 37. Meacham began moonlighting as a biographer in the early 2000s, tackling the relationship between Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill as his first subject. In 2009, he won a Pulitzer for a biography of Andrew Jackson. The following year, when a then-hobbled Washington Post sold the wobbling Newsweek, Meacham departed journalism altogether.
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