Oprah is joined by Pulitzer-Prize winning author and historian Jon Meacham to discuss his book, The Soul of America. By examining America’s past, Meacham offers insights into our current political climate and provides a hopeful outlook for the future.
This is an unofficial transcript meant for reference. Accuracy is not guaranteed.
I'm over Winfrey welcome to supersede conversations the the podcast. I believe that one of the most valuable gives you can give yourself is time taking time to be more fully present your journey to become more inspired and connected to the deeper world around us start right now he's the man who helped shape to a president, Joe Biden, most important speeches me at times by selling author. We now, on presidential historian and Pulitzer Prize Winner, John Region. I chose, both the soul of Amerika, the battle for a better angels, as one of the books have helped me through challenging times when America seems more divided than ever John major Remind us that even in the darkest chapters
of our nation's history, there is always a way to find hope. Hello, John, can all the way from Nashville welcome to Super so M, as in over. You know, you call me Oprah, John. For God's sakes, I want to get to talking about the book. In a moment. Professor I ask you about two and most important speeches of our current time that you helped right, president items inauguration speech, and before that his victory speech. What was foremost on your mind, what were you told?
What were the themes you wanted to land? Was it a daunting task? I'll start at the end? Yes, it was very daunting, absolutely terrifying. In some ways you know I never written speeches before Vice President Biden was a great friend and had been really kind particular about the book we're talking about. We don't a couple of public events together and as the campaign unfolded. I've never been really involved in politics much except as an observer, but we were clearly fighting for the essence of the nation last year and really the previous five years, and so I was honoured to be asked to help in the favour speech. Writing is you want it to be fully the person speaking and if I don't even like talking about it, because if you going to choose to serve and I've got a public way by doing that,.
The words are, in fact his was they come out of his mouth, but he's been very open about my contributions very generous about them. I think the key theme for President Biden is: he really does believe that we're in a struggle for the soul of the country. He believes that, if our better angels don't take flight? Then we ve seen in the last five years. In the last five months we ve seen how close we can come to fracturing and losing everything, and the thing about President Biden is all great leaders are empathetic. He has suffered so much. His personal story is in many ways, soaked in sorrow, and yet he has resilient and determinedly come back again and again. I think one of the key things about him. Actually,
Is he thought it was all over? He thought he was done when President Obama left office, and I think that the country is gonna be in a much better place because he has taken that suffering and that sense of service- and he doesn't have anything, left, approve and turned it into Empath made him a great impact, and do you think he would have, because I spoke to him shortly after bow had passed, and we now know that both wanted him to run. Do you think you would have run had bow, not passed? I don't think so. I think he was going to be focused on both career now. The forty fifth president, our former president, has changed so much. That is hard to say, I suspect, bow my new slightly would have gone to his father in twenty seventeen and twenty eighteen and said we need you yeah. Well, I have to say when I read your book, I think, a couple years ago, the first time
when I first came up it reassured me that, no matter what you're going through our country can bounce back because we ve been through, really really really challenging times. Was that your intention and writing it? It absolutely was one of the things that President Biden I disagree about He has the nuclear code, so he wins is sometimes he'll say this is not who we are when something outrageous will happen, yeah. I think it is who we are yet we need to be different, but it is who we are. We need to contain the bad and underscore the good, but I Absolutely we have. The country is forged in crisis its forged in the tension between here.
It and fear and love and hope, and every era is a struggle just to get to the good side. Fifty one percent of the time, I'm neither democratic nor republican. There are people- seventy at least seventy million other people who feel that the Democrats are the reason why the soul of America is lost. So have we been point in our history. We, Well, we certainly have been at a point because we had a civil war over it, but have we had multiple times This is where we were this divided and could come together. I think that the two key analogy there, two decades that count the most one is the eighteen fifties as you allude to, but that required a civil war, but the other is a hundred years ago by a hundred years ago you could not have voted I'm sitting on my land and now I could not have own land.
To own land, as a woman yeah couldn't have on land couldn't have voted. The Ku Klux Klan had been refounded on the Saturday. After Thanksgiving in nineteen fifteen, two to six million clansman marched, they joined five governors were members of the clan text in Georgia, not that surprising, given our history, Colorado, Indiana and Oregon had governors who were members of the k, K, K, five United States, senators about twenty five house members, the nineteen twenty four Denmark. National convention went to a hundred and three ballots because there were two hundred clan delegates there who would not vote
for our Smith, the governor of New York, because he was an Irish Catholic and they were against immigrants. They were against Catholics, they were against Jews, they were against blacks, they didn't like women suffrage, and this was a mainstream move. But so you ask the question: how do we get out of it? The press helped the story helped. You know this in your bones. Tell the story and want to become yeah, tell the story and they told a good story. The court's did a good job. The president's Harding Coolidge did the right thing. That is not a sentence you have heard in a long time. The pulpit did a pretty good job and we overcame it by the end of the nineteen thirties. Thankfully, because imagine how much harder Franklin Roosevelt's job, when one out of five american men were out of work in nineteen, thirty, two thirty three, how much harder it would have been to overcome the depression,
If there had been a six seven million fascist army right ready to march. So I think a hundred years ago is a pretty good example. These symptoms, these forces racism native isms than a phobia isolationism, their perennial and their perennial, because their human and driven by fear- as you say, on page four- driven by fear of the unknown and tend to be spiked in periods of economic and social stress, a period like our own yup, Edmund Burke, said, there's no more unreasoning, emotion than fear, and I think we all
that in our own lives. That's the thing about history, which I can't emphasise enough. The history of the United States is the history of the american people for good and for ill for light and for dark, because a republic is the sum of its parts, it's a human undertaking. I know in my life that if I do the right thing, fifty percent of the time that's a heck of a good day, and I dont make it very often and so the country itself doesn't make it as often as it should the key thing. The reason I wonder right the book. The reason I believe in Joe Biden so strongly is that you can be in favor of the journey towards a more perfect union. If you understand that the union has become more perfect,
more widely. We ve opened our arms and the more we ve opened our hearts and that's not a homily. That's not a Sunday school lesson that is a clinical cold historical fact and for those seventy four million people who voted the other way. The story that has to be told is that we have grown stronger the more widely we have opened our arms, not weaker, where the most powerful nation you can possibly imagine boyfriend, Frida Korea likes to say you know, the largest air force in the world is United States AIR force. The second is the United States, navies we're doing just fine, and so we have to understand that that story of strength has come the more diverse, we become more of our conversation in just a moment in
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answered by better help. An opera super though conversations listeners got ten percent off their first month at better, dot, com super saw that's better help dot com supersoul, inauguration poem, the hill, the hill we climb, the Gorman Road and when you saw her didn't was that something was she's. I don't just incredible. Yes, I got Biden spoke first well. She wished she was pretty incredible, just stepped right into herself, but which Rob, is somehow we weathered and witnessed a nation that isn't broken but simply unfinished. Would you agree with her? Obviously from writing this book? That's yes with that we are simply an unfinished story. We are absent. President Obama is brilliant on this. We are an unfinished story. The story will never be finished now, William,
doktor talked about the last red and dying evening until then, we are going to be in the process of becoming Langston Hughes taught us this. This is who we are our is that we're all human beings on this journey. But the thing about being American is both a blessing, but is also a burden, and the burden is. If you look like me, a boring. We had our sexual white southern male Pisca bacon. Things worked out for me in this country. Almost always my obligation is to follow the gospel injunction that to whom much is given much is expected, and so, if people like me, don't say two people who voted for the other guy or the former guys binds calling it. If we don't say no, America is better
we're open and not when we're closed. When we build bridges and not walls, then I think we're failing in that mission and that's the story to tell well you The book, the soul of america- and I asked this question a lot on super soul. What is the salt? So how do you define I am thus soul of America in Hebrew and in greek sole means, breath or life when God breathed life into, mankind in Genesis that word to be translated as sole when Jesus. Greater love have no man than this than delayed. I his life for his friend life could be translated as sole. So I think is the essence of who we are, I think, is what makes us who we are and also see it as not entirely good or entirely bad? I think it's an arena of of contention between those worst instincts are and our ambitions
against our better angels and our impulses for grace and for love. Well, mentioning what you said on page four before extremism, racism, negativism, isolationism, all of those occur in a period like our own, but you know John, the country so divided right. Now, it's it's like people? Don't even share the same reality I know- and I believe many of the things that you say the soul of America, but then I think all of those occurrences even a hundred years ago, where without the power of social media where falsehoods get repeated or an over and over again and in a matter of hours, something that started out as being just as it get it force becomes, is vitriolic force field so how? When we even share the same reality. Can you big
to bridge a divide. Well, this is something the president is thinking about every day and I've talked to him about it. You tell the truth, you insist on the truth. You don't give in you, don't flinch, you don't coddle or appease the lie. You tell the truth and you do it again and again and again and we're not gonna reach seventy billion. But let's say we peel off ten or twenty. Those million, which is a kind of where we are right? I mean forty percent of the country is almost always encased in their own, their own world, but you can get fifty five percent. You can get sixty percent. I agree with you on social here- the ambient reality for folks has become what they choose to see as opposed to what they would ordinarily c in the course of life, but the only way to fight that that I can think of is
you medium where they are you get in that space and you insist on the truth. As a person who has studied history, how did we get this far off track, because things like scientific facts or simple truths that you are talking about are now being debate every minute of every day on social media. I think it's a story that begins in the Second World WAR, and I do think this is largely on that the right wing in America is responsible for this. There is the sense of conspiracy. This sense that the world is organised. Against. Do it begins? Frankly, with that with the right how worried bilges? I wonder I never knew nothing is ever just one side. I disagree. I disagree. I do you know many progressives who live a conspiracy world. I don't I this. What are we about telling the truth, and I am saying
Republicans or I'm not saying that. But when you look at the deed stabilizing elements in our culture when you look at the causes, which is what you just ask what God as to this point right. What got us to this point is a concerted number of right wing folks who have flirted or totally adopted whites, privacy and a kind of christian nationalism, and they believe that the world is a raid against them and it begins. I think the Pearl Harbor of the culture wars that we're talking about is not Roby Wade, but is the school prayer decision in the early nineties sixtys when a court largely appointed by a republican president, said no, you can't say the Lord's prayer in a public school and you then go ten years later rovers wade
four justices appointed by Richard Nixon, a republican president, and you begin to see there are a lot of cultural conservatives who began to see that way. Even when we elect a president, our values, don't get reflected. You then put in but the social media and the cable world where you can, actually live minute, two minute in a virtual reality and what is the common denominator there? The common denominator is resentment that there are other people telling you what to think there are other people shaping how you in your families should live and that sense of powerlessness, I think, is what drove the rise of the forty fifth president, who rose on white resentment on lies about
President Obama and I sense that the world was organised against these folks and they were ready to hear that story. Thank you that was a very clear explanation of how we got to hear everybody, because right it's been cut, for a long time, and I think what's really pertinent is people were ready? To hear that story, you say there natural tendency in american political, like to think that things were always better in the past. The passions of previous years fade to be inevitably replace by the passion of the present. Why do you think we romanticize our history? this way and how does an impact we're right now. I think there are two since I know a guy commit all the time. What is theirs a kind of reflexive nostalgia. Things had been better, I mean how many times a day do somewhat ask you got. How can we get back to normal,
so tell me a year, so let's say oh, I wish we could be in nineteen. Sixty one Jean Louis, wouldn't want to be a nineteen sixty one year. You would want to be a nineteen six one again, you look like v, I'm fine, you know. So what is it exactly that you want to go back to the other? Is this kind of narcissism of the present? This idea that this is the reason I do what I do if I do think we can learn from this, not because it was easier, but because it was roughly the same and shall this this tendency to romanticize it. I guess it's just human behavior thinking about the way Things were verses where you are right now and thinking that things were always better. I think so. I think that it's it's an understandable one right. I mean what widow all the great stories,
once upon a time, but there's really not a once upon a time in history when you wrote the soul of America. I understand that then, vice President Biden called you to discuss it. Is that true? That is true. Okay, he called up and read passages to me, which I thought this is what should happen to everybody. My wife wouldn't do that. You told the New York Times and he asked you how the country can come out of a crisis stronger, not weaker. So I want to know how did you answer that That you remind us what truly makes us great. You may remember there was a phrase awhile back about making Amerika great again. I think the story has to be what what does make us great. What are the moments we look back on and we commemorate and celebrate. What are those moments have in common? What those mullets have in common is that they're about openness and about
expanding opportunity, not limiting it. The guy's hitting the beach at Normandy, we're not doing it to prevent liberty, they were doing it. To free people, we honor liberators, not captors, we honour, those who make possibility, and so what I said to myself by the time it what I say to him. If he ever ass down the road is, how do we get out of it? Tell us the story of how we got to a place where we want. To defend the country and what is the country we wanted defend and the country I want to defend is not the country of the clan, but the country of Jean Louis, I wouldn't defend the country of origin,
Falls and Selma and Stonewall, not the America of Bull Connor, and that shouldn't be all that controversial, and I know that there's this deeper action in the country. The reason I do what I do is, I think that history has a chance to go to your very good point about different realities, at least history as a chance to appeal to folks on the right and on the left, because it's the only common data set, we have in human affairs. We can argue that the interpretation all day long, but history tells us that when we bind together you ask about.
Abiden and, in writing speeches Saint Augustine defined a nation. The best best definition, I've ever seen in President Biden use this in his inaugural address before he was totally at stage by Miss Gorman forever. Augustine said: a nation is a multitude of rational beings, united by the common objects of their love, repeated a multitude of rational beings, ninety indicted by the common objects of their love. So there are three things in that: there's a multitude. So who are we there's rationality? So we have to be open to contrary fact and there's what do we? Love in common in America, at her best, I would say people at their best love in common equal
We have operated a lake and called an open field and a fair chance for everybody and that's a story you can tell, and I hope that the story, the president continues to tell because you know so much about history during these past four years, you must have felt a certain security that others of us didn't feel you didn't feel the same anxiety? You know it's a great question. I felt I was wrong early on. It felt to me, like Joe Mccarthy and George Wallace. I thought it was a passing thing. I was thinking, he'd be reelect number, and so I misjudged the depth of the appeal and until the sixth I resisted the
Germany and the thirty stuff, but now I don't the fragility of what we have has been well disguised for a long time, and so I do feel- and I'm not being overly by desk about this. I don't think anybody else on that stage last year could have beaten Trump yeah. Well, you know we talk so much about fear here on super. Because it's one of the controlling parts of the human experience. I think people are you, the moving in the direction of fear or moving in the direction of love and all that fear brings anxiety frustration, anger and when I was watching the insurgents at the capital on January, six I saw anger. I also saw a lot of fear. I saw a lot of people who were. Afraid of losing things and having things, change in themselves lose
in ground. You say that one of the driving forces behind the darkest periods in american history is fear, for example, fear freed slaves, fear of educating the freed slaves fear of emigrants, and we talk a lot about that. I want to know what role do you fear has played in the country being so divided and where we are right now, because the consuming reason, I think, is the consuming passion of the those who do not believe that forests, as President Biden or broadly put thus system the constitutional system can work even in the winter of eighteen. Sixty here's an interesting little thing in the winter of eighteen, sixty after Lincoln was elected Alexander Stevens, James Buchanan himself,
all said you can't just secede from the union because you lost an election, yet at least wait to see. If he's gonna do something that you object to and then sissy and they both said the election unfolded according to constitutional means. So if you have no immediate cause to do this, the hype
I believe the fear, the anger, the irrationality, the cult of personality that lead to January. Six are all things that have occurred in our history. Butter are flowing instead of ebbing right now and fear, and I think it was Socrates said that fear is the feeling, the anxiety produced by the sense that you are about to lose something. You love the anxiety produced by the fear that you're about to lose something you love, and what do those folks have who were storming up their threatenings, Pelosi and and the vice president, what they have is their race and their culture and they fear losing their innate predominance to this changing shifting country.
My argument again and again and again is that we have always been changing and shifting, and we were founded on this idea. Imperfectly executed that, in fact, whether you believe only in reason the endowed by nature and natures, God or, if you believe, in God, we or all created in a way that we should have a fair shot, no matter what we look like and that's what America supposed to be. I love you saying that's what I'm here supposed to be, and I also love you in the beginning saying when President Biden says this is and who we are it is who we are. It is who we are. I think that's what this year has taught us. We have to look at the facts,
of who we are no matter. How ugly that is. There are so many beautiful things, but also look at the face of ugliness and call that out for what it is unquestionably, because if we aren't honest, we're never gonna fix it. You can't heal a wound that you ignore right. It gets worse so Do we easy John me? What do we do? How do you reach across the aisle to seventy four million people? many of whom don't even believe that Joe Biden legally elected. How do you reach across the ILO and find a way forward for our country. I believe that you are tissue laid. What hope has done in the face of fear, and you say that hope is the opposite of feed it is, I think, I think, fear cast his eyes. Wearily fear
is a clenched fist hope looks out, looks at the horizon. Hope reaches and the way I would articulated is to to that. Person who voted the other way. You say you want to make Amerika great again. Tell me what that moment is and maybe they'll say what's when we beat the nazis- and I would say: ok, you know who beat the Nazis was Franklin, Roosevelt and the private sector. And he failed miserably on japanese american internment added to carry Truman to desegregate the military. But what were those guys fighting for those guys we're not fight for a limited world, they were fighting for a whole new world. To me. The most important question to ask these folks is: what do you want history to say a few. What is the story? You want told about yourself
You saw the insurgents that January six as a historian. Red and knows and understand, What what? What we're initial feelings? It's funny. The word insurrection came instantly to mind. Even before it was kind of on the Chiron's. I quickly thought that the last time this happened. It was an invading foreign force in eighteen fourteen, I remember To think is there any analogy? I think I can tell you. The President Elect called and asked me that question that day had this ever happened, and I said yeah, I was
Eighteen fourteen and it was the british empire. Do you talk him? A lot still? Does he call you do? We are occasionally- and it's kind of what I think should be great- which we reassuring the folks is that what is trying to do is not looked back. Nostalgic early he's trying to orient these crises. You know: is this like, today. Are you know the vaccinations? Can you get this done at a hundred days? No, what? What does history tell us about a policy guy? I'm not a political guy, You know there are these human characteristics that recur that, I think, can be illuminating. What are the qualities that the most successful president's have and does Joe Biden have those qualities? I think there are three and
he has all really curiosity. You have to want to know. What's going on in the world, you have to want to understand where the country fits into that Thomas Jefferson, John Kennedy. These are immensely curious, Barack Obama, curious people. You have to be candid with us, give it to a straight after our said, the news is gonna, get worse and worse before it gets better and better and the american people deserve to have it straight from the shoulder, and so when Biden says, I will always level with you he's working within in that tradition, either what I love the bats, everything Biden sense of art. Let me take the thing I love the most because I can't stand when people are mistreated at work, the fact that he came out and said to all of his people of any by here, Bobby, mistreating anybody talking badly anybody you will be fired. I just thought that is so good for everybody. Every corporate
either for everybody whose managing anybody in the world? I can't stand when people bully, oh or or use their power to put other people down to make them feel less then, and I thought I but he was trying to be brilliant about it, but the way he did it was so excellent. Didn't you I did, and you know what it had. The feel of this was not a talking point. This was not an hr thing. It was just this is Joe Biden the last one is so important in its right in your we'll house. It's empathy, the greatest president's the greatest leaders are able to put themselves in somebody else's shoes. Yeah. I thought that that was the number one thing missing from our former president. If, if you don't have empathy it it's hard to actually have compassion for other people I meet, there is
compassion for other people or understanding of what people are going through is also, I think, the central element not just of great leadership but great citizenship ology. If I'm not. If I am not able to think out. Ok, I live in a red stay in I'm paying too but you know what the blue folks stated today and they might not needed. We might needed then empathy is the fuel of democracy. I love that empathy is the fuel of democracy. I'm gonna be right. Now is a quote. Thank you, somebody right, for me towards the end up getting wink at needlepoint pillar. Oh that's a good. When John you outline a set of guidelines how to engage what you call our better angels. I want that for myself. I want that for our country. What are they enter the arena. Your fine on that. Don't worry you ye
we gave you gotta be engaged. You have to talk to people who disagree with you right. You have to resist tribalism, that's hard and its heart. That's hard and I I don't like doing it either, but if we don't, then it's easy to be empathetic. If you already agree with You know you, you got to do that. Families aren't even be able to sit at the same table. Certainly during the past four years. I know people who hadn't been home because, people in their family believed a way that they they did not feel that they could at the same table and share a meal with them. So you gotta be able to have conversations with people who disagree with you. Ok and unsurprisingly, you gotta, keep history in mind. History should be able to give you a sense of proportion about this and right now we're having the right conversation right. This is a big, vital, existential
problem- and I wonder if we had been here and nineteen sixty eight doktor king is murdered, Centre Kennedy is murdered, Chicago disintegrates election day. Nineteen sixty eight Richard Nixon wins. Forty, two percent Humphrey wins forty, but George Wallace. Whence thirteen point. Five percent of the popular vote and carries five states in nineteen. Sixty eight sell it. Fifty years ago an explicit segregationist got thirteen point, five percent of the popular vote and so again just because something's happened, but bore doesn't need is not happening now, but because it happened before we can at least see what ameliorated it along the way again, our native region was under functional apartheid until the day before yesterday. Now when we see voters,
when we see the inequalities and the inequities revealed by Covet. I'm not saying we congratulate ourselves, but we got the Civil Rights ACT. We got the Voting Rights ACT. So if we got that in the face of state sanctioned white supremacist violence, when John Lewis walked into troopers, he was walking into troopers. Think about that state, troopers an armed force for apartheid order fifty years ago and again, because we don't do that anymore. Does it mean everything's fine, but it does mean that we have to see what what was it that put those folks on that bridge, and it was faith in God and somehow or another. It was faith in America, Doc River said something Biden quoted it at gettysburg. He said at some point during
that this horrible last year think what it takes for a black man to love. America, yeah hugely profound remark, think what it takes for a black man, the love America. It's easy for me to love America, why wouldn't I? But that's not what the countries supposed to be the country, the post to be. We are all created equal, we go into life's race, we try to rise as far as we can on our merits and if some folks are held back by institutional structures, we have to do something about that. You say the opposite of fear is hope. What gives you hope for the future of the soul of Amerika is a really simple answer. Joe Biden, one really ferocious competitive presidential election talking about how he wanted to restore that sole and it was closer than a lot of people hope
or wanted? But eighty one million people said This is what we want that number. His percentage of the popular vote was more than Truman, more than John Kennedy, more than Nixon and sixty eight more than car, in seventy six about equal with Reagan in eighty, more than Clinton or George W Bush, God in four different elections? This was a perfectly respectable, strong victory, and I think that that was a majority of us. So let's have a real conversation about what we should be and who we should be you in this book with this. Saying that for all of our darker impulses for all of our shortcomings and for all of the dreams denied and deferred the experiment,
gone so long ago, carried out so imperfectly is worth the fight. There is in fact no strong, more important and non nobler and the one we wage in the service of those better angels who, however, besieged, are always ready for battle, will that's a beautiful, beautiful, passage, and I just pray that you are right and that the better angels will soon prevail. You believe that to be so, I do not have any alternative Winston Churchill once said you can always count the Americans do the right thing once they have exhausted every other possibility in Lord knows, we ve done that. Well, Lord knows, I think, Four join me here today from Nashville document. Thank you, John region. The soul of a man
The battle for a better angles is available anywhere. Books are sold, I'm over Winfrey and you ve been listening to supersede conversations the pod cast. You can follow superficial on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook if you haven't yet go to apple, podcast, unsubscribe rate and reviews. This pledge gas join me next week for another supersede conversation. Thank you for listening.
Transcript generated on 2021-05-21.