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President’s Day Read: The Star Wars theory of history

In the wake of the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville in 2017, bestselling popular historian and former Editor-in-Chief of Newsweek Jon Meacham undertook a series of essays which he soon turned into a book. In The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels Meacham offers “a portrait of hours in which the politics of fear were prevalent—a reminder that periods of public dispiritedness are not new and a reassurance that they are survivable.” And he offers a plan for survival and overcoming: “In the best of moments, witness, protest, and resistance can intersect with the leadership of an American president to lift us to higher ground.”

The stories Meacham tells are familiar ones—intentionally so. By rehearsing episodes first encountered in grade school, Meacham hopes to convince fretful Americans that their own moment of redemption can soon be at hand if they follow the plan. A protest movement needs to force its righteous cause onto the national agenda and then elect a far-thinking President who will push transformative reforms into law. Meacham’s paradigmatic case is Martin Luther King, Jr. and John Lewis setting the stage for the civil rights heroics of Lyndon Johnson.

As Meacham tells it, the forces of good in American history are incarnated in two forms: regular Americans embracing hope instead of fear, and Presidents with the courage to put themselves on the right side of history. The Presidents are the senior partner in this relationship. The Soul of America has never seen a conception of the presidency too big for its liking; the President alone assumes the mantle of leading the entire nation. Choice quotations from JeffersonTeddy RooseveltWilsonTruman, and JFK are trotted out to reinforce this way of thinking.

As a popular historian, Meacham knows it is ambitious Presidents who capture readers’ imaginations most readily. And, to be fair, a handful of Presidents have been transformative figures in American history, both in charting the nation’s policy course and in reshaping our Federal government. Still, it is remarkable just how completely Meacham is willing to present presidential politics as the be-all-and-end-all of American politics. The notion that what is important in our constitutional system is a balance between the President and other institutions is almost wholly absent. In short, Meacham is arguing that great Presidents made America great, and will do so again once the forces of hope vanquish the current occupant of the Oval Office.

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