It only took a few minutes for award winning author and historian Jon Meacham to get the crowd roaring with laughter during his Yakima Town Hall speech.
He started with a handful of jokes about his home in Tennessee, being mistaken for another author, John Grisham, and about his relationship with the former President George H.W. Bush, the subject of his biography "Destiny and Power."
Much of his speech at the Capitol Theatre on Wednesday centered on the challenges facing democracy in the U.S., but Meacham also connected modern issues to the words of past American leaders and the challenges they faced in their time.
Meacham is renowned historian and biographer. He’s written about the lives of Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and George H.W. Bush, as well as various periods in U.S. history. In 2009, Meacham won the Pulitzer Prize in biography for his book on President Andrew Jackson.
He has contributed to several national publications and lives in Nashville.
Once the laughter had subsided from his initial jokes, Meacham turned to a more serious issue.
“We are here at a critical hour in the history of the republic,” he said.
Meacham was presenting his opinions as a historian with a focus on the U.S. Constitution and upholding its ideals, he said. He called the Declaration of Independence a mission statement and noted that the U.S. has tried to honor those who follow the mission by expanding equality and building bridges.
At the same time, he noted the fragility of democracy through American history.
“It’s only good as we are and that’s pretty goddamn terrifying,” Meacham said.
Starting with the 1920s, Meacham compared current events to past events. He noted that 100 years ago, racist and anti-immigrant sentiment accompanied the reestablishment of the Ku Klux Klan. Cities and media technologies like the radio were changing culture in the U.S.
During the next 20 years, democracy was threatened by rising dictatorships and the Great Depression. Meacham fast-forwarded to 1968, when the deaths of leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy rattled the nation.
During those moments, he said, leaders had stepped in to uphold democracy and follow the law. They had been challenged and were often divisive in their time, Meacham said, but democratic capitalism had endured. Remembering those historical moments can help inspire the future, he said.
“Don’t mythologize the past,” Meacham said. “Don’t romanticize the past. Learn from it.”
Turning to the present day, Meacham suggested that the audience navigate through today’s issues with three things in mind. People should be curious about those issues and try to understand them, candid about their scope and scale and empathetic with each other.
Meacham ended his speech by telling stories about George H.W. Bush’s empathetic character and reading a letter written by the former president after his daughter died.
“Empathy is the oxygen of democracy,” Meacham said.
Meacham’s Yakima Town Hall appearance was the last of the season and marked an end to the 50th edition of the series. The lineup for the next speaker series was released earlier this month.
Originally posted by the Yakima Herald-Republic.
Posted April 27, 2023
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