‘The Soul of America’ is based on Jon Meacham’s 2018 book of the same name
‘The Soul of America’ is based on Jon Meacham’s 2018 book of the same name

Looking back at the jaw-dropping Trump presidency and the POTUS-led imperviousness to fact and expertise, the deepening divisions and rising intolerance in American society, it’s tempting to see the four-year tantrum as something quite unprecedented (word of the year). Not so, claims American historian Jon Meacham. The Soul of America is part lecture, based on his 2018 book of the same name, and part profile of the author, though not a personally revealing one. He likes cigars and lives in a nice house, and the nearest he gets to casual is undoing his top button and perching on the edge of a table. Maybe the print of Napoleon on the wall is significant. 

“The forces shaping the worst parts of us right now are parts of the American character,” he warns. It’s often claimed that the Civil War never really ended. “If we don’t arm ourselves with a historical understanding . . . we’re not going to be able to react in time to save the country.” He doesn’t always sound so doomy about the prospects for democracy. In a phrase that refers to the book’s subtitle (and found its way into Joe Biden’s victory speech in Delaware), “You have your better angels fighting against your worst impulses.” As he sees it, the angels usually win in the long term. 

In a series of chapters — “FDR”, “McCarthy”, “Civil Rights” — he explores facets of the past that illuminate the present. A rich selection of clips and snaps from the archives punctuate the argument, some of them disturbing and distressing, such as the image of 50,000 Klan members in full regalia marching down Pennsylvania Avenue in the mid-1920s. But decency prevailed then and it will prevail again, Meacham argues.

He opines that foreshadowing the segregation of migrant children on the southern border was the incarceration of Japanese Americans during the second world war. Actor George Takei, a child at the time, provides powerful testament, and scenes of elderly ladies being carted away and children labelled like parcels hit hard. Will the recent treatment of child detainees come to be seen as just as shameful as this episode? Meacham is clear: “I bet yes.”

Against a picture of a gleeful white man with a sign saying “We don’t want any Japs back here ever” a pithy Meacham tweet is especially powerful: “History celebrates liberators, not captors.” Among the historian’s prized political qualities are humility, exemplified by JFK’s willingness to admit mistakes over the Bay of Pigs episode, and empathy. Getting ready to address yet another rapt audience, he says, “All right, let’s go dazzle them. Let’s save America!” Unlike the man who is rarely named, but whose dark shadow falls over this programme, he's being tongue-in-cheek. 

★★★★☆

On Sky Documentaries/Now TV on December 17, available now on HBO

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