Preet Bharara: From CAFE, welcome to Stay Tuned. I’m Preet Bharara.
Jon Meacham: Donald Trump will be a watchword and a warning about unchecked power, the threat of demagoguery. And, to quote James Baldwin, Baldwin once wrote that ignorance allied with power is the most dangerous of things.
Preet Bharara: That’s Jon Meacham. He’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, and Presidential Biographer, whose latest book is, His Truth Is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope. Meacham has a lot of projects in the works. He’s the host of It Was Said, a new podcast from Cadence13, that breaks down some of the most iconic American speeches. He’s also the subject of an upcoming HBO documentary, The soul of America, which debuts on October 27. He joins me this week to talk about this historical moment in presidential politics. That’s coming up, stay tuned.
Let’s get to your questions. This question comes in an email from Norah, who writes, “I was wondering if outgoing presidents and their staff have any legally binding obligations to maintain records from their period in office? In other words, is it possible that the putative outgoing Trump administration would be able to destroy records of malfeasance in the period between knowing they will need to vacate the White House and their departure in January, if that happens? Love your show, a sane voice in a very troubled period. Best regards, Norah.” Norah, thanks for the kind words, and thanks for the question.
So there is, indeed a legally binding obligation for the president and people in the White House to maintain records. And it’s aptly named the Presidential Records Act of 1978. Like lots of laws, including the law establishing inspectors general and a whole bunch of other reforms, it was passed in reaction to some of the misconduct and bad behavior of President Nixon. Present Nixon, you’ll remember, tried to get rid of and withhold from Congress his infamous White House tapes. So this is another reform passed in the wake of Nixon’s presidency that we worry about having gaps, and I’ll get to that in a moment.
So the Presidential Records Act governs the official records of presidents and vice presidents created at the beginning of the Reagan administration. According to the National Archives, the Presidential Records Act changed the legal ownership of the official records of the president from private to public, and established a new statutory structure under which presidents, and later the National Archives must manage the records of their administration. But here’s the problem, as with so many things that we discuss on this podcast, and then I discussed with Anne Milgram, enforcement is kind of toothless, kind of like the Hatch Act. It relies on an honor system. So, there’s a legal obligation to preserve all official papers. And most presidencies, as far as I know, have taken that obligation seriously, in fact, quite seriously.
So the Presidential Records Act explicitly by its terms, requires that administration’s “Take all such steps as may be necessary to assure that the activities, deliberations, decisions, and policies that reflect the performance of the President’s constitutional statutory and other official or ceremonial duties are adequately documented, and that such records are preserved and maintained”. That’s a requirement. But like what so many other things, it turns out that enforcement may be spotty. And of course, there’s a built-in kind of ambiguity in the Presidential Records Act itself, because it is up to the president in his own discretion to decide what “steps may be necessary”. And he also has discretion to determine what does or does not have “administrative, historical, informational, or evidentiary value”.
Now, issues relating to the non-preservation of Presidential Records has come up before in this administration a number of times. You may recall a few episodes where Trump was caught hiding or trying to destroy records. For example, in June 2018, there was a records’ management analyst who told Politico that Trump routinely tears up documents, which forces record keepers to tape them back together. Now, the good news about that is that it suggests that the people around Trump do take the Presidential Records Act seriously. Even going so far in that example, if it’s to be believed, that they take documents, and literally use scotch tape to put them back together again.
Going back to your original question of, can the president engage in certain kind of wholesale malfeasance and destruction of records to hide wrongdoing? One, by the letter of the law, he cannot. But of course, he can skirt that, and there’s not a good enforcement mechanism. Two, there is some hope that the people around the president, who doesn’t keep all the important documents in his own desk and presumably can’t destroy them all on his own, it would require a directive to others, people will not honor that directive because of their ethical obligations, and also because of the Presidential Records Act.
And third, presumably, if the purpose of destroying records during that time period was to evade accountability for malfeasance, there’s an argument depending on what other proceedings may be underway or what Congress has communicated to the President, that, that could be an obstruction of justice. So I think we will have a problem, historians, especially in trying to piece together everything that went on with access to all the Presidential Records come time for them to be disclosed to the public after some period of years. But it is my fervent hope, that a wholesale destruction, and sort of late night shredding of documents going into what I hope will be the inauguration of Joe Biden on January 20th will not come to pass.
This next question comes in an email from Brad, who asks, “Is there a requirement that the President make a pardon public? For example, could he give Don Jr a pardon that isn’t public? So if a future prosecution charges him with, for example, tax evasion, could he just pull it out and make it public at that time?” Well, Brad, that’s a great and fascinating question. My initial reaction was, of course, it has to be public. Historically, it’s always been public. The purpose of the pardon when requested, and usually it’s at someone’s request, is so that that person can prove to another party or maybe an employer that they had been pardoned. People don’t like to be pardoned in secret. They want the world to know that they have been given this reprieve of some sort by none other than the President of the United States. So, it doesn’t come up very often.
So given tradition in history, I have always, I guess, just assumed that there was a requirement that the pardoned be made public because as a natural matter, that’s how it works and you want people to know about it. In fact, if you go to the website of the Office of the Pardon Attorney, that resides within the Justice Department it says quite plainly “Presidential grants, meaning of pardons, are a matter of public record, so immediately after presidential action, the name of each person granted a pardon or commutation, along with the district where they were convicted and all sorts of other information is publicly listed on the Office of the Pardon Attorney website.” So that seems to suggest both history and tradition, and common sense, and the Pardon Attorney’s own guidance seems to suggest the answer to your question is yeah, he’s got to make it public. But then the team did a little bit more research, and realized, there doesn’t quite seem to be a requirement for the pardon to be made public.
The pardon is a broad ranging power with very little oversight, in fact, no oversight, and virtually no limitation granted to the president in the Constitution. And in fact, the greatest proof that there is no absolute requirement to make a pardon public is the fact that members of Congress have introduced legislation to force a requirement for any pardon to be made public. You don’t do that, obviously, unless you have a concern that the requirement you asked about doesn’t exist. There are two questions implicit in your email with respect to the Don Jr. hypothetical. One is, does it need to be made public? And two is, can a pardon be preemptive, in other words, be good for future charges that have not yet been brought? And as we’ve discussed many times in the show, the President can absolve someone in advance, preemptively for misconduct against the United States, crimes against the United States. And most famously, that was done by President Gerald Ford, when he preemptively pardoned Richard Nixon.
So it’s a crazy hypothetical that seemed a little crazy when I read it in your question, but it seemed it’s a hypothetical that has some possibility. But Representative Roger Krishnamoorthi and some others have introduced legislation that potentially can get passed, although I don’t see it happening in the immediate future. And maybe there would be a constitutional challenge as well, given the broad power of pardon in the Constitution. But it’s an issue that has been highlighted by some others, and I appreciate you are asking it. Stay tuned, there’s more coming up right after this.
Jon Meacham is my guest this week. He’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, whose new podcast, It Was Said, looks at 10 of the most important speeches in American history. We talk about the power of political oratory, and why President Trump’s rhetoric has had such a damaging effect on our body politic. Jon Meacham, welcome to the show.
Jon Meacham: Thank you, sir.
Preet Bharara: It’s good to have you. I’ve been wanting to talk to you about so many things for a long time. Congratulations on your podcast. It’s terrific. It Was Said, which dives into a lot of, sort of famous, and significant and consequential political speeches from American history. Before we get to those speeches and your podcast, I want to address a speech that you gave fairly recently. You spoke at the Democratic National Convention, and endorsed Joe Biden, which is unusual. And you said, you spoke beautifully, I thought it was a terrific speech. And you said among other things, “If we live in hope, we open our souls to the power of love.” You also said “With our voices and our votes, let us now write the next chapter of the American story, one of hope, of love, of justice. If we do so, we might just save our country and our souls.” My questions are, what the heck were you doing speaking of the Democratic National Convention? And then second, what do we need to save our country and our souls from?
Jon Meacham: Sure. I was speaking at the Democratic Convention because Joe Biden asked me. I think this is an existential election. I think it’s the most important election since 1864. As a clinical historical matter, it’s not a partisan point. I have voted for Republicans, I have voted for Democrats. I do what I do, not least because I found Ronald Reagan to be this extraordinary figure when I was a kid. I’m George Bush Senior’s biographer, I’m the second George Bush’s biographer, and I’m on MSNBC. So, you figure it out. So, I’m not exactly a socialist.
But I believe that, as I think you do, there are fundamental American values and practices that are genuinely on the ballot this year. I was not an alarmist about the incumbent president. I thought that the power of our constitutional order, and the durability of our political norms would provide guardrails for us as we went through this tumultuous, populist period. And I’m worried that I was wrong about that. And I think that we need to do all we can to end this particular experiment and disruption, because that’s what the President represents, a disruptive force. Disruption can be good, it can also be destructive. And I think we have veered into the destructive.
What we need to save our country from is the triumph of forces that are perennial, that are not going away, depending on a given election, or a given piece of legislation, or a given Supreme Court appointment given foreign crisis. Like human nature itself, the country has been shaped from the very beginning, whether you date that beginning in 1619, or 1776, or 1787, or 1865, or 1933, nor 1965. Wherever you want to start, the forces of extremism, nativism, racism, greed, selfishness, reflexive partisanship, economic self-interest, all of these forces are doing perpetual battle against our better angels. And as Lincoln said in his first inaugural, I don’t believe that the soul is all good or all evil. My view, which is slightly different from Vice President Biden’s, actually, it’s an important difference, but not a dispositive one.
I believe that the soul is an arena of contention, in which our worst instincts do battle with our better instincts. And depending on who wins, which when in a given period of time, that becomes the period that defines the periods in which we live. And when you look back, and you look back at the periods of history that we tend to commemorate and celebrate, those are moments where we reached out as opposed to clinching a fist. It’s where we built a bridge instead of a wall. So, who do you want to be? Do you want to be John Lewis, or do you want to be Bull Connor? Do you want to be Margaret Chase Smith, or Prescott Bush? Or do you want to be Joe McCarthy? Do you want to be Abraham Lincoln, or do you want to be Jefferson Davis?
Preet Bharara: Well, who are you asking?
Jon Meacham: Everybody.
Preet Bharara: And the reason I ask who you’re asking is, one of the values you speak about, an American value that I think is in retreat and that is very important is one of decency. What percentage of Americans care about decency? In other words, hasn’t there been a strain always in American history, in American politics of equating what you and I might call decency with weakness? I mean, we have someone on the Trump team, who referred with the intention to insult Biden, referring to him as someone like Mr. Rogers, who was an iconic, decent person. What has been the ups and downs of people in America caring about decency?
Jon Meacham: Perpetual. Look, I mean, we owned, we’ve defended a system of chattel slavery until 1865. And in my native region, we lived under functional apartheid until 1965. So, let’s not get all sentimental about the American past. The questions I was just framing should go to everybody, everybody who has a vote. Because we know that a republic, from Plato through Aristotle, through Machiavelli to James Madison, a Republic is the fullest expression of our individual dispositions of heart and mind. So, we all matter in this. A president is, in many ways, a maker of our manners and morals, but he or she is also a mirror of them. And so, the Trump people, who are going to go down fighting, and they’re about 41% of true believers, which is about seven percent higher than the watermark I keep in my mind.
When Joe McCarthy fell in late 1954, and was censured by the Senate, The Washington Post polled. And 34% of the country still supported Joe McCarthy. In 1968, we always remember Richard Nixon winning narrowly over Hubert Humphrey by about a point. But that doesn’t factor in the 13.5% of us who voted for George Wallace for President, 50 years ago. So 55% of America in 1968, thought that Richard Nixon or George Wallace was the right person to lead the country. So I don’t think there was ever a once upon a time in America, I don’t think there’s ever going to be a happily ever after. In this, I am supported by no less a group than the founders.
You know this, the Constitution was written assuming that human nature was fallen, frail and fallible. And that we would do the wrong thing far more often than we would do the right thing. So what is the rule of law, but an effort to manage and marshal our fallen natures? And so when I frame these questions about, who do you want to be? It’s to everybody.
Preet Bharara: The question is, who will rise up to that?
Jon Meacham: That’s exactly right, but that’s always the question. 80% of the country in 1939 didn’t want to sell arms to anybody after Hitler invaded Poland, 80%. The battles over intervention versus isolationism in ’39, ’40, and throughout almost all of 1941 were far more divisive than even the battles over at Vietnam. 750,000 Americans had to die before we caught up with the rest of the modern world in abolishing human slavery. So our problems are difficult, defining, essential. But that doesn’t mean that somehow or another, the journey to this point was simpler, and easier and nobler.
Preet Bharara: You’re obviously familiar with the sweep of American history, and you said something very strong. Remarking on the presidential debate, we’ve had one, I should note for our listeners that were recording with Jon Meacham on the morning of October 19th. This podcast will come out on the morning of the final debate between Biden and Trump. But with respect to the first debate, you posted on Twitter “No hyperbole, the incumbent’s behavior this evening, is the lowest moment in the history of the presidency since Andrew Johnson’s racist state papers”. So presidents have done some bad things, you’ve recited some history of bad things. That’s not hyperbole?
Jon Meacham: I don’t think so. In terms of a public performance, Johnson issued a annual message in ’67, where he said that black people were… I’m slightly paraphrasing, but only slightly… Congenitally incapable of self government. Eric Foner, the great historian at Columbia calls it the most racist, most blatantly racist statement ever made by an American president. And yeah, I mean, to hector, to bully, to demean a setting in which Americans devoted to, and people who have died so that we could have self government, to behave in a way that makes a mockery of the capacity for informed choice is to undermine the very thing that was at stake at Lexington and Concord and an Appomattox, and in the Second World War and in the Cold War, absolutely.
Preet Bharara: So we’re at a point now, on the eve of the election, I guess during the election, we’re on the eve of the election ending, where some folks who are allies of the president and have been tight-lipped about the president, here and there are beginning to seem like they’re separating themselves from him. Some of them may be predicting a loss in the election for the President. You have the example of Senator Ben Sasse, saying some things which some people think maybe he intentionally wanted leaked to the public. Senator John Cornyn has said some things. Do you think that will intensify in the near term? And if President Trump loses, and presumably leaves office, what do you think will be the rhetoric and the posture of all sorts of Republicans who didn’t cross him when he was in office? What’s that going to look like, do you think? And is there a historical precedent for that kind of disassociation?
Jon Meacham: Well, there’s a cinematic one. I think of this as we’re entering the Claude Rains phase of the era where, and where Claude Rains played the Vichy leader in Casablanca, who was shocked to discover there was gambling in the casino as he was being handed his winnings.
Claude Rains: I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here.
Speaker 4: You’re winning, Sir?
Claude Rains: Oh, thank you very much. Everybody out at once.
Jon Meacham: So, there’s going to be a lot of shock shocked. You ask a very important question. And one of the things about American history is Americans tend not to look back. It gives me a job, so I’m all for it. But so it’s like the lawyers, you all kind of like people who break the law. It creates [crosstalk].
Preet Bharara: Fights are good. Fights are good for us.
Jon Meacham: I had a good friend, I won’t name him, but you know him. And I think most of your… Almost all your listeners, 99% of your listeners would know a public figure who went back to practice law. And I called him with a referral for somebody who was in trouble. And I said, “I got to tell you, I think he might be guilty of this.” And this person said, “Well, if we excluded the guilty, we would have no business.”
Preet Bharara: Yes.
Jon Meacham: So…
Preet Bharara: So true.
Jon Meacham: … We don’t look back very well. It’s one of our besetting problems because, for instance, I think one of the reasons we are so shaped by both structural racism, structural partisanship is that our collective disposition, the majoritarian disposition, both after the Civil War and after the Civil Rights Movement was okay, we took care of that. Let’s move on. Everybody wants to be Huck Finn, we want to light out for the territories. We’re not as interested. And when I say we, again, I mean, a kind of a majoritarian prevailing position.
Unlike Germany, unlike South Africa, we have not looked at our past in a collective and critical way. And you can see how uncomfortable that is for people in these very intense, though somewhat, sideline debates over, say 1619 versus 1776. So there’s this intense debate in my world about the validity of dating the American founding from 1619, and was raised the central force. There are people who fight back against that ferociously who are not Trump people, and then there are the Trump people who try to obliterate it. I’m too much of an Episcopalian to say one side or the other is absolutely right. I think it’s a continuum and a conversation that we should have. And I wish parenthetically that people wouldn’t go after each other quite so viciously when the historical sensibility, which I do believe has utility, not just as an intellectual exercise, but as a cultural one.
And that utility is, if we could fully examine what happened in the last five years, I think that would be a benefit. If it’s over, and it may not be over, I wouldn’t bet the mortgage payment one way or the other. I don’t know about you.
Preet Bharara: No, certainly not.
Jon Meacham: I think the numbers are such that it’s probably going to be okay. But we don’t know if it’s close in a couple of places that had a significant number of absentee or pandemic balloting as I call it, people like the two of us who misspent our youths reading the 12th and 20th, and 22nd and 25th amendments, we’ll have a moment. So we don’t know, we don’t know what’s going to happen. But if Vice President Biden were to win decisively, and my view is if he wins 53 to 55% of the popular vote, that’s like Lyndon Johnson, or Nixon in ’72 or Reagan in ’84, given our structural partisanship. That’s like the old 62, 63%. If that happens and the president grumbles but accepts the result, then to go to your question, I think there will be a lot of Republicans who will say, as Cornyn apparently did over the weekend, “I thought I could change him. I had to stay in the arena. It could have been worse but [crosstalk].”
Preet Bharara: I never like that guy that. That guy [crosstalk].
Jon Meacham: [crosstalk] And I tried. I tried. I tried. And the problem with that, and it’s to be totally blunt, I’m torn on it because Winston Churchill made a vital decision in May of 1940. He became prime minister on the Friday, the May, the 10th of May, and people wanted to string up the men of Munich. They wanted Chamberlain punished. They wanted Halifax driven out, and Churchill said no. And the quote, the great line, he was in the capital on December 20… Our capital, on December 26, 1941. And he was asked, and it is the day he gave that great speech about, if my mother had been English and my father American, I might have got here on my own. Marvelous speech.
If someone said to him in the hallways there, “What are you going to do about the Men of Munich?” Churchill said, quoted, I think in the Washington Post of that day, “If we open up a quarrel with the past, we shall surely lose the future.” Winston Churchill knew a lot, and he knew more than I did. So a part of me wants to move on, but again, you and I know a lot of people who recoil at that.
Preet Bharara: What?
Jon Meacham: And want…
Preet Bharara: I mean, I think, a big problem, people want accountability in two ways. One that you’re speaking about, which is some universe of claims of misconduct and malfeasance, whether it was relating to what the Mueller report found, or other things that we may not even yet know about. Or things that might happen during the transition if Biden wins, and those people talk very evocatively about criminal prosecution, criminal liability. It’s a debate, that’s probably raging in a lot of places. Then the other is political accountability for these Republicans who will claim they never had any kinship with Trump. Should they be forgiven their trespasses also, so that we move on, or do we have a long memory?
Jon Meacham: That’s a wonderful way to put it. I guess, I’d argue a kind of Anglican approach. One is demonstrable, and this is your bailiwick far more than mine. Demonstrable violations or strong probable cause of violations of law. That’s different, it seems to me than something like the Cornyn and Sasse business, or Lindsey Graham. They were shameless. And they’ve changed their obituaries by their seemingly mindless support, their cynical support of a president who was polling so strongly in their states.
The reason for this is fairly straightforward, and I know this from Republican politicians in the south, they get presented polling data all the time. And the polling data they’re presented shows that 80, 85, 90% of self-identified Republicans don’t just support the president. They strongly support the president. And that’s a number, the strongly support category is something that George W. Bush only hit, the last Republican president, only hit in the weeks after September 11th. No one’s ever seen a number like that.
And so, if you’re wondering why these senators, when Kasie Hunt or the Capitol Hill reporters stop them, and why they sound so horribly, unthinkingly supportive of the president is because they’ve just come from reading those polls. So that’s one thing, the mindless political support of someone who was self-evidently damaging the experiment to which they had, at least given a portion of their lives to being a part of. And so, that’s one question. The question of ongoing or collusion, whatever the term would be, with foreign powers to undermine the country, I think that’s a totally legitimate subject of investigation and potential prosecution. And I don’t think… I mean, correct me if I’m wrong. I can’t remember a case where there have been ongoing post facto investigations of an administration.
The closest thing I can think of is there was a special prosecutor, remember in ’92, ’93, appointed, Joe diGenova, I think, to investigate whether the Bush administration had improperly or illegally searched the passport files at the State Department in an effort to prove that Bill Clinton had gone to Moscow as a student.
Preet Bharara: He’s the only one I can think of from my experience is, after Bill Clinton pardoned Mark Rich on the eve of leaving the presidency, that my old office in which I was a junior prosecutor at the time, Southern District of New York, led by Mary Jo White, did conduct a criminal investigation of the nature of that pardon.
Jon Meacham: And what was the result? Do you remember?
Preet Bharara: No charges were brought. There was investigation done, that was closed. Yeah.
Jon Meacham: So that, I think that’s a totally legitimate rule of law driven thing. And not that it would matter, but I would support that. I’ll tell you this. I think that the character of the 46th President, if the 46th president is Joe Biden, is such that, and I’m just guessing here, but I think I’m right, he’s not going to be wildly interested in that. He’s going to want to get the pandemic under control, get the economy growing again, and address these longer term issues. I don’t think he’s going to be terribly interested in that. I could be wrong. And the National Security elements with Russia and disinformation, and everything else, that may change that calculus.
But I do think there is this American streak in our character, which is move on, move on. And I understand why the anti-Trump forces will be driven to stand against that, but I think it’s a deep cultural thing.
Preet Bharara: A couple of things you said have raised a question in my mind that I’d like to ask you before we get to your podcasts and the speeches. You’ve cited a figure of 34%, 34% for Joe McCarthy, at the moment, I guess, when he was censured by the Senate to show that a significant percentage of Americans still supported this person, who was being rebuked by his colleagues. I don’t know what the number is today. But I would venture to guess, because history has not been kind to Joe McCarthy, the percentage of support, whatever the figure, whether that’s a meaningless figure or not would be very low today. But he was not the president. And he didn’t give rise to an entire sort of philosophy of governing, whether you want to call it nihilism or something else, like Trump has.
If Trump loses decisively and fades from the political scene, at least he himself does, even though he will have gained 40 some odd percent of the vote, do you think he will have a similar fate in terms of history’s judgment in the longer term? Or because of something about his politics and, or the fact that he became a president will render his fate different?
Jon Meacham: Oh, I think Donald Trump will be a watchword and a warning about unchecked power, the threat of demagoguery. And to quote James Baldwin, Baldwin once wrote that ignorance allied with power is the most dangerous of things. And Trump prove that ignorance allied with power would put kids in cages, ignorance allied with power would invite our rivals and foes into our political process, ignorance allied with power, of course and the political conversation beyond a point where a lot of us thought that it was, it couldn’t get any more corroded.
Trumps have a different magnitude than McCarthy because he became president. I actually think the right analogy here is, this is as if George Wallace had become president. And when you read Wallace’s speeches in ’64, and ’68, which were his two big national races he ran ’72, but was shot, you see these white demagogic forces unleashed. And Wallace kind of predict, and was kind of a forerunner of Trump.
Remember, Trump is fundamentally a figure of racial unease in the country. He’s either the last gasp, or a penultimate gasp of anxiety on behalf on the part of people who look like me. I’m a white, Southern male, Episcopalian, who feel that our hegemonic power is fading. And to some extent, I’ve argued in the past that Trump’s victory is in an odd and unsatisfactory way, fundamentally prove that the demographic changes that are unfolding in the country are inevitable. That the ferocity of the reaction against it affirms the basic reality of the shifts that are unfolding. So [crosstalk].
Preet Bharara: Is it a last gasp, or is it something that will last longer?
Jon Meacham: That’s what I mean, it could be a last gasp. I hope it is. It could also be one of a series. Sure, we could be entering into an era of what I would think of as guardrail politics, where we bounce from guardrail to guardrail, which we tend to do anyway. I mean, when you think about it, it’s kind of remarkable. I mean, think of the different people we have sent to the pinnacle of power, even in the last 30 years. George H. W. Bush to Bill Clinton, hard to imagine a stronger generational shift. Clinton to George W. Bush, two very different baby boomers. I didn’t think I would live to see a sharper contrast from an incumbent to a successor, from George W. Bush to Barack Obama, until in the space of the 20 seconds or less it takes to say the oath, Donald Trump took over from Barack Obama. That’s a sign of a big, complicated country.
Preet Bharara: That is true.
Jon Meacham: I mean, think about [crosstalk].
Preet Bharara: We are big, and we are complicated.
Jon Meacham: We’re big, and we’re complicated, and Barack Obama was president four years ago today.
Preet Bharara: That’s a lie. I mean, I think you don’t understand the space time. Ruth Bader Ginsburg died four years ago.
Jon Meacham: I know. I know. Isn’t it amazing?
Preet Bharara: A question I wanted to ask you off topic a little bit is, is it the case that there has been, that there have been more events, and this is a more eventful a presidency than others? Or is that an illusion? And if it’s not an illusion, is this period going to spawn more books by historians in any other presidential term?
Jon Meacham: Oh, I think so. The thing about the… I think what you’re getting at is every other American president, I mean, this every other American President has had a vision of the office where they marshaled their capital. They knew they had a limited amount of… A limited productive claim on the public mindshare. President Trump is the mindshare, and so we’ve had incredibly tumultuous periods before. I mean, I think about 1968, just the year itself. You start with [inaudible] McCarthy, Gene McCarthy surprises Johnson in New Hampshire with a strong showing. Johnson gets out of the race.
That same week, Dr. King is killed, and Senator Kennedy is killed in June Chicago Democratic National Convention. 46 Americans, on average died in combat in Vietnam in 1968. And it ends with us orbiting the moon, Frank Borman and those guys reading from Genesis. So that’s a hell of a year, but that all feels like about two weeks in the age of Trump. And I do think part of it, and it’s a better social scientists, Gladwell, or somebody could speak to this better than I could. But there is something. I don’t know if it’s a Heisenberg Principle or something, it is true that because the events of the external reality beyond our consciousness, because those events are chronicled on a device that we keep in front of our faces all day long, I do think forces us to a level of engagement or awareness with the broader world that is probably not helpful.
The counter argument would be that to fight a demagogue like Trump requires constant vigilance, that the old trope, eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.
Preet Bharara: And constant tweeting.
Jon Meacham: Yeah, maybe that’s helped. Although I’m fascinated by, I think one of the most important stories of the year, and I guess it was this year to go to your point was the times doing an analysis of democratic Twitter versus the democratic party. Remember this, and how if you follow democratic Twitter, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren was the center of gravity, but if you got off Twitter, you realize that Biden was the answer?
Preet Bharara: There’s one more comment I have on something you said that struck me, and then I want to talk about your podcast. You said we as a country, we don’t look back well, and there are two sides to that. So on the plus side, it seems to me off the top of my head that can be good because you look forward, forward is hopeful. Men and women in politics and otherwise can remake themselves because we don’t look back. Well, Joe Biden, by the way, was a dead presidential candidate multiple times going back to, I’m a 52-year-old man now. I was in college when he ran. And so that can be good, and befits something that we think about in America, which is anybody can have a new beginning and a rebirth. That’s all terrific. On the other hand, it does allow us to excuse bad things.
One thing I know we get in a high dudgeon about, at least commentators, historians and others is hypocrisy and inconsistency. And I wonder, particularly in the context of this Supreme Court fight, so many people on the progressive side, I think are understandably angry that the very clear precedent laid down in 2016, by Lindsey Graham, and Mitch McConnell, and others is being flouted, but they’re getting away with it. How much of this idea that we don’t look back well causes us, generally speaking, and in a way that maybe some people don’t fully appreciate, the American public doesn’t care that much about consistency or hypocrisy? Does it?
Jon Meacham: Great question. Apparently not.
Preet Bharara: Apparently not.
Jon Meacham: Right. I mean, they’re only… So we’re talking about history and social science, so our data set, the data can be murky. But we’re going to know a lot in 16, 17, 18 days. We’ll know whether the voters of South Carolina and the voters of Kentucky find that hypocrisy to be disqualifying. We will find out whether the country genuinely believes that the presidency has come to be a force of distraction and disruption in a world that calls out for rationality and decency. So well, no. You’re exactly right, I mean, apparently, being consistent is not a huge thing.
And let me say this, and I don’t know yet. So to be responsible, you can’t be glib about this. Someone like me can’t be glib about it. I’m willing to forgive a lot of sense in public life, because it’s public life. It’s life. These are not… With the exception of john lewis, these are not saints. They’re sinners who seek office. A man I admire, almost above all others in American political history, George Herbert Walker Bush, did things that were terrible in the pursuit of power. He opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, when he was running for the Senate in Texas. We don’t talk about that much. He ran a brutal campaign against Michael Dukakis. We can debate that for the next six days about how much of it was legitimate, I think more than most people, but that’s a legitimate debate.
So, I’m not looking for perfection. What I am looking for, and what I think citizens should look for is not perfection in the pursuit of power. But you should assess how that power was ultimately deployed once it was amassed. And by that standard, George H. W. Bush, for instance, is an exemplar. Because once he was president, he made a series of decisions that he believed were in the national interest, and he knew to be doing harm to his political self-interest. And I know this, because I’ve got the diary. I heard him talking about it. He did a tape-recorded diary.
He raised taxes in 1990 in exchange for spending caps that helped create the infrastructure for the prosperity, in addition to the tech boom of the 1990s. And he said, as he was doing it, “I’m probably dead meat, but it’s the right thing to do.” And so, that you judge these folks on what they do with power. By that standard, the people you just mentioned, have failed the test. Because the way they got their seat, they did Obama in. And Mitch McConnell, whatever you want to say about him, in the raw exercise of power people will be studying him forever about how he did it.
Preet Bharara: And that will make him very happy, and make him very pleased.
Jon Meacham: Well, it’ll make him even happier is to defeat McGrath. And I just don’t think we know. I don’t think we know.
Preet Bharara: I want to talk about your podcast, It Was Said. I will disclose to folks that I am a student of political speeches, and I am obsessed with them from the time I was in high school, when I would deliver them in speech competition that some of the listeners know. Though my first question to you by way of background on the issue of political speeches is this, why do they matter so much? And I know that you say, great political speeches are not actually the norm. But it is true. And maybe this is throughout the world, but I’ll speak about America for a moment.
Someone comes on the scene and they give an amazing, eloquent speech, and Americans swoon. And they say, immediately, “I want to vote for that person.” I had a guest on the podcast. You may know him, Cyrus Habib, the Lieutenant Governor in Washington. And he made the point once to say, which is unusual for a politician to say, he gave a speech once to a group of folks, who were not familiar with him, after which they were waxing rhapsodic, and say, “We would vote for you. You should run for president. You can run for governor.” And his response to them was, “Why? I just gave a speech. You don’t know anything about me. Because I talked good for a little bit of time, you want to elect me to something that, that’s happened to me on occasion? Why?” What’s the power of a political speech?
Jon Meacham: Politics is fundamentally about seduction, and so you were seduced. The folks who were talking to him were seduced in that moment. And what he was, maybe he wasn’t consciously pursuing it, but they surrendered the one thing, they gave him the one thing they could think of, which was their vote and their loyalty. There’s a great scene, and if you haven’t read him, you would love him, Ward Just. Do you know Just’s fiction?
Preet Bharara: No.
Jon Meacham: Oh Lord, this was worth your time just for this. Go buy a book called Twenty-One by Ward Just, J-U-S-T. And if your listeners don’t know him, he’s probably the best Washington novelist, novelist of power since Henry Adams. Wrote for the Newsweek, or for The Washington Post. Left to write fiction in the late 60s. Had been in Saigon. Had been in Vietnam. His books have… His short stories, they have titles like, The Congressman Who Loved Floor Bare, and it was just perfect. But there’s a story, it’s the lead story in this collection, Twenty-One stories published probably in 1991, called Honor, Power, Fame, Riches and the Love of Women. And those are the five great constellations that Freud lists, I think, in the 23rd lecture in the General Introduction to Psychoanalysis, might be the 24th, but it’s one of those two.
And those are the things that Freud said all men pursue, honor, power, fame, riches and the love of women. And it’s a story about a candidate, and upstate New York Congressman, I think. And Bobby Kennedy, who’s in the Senate, is a character in the story. And Kennedy gives a marvelous speech up in Buffalo or someplace. And gets back in the car, and the congressman says, “My God, that was just electric.” And Kennedy in the story turns to him and says, “It’s not electricity, it’s sex.” And so, there’s something to that. It’s an elemental exchange. It is about both mind and heart.
So I think about Obama in ’04, which I guess since the Cross of Gold or Reagan in ’64. I mean, that’s… And you go back. And I love President Obama. He served his nation well. He’s your patron, I guess, ultimately. You were a commissioned officer, weren’t you, of Barack Obama?
Preet Bharara: I was appointed by Barack Obama. Correct.
Jon Meacham: Okay. And so we love him, but go read that speech. And it’s not particularly profound, the ’04 speech. We’re not a blue [crosstalk].
Preet Bharara: You got to be [crosstalk]. Look, and I think Obama is one of the great orators, and he has other speeches that were better. There was something about the timing of that speech in that moment.
Jon Meacham: Sure. And him, right?
Preet Bharara: And him. It’s a more pedestrian speech than people remember.
Jon Meacham: Right. And the other great one to go watch is, which is also a debut speech is October 27th, 1964, when Ronald Reagan bought a half hour, they bought a half hour for him for the Goldwater Campaign. And it’s, he’s impossibly young. So in 1964, Reagan was what? 53. He was born in 1911. And it sort of made Reagan. Four years later, he almost beats Nixon. For two years later, he’s governor of the largest state in the country. And four years later, he almost stops Nixon at the ’68 convention. It’s a more interesting speech because it is pure Reagan, it’s his Cold War free market views.
Ronald Reagan: When Nikita Khrushchev has told his people he knows what our answer will be, he has told them that we are retreating under the pressure of the Cold War. And someday, when the time comes to deliver the final ultimatum, our surrender will be voluntary. Because by that time, we will have been weakened from within spiritually, morally and economically.
Jon Meacham: Anyway, to answer your question, I think they are, in fact, about the moment, what you just said about Obama. They are written for that point in time. And it’s vanishingly rare for either that point in time to endure, or that point in time plus that speech, it becomes even rarer for it to endure. And so that the ones we went over on the podcast with Chris Corcoran and his amazing folks at Cadence13, which was their idea. I’m just, as John Stuart once sweetly called me, I’m a door quickipedia. Like, that’s all I do. So I just wrote them, but they came up with the idea.
John Lewis at the March on Washington, Barbara Jordan at the ’76 convention, a speech I remember. Hillary Clinton in Beijing, Ed Murrow speaking out against McCarthy. Meghan McCain’s amazing eulogy for her dad at the cathedral, which is a artifact. You ask about books about the Trump era, Megan’s eulogy and John, the two deaths, the two, three, I guess, big public deaths of the Trump administration, John McCain, George H. W. Bush, and John Lewis, you could write a pretty good monograph about what the public reaction to those fallen figures told you about what people were missing in their daily political lives. And so…
Preet Bharara: Oh, absolutely. I mean, the McCain funeral was fascinating to me, in so far as, I don’t think the President was ever mentioned. And what was discussed were things like honor and decency, which were taken to be insults against the president. What does that say about what people think about the president? What does that say about even the allies of the president? [crosstalk]
Jon Meacham: Let me tell you. I’m going to tell you something I know that I’ve never publicly said, and I think it’s okay. So I was honored to… President Bush asked me to deliver one of his eulogies at the National Cathedral. And so that was, just that was the first week of December 2018. I had probably written it a year before, because he was sick for a long time. I had a riff in the speech, and the eulogy about how 1000 points of light was like Lincoln’s better angels of our nature, or FDR’s, nothing to fear but fear itself. That these were companion verses and America’s national hymn of choosing the right over the convenient, the hard over the easy, the common good over individual gain, something like that. I wrote that a year before.
In the ensuing year, Donald Trump, like Mr. Magoo, runs his car into 1000 points of light, and starts attacking 1000 points of light. And if you remember this, he said…
Preet Bharara: Yeah, I do.
Jon Meacham: … “What did that ever mean? I don’t get it. I don’t get it.” Well, I was worried that people would think I was trolling him on what was a state occasion about a man I loved. And I wasn’t trying to be an MSNBC guy. I wasn’t trying to contrast Donald Trump with George. I mean, it had been written. I have evidence, it had been written before any of this that had happened. And I consulted. I asked the opinion of, I won’t name him but a relative of George HW Bush’s, who also served the president. And he said, “Go ahead and say it if you wrote it.” So, I did it.
“I did Abraham Lincoln’s, Better Angels of Our Nature, and George H. W. Bush’s, A Thousand Points of Light, our companion verses in America’s national hymn. For Lincoln and Bush, both called on us to choose the right over the convenient, the hope, rather than the fear. And to he, not our worst impulses, but our best instincts.”
And the New York Times, I think, maybe the post somebody wrote in their lead story that I seem to be lecturing Mr. Trump about what A thousand Points of Light meant, but I kind of wasn’t. I mean, I was lecturing the country. I was trying to tell the country something. And so this is, I tell this long-winded story, partly because it’s evidence of how he has taken over every aspect of our national life, even when we’re trying not to let him in.
Preet Bharara: Look, we discussed earlier, someone casting aspersions on Joe Biden by comparing him to Mr. Rogers. There was a great documentary that I saw…
Jon Meacham: Yeah [crosstalk].
Preet Bharara: … That many people saw. And the reason I think it had the points that it had was because Trump is president, and it was such a contrast to the rhetoric and bombast of this president to be just decent and honorable. And I had a similar speech experience myself. I gave a commencement address that borrowed themes that I had written some years earlier when Obama was president, about public discourse, and about how we should speak to each other in America. And multiple students came up to me afterwards, and really appreciated that indirect attack on Donald Trump. I also have physical evidence that those sentences were written before Donald Trump announced for the presidency. But you’re right, that’s how we look at everything.
Jon Meacham: Yeah, and they do. They look their speeches reveal the passions of the moment they’re at their best, they illuminate the mind, and motives, and hopes, and fears, and dreams, and concerns of the speaker and the audience. And if that rhetoric endures, it endures because it intersects with unfolding dramas, certainly in the American experience.
Preet Bharara: Yeah. Jon Meacham, thanks again for joining us. The podcast, It Was Said, wonderful. And your book, His Truth Is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope. We’ve been doing a lot of talking about hope today for a good reason. Thanks, and I hope you’ll join us again soon.
Jon Meacham: My pleasure. If I need a lawyer, you’re my first call.
Preet Bharara: All right. I’m in. My conversation with Jon Meacham continues for members of the CAFE Insider Community. To try out the membership free for two weeks, head to cafe.com/insider. Again, that’s cafe.com/insider.
Folks to end the show, I want to talk once again about voting and the importance of voting. As you listen to this, we’re 12, 11, 10 days depending on when you listen away from the close of the election. Tens of millions of Americans have already voted, they’ve already cast their ballot for the next president of the United States, or senator, or congressman. But this year voting holds a certain special, I think urgency for many people. And the signs so far are both despairing, and also uplifting. On the one hand, it’s terrible that people have to wait in long lines in the year 2020, just to cast their ballot. But it’s also uplifting and heartening to see records being broken, all time records being broken for early voting, and people wanting to make sure that their vote counts. That they can have some effect and influence on the future of the country.
And it’s hard for a lot of people, but there’s one story I want to highlight of how difficult it can be to have your vote count. You may have seen it in The Washington Post. But the story I want to relate is the story of James Wendell Williams at Birmingham, Michigan. James, at the age of 77, was determined to cast his ballot for Vice President Biden when early voting started fairly early on September 24th, in his home state of Michigan. But his concern was, he wouldn’t live long enough to do so. You see, James was battling a cancer that he believed would soon take his life. And he, in fact wasn’t expected to live until election day, November 3rd. According to the story in The Washington Post, “James felt that President Trump was toxic. He was especially angry over the President’s suggestion that he would not accept the results of an election if he lost.” And so, James wanted to live long enough to do something about it.
The very day early voting started, James, his son and daughter-in-law brought him to City Hall, where they had coordinated in advance having his ballot waiting for him. According to the post, “He moved slowly, his face straining from the effort. His son David hovered close in that tentative way sons of elderly parents do to keep him from falling. Williams flashed a smile after the ballot fell in, a triumph.” David his son remembered he was really happy to tell people he had lived long enough to vote. James died eight days later.
Here’s more from the post, “After he was gone, Williams’s family learned his final vote would not be counted under Michigan law. Votes are tallied on election day in the state, not as they arrive. Because Williams died before election day, his vote would be invalidated. About 850 such ballots had been rejected for the same reason during Michigan’s primary election in August, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.” So whether or not a vote is counted in a particular state, if a person dies is determined by the election laws of that state. Some states, like Massachusetts, are trying to ensure every voice is counted in this unusual election if they vote, even if they don’t make it to election day to see the results.
In early October, the Massachusetts legislature passed a temporary law to count votes from those who died after casting ballots in this election. To strain so hard to vote at the end of your life, and then for that vote not to count is heartbreaking. Here’s what James’s son had to say, “Here’s the thing, it pisses me off that it doesn’t count, but it really doesn’t diminish what it meant to him, or to us. It’s not that he thought his vote was going to change the election. He believed it was important as an example to his children and grandchildren.” He went on to say, “The way you use your energy, particularly when you don’t have much left, that is a very true reflection of what you really cared about.” Think about that, the way you use your energy, particularly when you don’t have much left, that is a very true reflection of what you really care about. And that can be a message, and a lesson to all of us.
It is impossible to overstate what is at stake in this election. I believe it’s not only the most important election of my lifetime, but maybe the most important election in American history. And James’s story, even though it has a heartbreaking conclusion, in more than one way shows us how much the American people care about seeing change in our country. And look, I haven’t thought deeply about the policy considerations on both sides of the question of whether or not you have to live to election day for your vote to count. I’ll have to think about that a little bit more. But at first blush, it is heartbreaking for someone who wanted so badly for his vote to count, and tried so hard and strained so much to cast a ballot in this most important of elections.
But what struck me most about the story is the dedication and drive to vote, and to have your vote count. So I will never tire of saying it, if you haven’t registered to vote, and you still can in your state, do so. If you haven’t voted yet and you can vote early in your state, do so. If you can request a ballot in your state by mail and you haven’t done so, please do so. Not that you should need any more inspiration to vote in this election. But if you do, let the story of James Wendell Williams of Birmingham Michigan inspire you to vote.
Well, that’s it for this episode of Stay Tuned. Thanks again to my guest, Jon Meacham.
If you like what we do, rate and review the show on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen. Every positive review helps new listeners find the show. Send me your questions about news, politics and justice. Tweet them to me at PreetBharara with the hashtag askPreet. Or you can call and leave me a message at 669-247-7338, that’s 66924 Preet. Or you can send an email to [email protected]
Stay Tuned is presented by CAFE Studios. Your host is Preet Bharara, the Executive Producer is Tamara Sepper, the Senior Producer is Adam Waller, the Senior Audio Producer is David Tatasciore. And the CAFE team is Matthew Billy, David Kurlander, Sam Ozer-Staton, Noa Azulai, Nat Weiner, Jake Kaplan, Calvin Lord, Geoff Isenman, Chris Boylan, Sean Walsh, and Margot Maley. Our music is by Andrew Dost. I’m Preet Bharara, Stay Tuned.