cover image The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels

The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels

Jon Meacham. Random House, $30 (400p) ISBN 978-0-399-58981-2

America’s centuries-long struggles about race, gender, and immigration are viewed through the lens of presidential calculation and convictions in this sonorous but shallow study. Vanderbilt historian Meacham (Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power) examines presidential leadership on issues of civil rights and equality, from Ulysses S. Grant’s vigorous action to protect freedmen from Ku Klux Klan attacks during Reconstruction to Lyndon Johnson’s moral and political dynamism in enacting civil rights legislation in the 1960s. In between, he surveys presidential vacillations that mirrored the nation’s contradictory moods: Theodore Roosevelt awkwardly married white supremacism with progressive stances on race and women’s suffrage; Franklin Roosevelt defended democratic values against fascism but allowed the racist internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II; Eisenhower was largely missing in action in the fight against Joe McCarthy’s inflaming of anti-foreign sentiment. Meacham’s gracefully written historical vignettes don’t break new scholarly ground, but they do highlight patterns that resonate with today’s controversies over immigration and white nationalism. (In the 1920s, he notes, Klan membership numbered in the millions, and one nativist demagogue called for a “wall of steel” against immigration from southern Europe.) Unfortunately, Meacham’s focus on presidents as moral exemplars and embodiments of America’s political soul feels more like mysticism—and anti-Trump panic—than cogent analysis. Photos. (May)