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Historian, author Jon Meacham discusses importance of coming together in our country

Man standing behind a lectern speaking into a microphone.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jon Meacham spoke at Armstrong Hall on ASU's Tempe campus on Oct. 12. Photo by Allison Connell

October 17, 2023

Jon Meacham, Pulitzer Prize-winning author, joined students, faculty, staff and community members at Arizona State University on Oct. 12 for an event, hosted by The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, titled “An evening with Jon Meacham: And There Was Light.”

Meacham shared stories from his expansive career — from working on the biography of the 41st President of the United States George H. W. Bush to getting mistaken for author John Grisham. He also spoke about the challenging times this country has faced and how we have come together to move forward.

In attendance was The College’s Dean and Executive Vice Provost at ASU Patrick Kenney, who introduced Meacham.

“The College is happy to host Jon Meacham, presidential historian and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, and welcome one of America’s most prominent public intellectuals to ASU,” Kenney said.

During his remarks, the Tennessee native brought to the audience's attention how our country’s current events are not unlike any other challenges the nation has faced throughout its history.

“What if we had been here 100 years ago, 1923 — what would have been going on? Well, we would’ve just finished the First World War. The Bolshevik Revolution would have unfolded in 1917 and what would become the Soviet Union caused enormous anxiety that was a socialist immigrant threat to the United States,” Meacham said.

In addition, the Ku Klux Klan was refounded in 1915, the 1920s census showed more Americans lived in cities than on farms, The Great Depression took hold in the 1930s and society endured both the Spanish flu and polio pandemics.

Think about what we just ran through. We just ran through fears of immigration, shifting demographics, isolationism after a global cataclysm, changing media environment, antisemitism, anti-Catholicism, legislative reaction and more,” Meacham said.

He then shared what he felt are two important characteristics to keep in mind when the country is faced with adversity.

The first is curiosity.

“We have to understand the stuff we’re talking about. We have to follow the shape, the forces. The demographic changes, economic changes, the implications of globalization, everything that’s creating the populist reaction in the country,” Meacham said.

“Curiosity is absolutely vital and tender. The best of us can save us from the worst of us.”

Jon Meacham spoke to a crowd of 400 people on ASU's Tempe campus Oct. 12. Photo by Allison Connell

The second characteristic is empathy, but not the “because Jesus told me to” kind of empathy, Meacham said. The self-interested empathy, or, as he calls it, democratic empathy.

Meacham shared that George H. W. Bush was the most empathetic man he knew. During his work with him writing his biography, he heard a memorable story from Bush’s childhood. 

It was a story of empathy, in which the future president saw a classmate in need and helped him because he would’ve wanted someone else to do that if that was him.

“I asked him one day why he helped the boy, and he looked at me as if I were crazy,” Meacham said. “Bush told me that if he were the one that needed help, he’d want someone to help him.

“These characteristics and many more have enabled us in our history to come out of the darkest of hours. And if we actualize them and act according to those characteristics, we can get ourselves out of tough times we face.”

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