Perhaps you’ve heard of Jon Meacham, a former editor in chief at Newsweek and author of many popular histories about the United States. His books are ubiquitous and regularly make bestseller lists. Yet the ideas in them are frequently reductive, incorrect, and strangely in thrall to a distinctly American version of the great man theory. Meacham is committed to fetishizing the role of the president and the men who have filled it, arguing that the office ennobles its occupants more than it corrupts them. Meanwhile, he conspicuously ignores the bottom-up social movements and profound economic tensions that historians have long recognized as crucial forces in American history.
That is how Thomas Frank sees it, anyway. In his combined review of Meacham’s new book, The Soul of America, and the HBO documentary based on it, Frank skewers a centrist hero who has become expert at whetting the MSNBC crowd’s thirst for neoliberal platitudes. For Meacham, once a staunch Reaganite, the close alliance he enjoys with President Biden is only the latest evidence of a commitment to subordinating matters of policy to a nebulous politics of character and “soul.” This week, Frank explains to web editor Violet Lucca Meacham’s overly romantic approach to history and what it elides, his connections to President Biden, and how his popularity reflects a larger shift away from the projects that once defined American liberalism.