DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross who's preparing for a WHYY event today. Our guest presidential historian Jon Meacham says if you're troubled by the state of our national discourse and the controversies surrounding our president, you might benefit from a look at the past. His new book examines moments in American history when the nation was divided by partisan fury and racial strife. It explores how enlightened presidential leadership helped us overcome divisions and move in the direction of greater tolerance and equality. Progress in America is uneven, he writes, and it's clear he's troubled by the present occupant of the Oval Office. But he finds optimism in the nation's repeated ability to somehow find its way through crisis and embrace its guiding principles.
Jon Meacham is a distinguished visiting professor at Vanderbilt University and a contributing writer for The New York Times Book Review. He's written several presidential biographies, including "American Lion: Andrew Jackson In The White House" which won the Pulitzer Prize. His new book is "The Soul Of America: The Battle For Our Better Angels."
Well, Jon Meacham, welcome to FRESH AIR. This book is called "The Soul Of America." Where did the idea come from - the idea of the book?
JON MEACHAM: The idea came after the terrible events in Charlottesville last August when the neo-Nazis and the Klansmen were demonstrating, and the counterprotester Heather Heyer was killed. And we found ourselves with a president of the United States who seemed unable to condemn neo-Nazis and Klansmen for violating a fundamental part of the American creed. And my sense was that, at heart, the American identity is a perennial conflict between our worst instincts and our best ones. OK. It's a soul - an ethos that has room for Martin Luther King, but it also has room - from generation to generation - for the Ku Klux Klan and for hate and for fear.
DAVIES: I think we all hear and interpret the news of the day in the context of our own personal experience and knowledge. I'm a - grew up in the Vietnam era. I've been covering state and local politics. That affects the way I look at things that I see. And it struck me that you have spent your career digging into and reflecting on the American experience, especially presidential history back to the beginning of the republic. Does your daily consumption of news regularly conjure historical analogies - when you hear about North Korea or tariffs or anything else?
MEACHAM: Oh, if you want an allusion to John Tyler at breakfast, I'm your guy.
MEACHAM: Yes, it is. I - as a southerner and as a biographer, my sense of things is where Faulkner was in "Requiem For A Nun," when he said the past is never dead. It isn't even past. I grew up on a civil war battlefield - Missionary Ridge. And so to me, history's always been quite tactile. And so absolutely - when North Korea's in the headlines, I do think about how Truman was annoyed with Eisenhower when Eisenhower - in 1952 - said, I have a peace plan for Korea. And Truman said, well, he - it might be nice if he shared that with his commander in chief.
DAVIES: Do you remember what you thought when Donald Trump descended from the escalator...
DAVIES: ...In Trump Tower and gave that speech about Mexico and not sending us its best?
MEACHAM: I know exactly where I was. And I was very much in the - this is going to be - I think that was July or June. I thought, this is going to be a fun summer. And by Labor Day, we'll be back to weighing the relative merits of Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush. Let me tell you a quick story about when I - on reflection - when I should have - I should've been smarter about this.
I went to interview candidate Trump in May of 2016 for Time magazine, and it was at Trump Tower. It was just the two of us in the office. And I was early, so I went up to get a cup of coffee on the mezzanine level there on Fifth Avenue. And I came back down, and I was standing there in front of those now fabled elevators. And a little family came through the revolving door - empty lobby. And it was - they were clearly from the Midwest - a little boy about 10 years old, mother and father, clearly tourists, clearly not wildly affluent. And the little boy was looking around with very big eyes. And he said to his dad, do you think he uses the same door we just used - as if he were talking about Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark, you know, from the Avengers.
And I realized later that Trump didn't need to reach me. I was sitting there thinking, you know, how does Chester Arthur play into American populism, you know, in the Trumpian tradition or whatever I was thinking? But that family had taken pains - had spent money to come and simply walk where their hero walked, and because he was reaching those folks, he's where he is right now.
DAVIES: Let's look back at some earlier times. You note in the book that the founders of the republic struggled over how much authority to give the president. I mean, it's easy to take it for granted now. At the time, this was all pretty new. Some saw the president as more constrained, and it was, in the end, George Washington's view which sort of held sway. What was his view of presidential power?
MEACHAM: From the very beginning, the presidency was a wager on human character because the framers in that long and difficult summer in 1787 spent far more time on the other parts of the Constitution. They were honestly confused about how powerful the president should be. Their experience with colonial governors, their experience with the king had made them fearful of - by and large - of monarchical power. And yet Alexander Hamilton, without rapping, got up and gave a talk arguing for chief executive for life.
On the very - on the other end of the spectrum, you had people arguing that the president should simply be functionary. What they - where they landed was with the expectation that George Washington would be the first president, and they could trust him to figure this out in an interesting way for everyone. And so they - to bring in a football metaphor - they punted a bit on the exact nature of the presidency.
Washington himself in those first years was torn between a Jeffersonian view - a pre-President Jefferson view of power, which was that it should not be focused on the central government, and a Hamiltonian view, which was that - as Hamilton once said - the British system was the finest system that had ever been created. And Washington wonderfully, in retrospect, came down more or less in between those two - little closer to Hamilton. And then Jefferson, of course - once he had executive power - was all in favor of it, which tends to happen. So the presidency itself has always been a work in progress.
DAVIES: So in a way, to use the phrase that I - I think this was attributed to Washington - his job was to do all the good which his station requires. That is to say rather than thinking every day of how he is constrained, thinking of how he - or someday she - can do what's required. And I get the sense as I read the book that this more expansive view of the power and responsibility of the presidency helped those in the White House to kind of rise to the moment and treat their responsibilities more broadly - do bigger and better things.
MEACHAM: Our best moments have come when voices far from power - reformers, protesters, those who have been on the margins - have forced the powerful to take notice. And whether it's Andrew Jackson and nullification, when he put down an early movement toward secession, or it's Lyndon Johnson, who was a white Southern Democrat, was no friend of civil rights heading into the presidency, they - our finest hours have come when presidential power has intersected with voices of protest to lead us to higher ground. And that may sound homiletic or may sound a little bit like a Fourth of July remark, but it's not. It's simply a historic fact.
And Woodrow Wilson, who's a deeply problematic character but who wrote very well, lectured very well on the presidency, particularly before he had it - once said that the president can be as big a man as he can. And what we've learned in our experience, through these 230 years or so, is that the president can also be as small a man as he wants to be sometimes.
My own view of the presidency is from Lincoln to Lyndon Johnson, we have had deeply flawed, imperfect men so far in charge of our affairs. But the eras where we look back and the eras that we want to either emulate or celebrate are those when - they come about when presidents choose to reach beyond their base, to reach beyond their core of support and speak for a national as opposed to a sectional or partisan interest.
DAVIES: Jon Meacham's new book is "The Soul Of America." We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with presidential historian Jon Meacham. He has a new book called "The Soul Of America: The Battle For Our Better Angels." You talk about a number of moments in U.S. history where we faced times of bitterness and division and strife. And I wanted to talk about one of them, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the early 20th century. You know, the Klan had been formed in Reconstruction after the Civil War, kind of faded away. What were the trends that contributed to its revival in the early 20th century?
MEACHAM: You had extraordinary anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant sentiment that were coming out of the Gilded Age, the industrial age. There was a rising sense that white America, middle-class America as we would think of it, wanted to make America great again, to coin a phrase. And what that meant for them was really making it more like it was in the 1870s and 1880s and even the 1890s, which saw the reinstitution of Jim Crow, the decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, the reaction to the good work of Reconstruction and the 13th, 14th, 15th amendments.
And what was so extraordinary about the rise of the second Klan is it grew out of - was kicked off, to some extent, by the release of a movie, of all things, "Birth Of A Nation," which was a celebration of the Klan, of the Invisible Empire, of the white drama of trying to keep the blacks down - trying to keep the carpetbaggers, the Yankees who came south in the vernacular of the time, keep them down. And it was re-founded in 1915 at Stone Mountain, Ga., by basically kind of a public relations guy who had grown up with these stories of the Klan and wanted to recreate a fraternal order that would be a kind of perverse knighthood to protect, quintessentially, white supremacy.
DAVIES: And so they were back with the robes and the cross burnings - right? How big did it get?
MEACHAM: In 1925 and 1926, there were probably 50- or 60,000 Klansmen in full regalia marching down Pennsylvania Avenue. Indiana, Oregon, Colorado, Texas - states not just in the South but all over the country. There was a Klan presence in 48 states. In the 1924 Democratic National Convention, there were something like 347 avowed Klansmen as delegates, ferocious fight over a plank that was going to denounce the Klan and denounce the forces of exclusion. And it tied up the Democratic convention for day after day after day. Later, historians called it the Klanbake in 1924. They were determined...
DAVIES: That was in Madison Square Garden, too - right? - heart of New York.
MEACHAM: Madison Square Garden. And they - and guess who they did not want to be the Democratic nominee for president? An Irish Catholic named Al Smith. And they were determined to stop that. And it was, in many ways, a Protestant white male stand against the forces of modernity, against the fact there were waves of immigration, there were changing culture, changing demography in the big cities. The Klan itself was not just based in small towns. That's an easy out. There were a number of very, very prominent people who were members of the Klan. There were governors. There were senators. There were congressmen. And it was as dark a time in the open as so many people fear we are today.
DAVIES: And those elected officials who were parts - who belonged to the Klan - was that out of political expediency or because they were committed to its principles?
MEACHAM: I think both. I think there were - there are a lot of examples of - tell me if this sounds at all familiar. There were a lot of examples, particularly in the Democratic Party, of officeholders who didn't have much sympathy with the underlying principles of white supremacy. But they're politicians, and they wanted to win. And so they went along. And I'm sure they talked themselves into it, figuring that - well, you know what? - it's better for me to be in the arena just to check the extremist impulses here.
But it's - the fact of history is that you had this extraordinary rebirth of arguably the ugliest vigilante organization in American history not a hundred years ago, the same year as women's suffrage. Women finally secure the national vote for the 1920 election. But in 1924, you have this vast Klan influence that's still there.
DAVIES: You write that the story of the Klan in the '20s suggests that arguments, facts and logic, steadily presented, can help shed light when darkness threatens to prevail. How did the presidents of the time, particularly the Republicans, Calvin Coolidge and Warren Harding, perform in this moment?
MEACHAM: Well, they were both good on the rhetoric. Harding took on the Klan a couple of times, often not by name. He believed - going to your point about - he believed that attacking a group by name would simply give them something to raise money off of and increase its numbers. But Harding made speeches. He said that America has no place for secret fraternal orders that are devoted to the shrinking, as opposed to the widening, of the mainstream. Calvin Coolidge did the same. Coolidge received a letter from a Republican in New York, I think it was, who was outraged that an African-American was running in a Republican primary for a congressional seat. And Coolidge just let him have it and said that's what America is. Knock it off, essentially. I'm sure he did it quite pithily because he was Calvin Coolidge.
But Harding and Coolidge get a much better mark on these things in that era than many of the Democrats do because, remember, the Democratic Party at that time was the home of the Southern segregationists. And part of Woodrow Wilson's tragedy as president, I believe, is that he was trying to hold together a party of Northern progressives and Southern segregationists. And he had to make - when he re-segregated the federal government, he had to make concessions to the South that have, I think, understandably and rightly besmirched his reputation.
DAVIES: So it wasn't laws and litigation, per se. It was just - what? - a change in public opinion, people became embarrassed to participate in this? How did it change?
MEACHAM: There was embarrassment. There was also - there was immigration legislation signed, quite restrictive - this is not an entirely happy story, particularly in 1924 - that capped immigration quite severely. It wouldn't really be undone for 40 years until Lyndon Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act in 1965. So to some extent, the flow of immigrants, which had been fuel to this fire, was slowed. And so that helped bank it a good bit.
But I think you have a feverish moment where a number of people fell victim, if you will, to an elemental fear. And it's something we're seeing now. And what you had then was, again, a white, working and middle class that believed their economic futures were being endangered by a flow of immigrants who were going to fill a workforce, who might work for cheaper wages, who might take away not only what they thought of as their culture but also take away their jobs. And when you have that economic anxiety and you have a cultural fear that, somehow or another, that which is familiar, that which you believe has been permanent, is being taken away, you have the recipe for the kind of populist anxiety that is shaping our own time.
DAVIES: Jon Meacham's new book is "The Soul Of America: The Battle For Our Better Angels." After a break, we'll hear about some presidents whose perspectives were changed by the challenges of the office. And we'll ask Meacham what past president most reminds him of Donald Trump. Also, Ken Tucker reviews country singer-songwriter Ashley Monroe's new album. I'm Dave Davies. And this is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. We're speaking with presidential historian Jon Meacham whose new book reflects on current political controversies by looking at past episodes in American history when the nation faced bitter partisan divides and presidential leadership made a difference. His book is called "The Soul Of America: The Battle For Our Better Angels." When we left off, we were talking about the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s and how changes in public opinion led to its decline by the end of the decade.
The Klan rose and kind of fell in the 1920s before, mostly, the stock market crash and then the growth of unemployment that characterized the Great Depression. Had it remained such a pervasive force of 1930s, what would - might our history have looked like?
MEACHAM: Oh, it's such a great question because it's one of the great bullets dodged in American history. There are many historians who believe that had the Klan continued to grow into the late '20s, into the early '30s - and then you have this existential crisis of democratic capitalism in the early 1930s. The night Franklin Roosevelt became president, an aide came to him - an adviser came to him and said, Mr. President, if you succeed in the present crisis, you will go down as our greatest president. But if you fail, you'll go down as one of our worst. And FDR looked at him and said, if I fail, I'll go down as the last.
This was a moment where there were two live options in the world, that democratic capitalism didn't have to make it. There was Bolshevism in the Soviet Union. There was European-style totalitarianism. FDR said the two most dangerous men in America were Huey Long and Douglas MacArthur because Long of Louisiana might lead a populist revolt from the left, and Macarthur, the chief of staff of the Army, might lead a populist revolt from the right. You had live fears of fascism - live fears.
There was a plot against FDR called the Wall Street plot where financiers were putting money out, trying to get the American Legion to follow a general to depose FDR. Fortunately, the general was a patriot and blew the whistle on it. But imagine all of that unfolding if you had several-million-strong Klan that could've been the shock troops, that could've been the soldiers in that existential moment of doubt and anxiety. We were very lucky that the Klan dissipated when it did.
DAVIES: At the time when the Klan was resurgent in the 1920s - and a lot of it was hostility towards immigrants and southern Europeans, who they felt were polluting the white race. You tell a fascinating story of a governor of Georgia, Clifford Walker, that kind of resonates now. What did he talk about?
MEACHAM: He lost an election not being a member of the Klan. And so, being an ambitious politician, he joined the Klan and became an enthusiastic spokesman and gave a speech in Kansas City, I think it was, saying that what we must do is build a great wall against immigrants and those who are coming in to destroy our American way of life, and it should be a wall of steel.
And I was reading that in the proceedings of the Klan, which they published. And there are very few moments when you're a historian where you actually jump up (laughter). But I physically jumped up. And - because it's just - it is a line straight out of the escalator speech. It is - President Trump is speaking in a vernacular with deep American roots of playing to our darker impulses. And we've been here before. What it takes to resist it, what it takes to protest it is to remember that Lincoln was right, that we do have our better angels, that we are the last, best hope. And that may sound soft. It may sound gooey. But as Henry Kissinger used to say, it also has the virtue of being true.
DAVIES: In 1932, Franklin Roosevelt is elected president. And this is at a time when there's massive unemployment, enormous fear and anger in the country. And, you know, someone who comes to power at moments like that can play upon and vocalize that anger, become an angry leader. Roosevelt was quite the opposite, wasn't he?
MEACHAM: He was. My regard for Franklin Roosevelt grows by the year. You know, this - the line that we remember, understandably, from the inaugural address on the 4th of March, 1933, is that the only thing there is to fear is fear itself, a line that he had picked up from Henry David Thoreau. A friend of Mrs. Roosevelt's had given the president a copy of Thoreau's journals. And FDR had read it and put it in the speech.
But the line that got the biggest ovation on that 4th of March, 1933, was not the only thing we have to fear is fear itself but was, in the present emergency, I may require the powers that I would need in wartime. And the crowd went wild. And Mrs. Roosevelt - marvelous woman - still underappreciated - wrote that it chilled her because clearly, the crowd was ready for a dictator. They were ready to be led in the way the European totalitarian forces were moving. And FDR - I'm not sure he - if he had made a total grab, he would have succeeded. But I suspect he would've come - is a good chance he would've. And instead, he was formed by a deep belief in hope, in resilience, in the sturdiness of an American idea that we were stronger the wider we opened our arms. And it's not to say he's perfect. And Franklin Roosevelt is a perfect example of this. None of us is 100 right.
Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, interning the Japanese Americans - with the support, by the way, of the attorney general of California, a young man named Earl Warren - in order to react to wartime hysteria right after Pearl Harbor. FDR was very slow on anti-lynching legislation. He was - did not embrace civil rights as quickly as we would like. But he was also someone who was devoted to the idea that the country's journey had to continue, under the Constitution, seeking a more perfect union. And I think it came out of - I think the source of his strength came out of the fact that he himself had recovered from cataclysm.
DAVIES: Jon Meacham's new book is "The Soul Of America." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with presidential historian Jon Meacham. His new book is "The Soul Of America: The Battle For Our Better Angels."
I want to talk about some other presidents whose leadership you catalog in the book. Harry Truman was a small-time guy from Missouri. His views coming up weren't exactly those of tolerance and equality. How did his views on civil rights change when he occupied the White House?
MEACHAM: Truman and Lyndon Johnson are two of the great stories of transformation in the office that I think deserve our attention and our respect in many ways. He used racial slurs. His family had been Confederates in Missouri. They thought probably Robert E. Lee was God and Lincoln was the devil. But once he was in office, once he had control over the whole scene, once he was representing the national interest as opposed to a sectional one, he took significant strides toward the right end.
There's a wonderful story. In 1948, he's integrated the military. He's commissioned a report to secure these rights. It was called the first major civil rights commission. He - as moving toward a broader civil rights platform, he sent a plan to Congress. And a Democratic National Committee woman from Alabama is in the White House for a luncheon, raises her hand and says, Mr. President, can I go back home and say that you care about white people as much as you do about all these black people? And what does Truman do? He reaches into his pocket. And he says, I'm going to read you something important. And he pulls out the Constitution. And he sits there and reads the Bill of Rights aloud to her and says, this is my duty. My duty is to fulfill these rights.
There was an African-American waiter there who was so excited by the exchange he spilled a cup of coffee on the president. It was this electric moment. And Truman later said - he loved telling the story, and he used to say, you know what? We might not have so many problems in this country if we read those amendments a few more times and a bit more often. Truman, again - you know, not perfect, but a critical figure - opposed Strom Thurmond of the Dixiecrats, who marched out of the 1948 convention, and decided that by God, as president, he was going to be president of all the people.
Another reason Truman made the decisions on civil rights that he did was he received these reports that returning American veterans, African-Americans, were being lynched. One was blinded in South Carolina. And they were being pulled off trucks and beaten in Mississippi. And he could not abide the idea that someone who had just fought for their country was coming home and facing apartheid.
DAVIES: You write about Lyndon Johnson as someone who transcended his roots and political past to do really important things. Tell us about him.
MEACHAM: From Johnson City, Texas, a man who was as political a creature as ever drew breath. Nick Lemann in his great book about the Great Migration, "The Promised Land," has a detail about how Johnson used to call up and follow school board races in Texas just to relax. And yet - and yet, on that terrible day in Dallas, he flies home with his fallen predecessor, and he's in bed at the Elms - that was the name of their house out in Washington. And he's got several aides around him, and he's making a list of things he wants to do. And he says, I'm going to pass the civil rights bill and I'm not going to change a comma.
And nobody could quite figure this out because all that Lyndon Johnson did was change commas. He was one of the great comma changers in American history. But now he was president. He had given a speech as vice president at his - the fact of his national election had mattered to him. And without romanticizing him by any means, he saw an oath as a vice president and as a president in a different light than he did as a congressman or a senator. And when challenged by his political advisers - you know, can't you just - can't we punt on this for a cycle? Can't we get through the '64 election? - Johnson asks one of the great questions in American history. What the hell is the presidency for if it's not to do the things that other men would not do? And that's almost a goose flesh moment.
I'm the son of a Vietnam veteran. I fully understand the case against Lyndon Johnson. Trust me. But on the home front, this Texan, partly based on the fact that he had dealt with poor kids, Mexican-American kids when he was growing up, when he was a young man teaching, decided that he was going to fulfill the work of Lincoln on race and he was going to fulfill the work of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman on domestic legislation.
DAVIES: You know, you write about a lot of presidents who, when faced with times of economic hardship or political or racial strife and division, rose to the moment, you know, saw their role as uniting the country and living up to the responsibility of the office. Are there American presidents who remind you of Donald Trump?
MEACHAM: Yes, tragically, there are. Andrew Johnson - I know President Trump likes to be seen as a Jacksonian, but really, there's another president from Tennessee, and it's Andrew Johnson that he, I think, is most like in many ways. Johnson gave a - said in a state paper that African-Americans were genetically incapable of self-government. He gave a Washington's birthday address in Washington where he railed against the elites and said there were conspiracies against him, and he didn't use the phrase deep state, but he might as well have. It's actually a chillingly resonant speech.
And Johnson was someone who was in power without a natural base within Washington itself. He was a Democrat. He'd been put on the ticket to broaden its appeal in the 1864 election. The Republicans who were in the Congress didn't trust him, and the Democrats didn't trust him because he was - had been Lincoln's running mate. So he was kind of a man without a country. And I think that he's most - I think that the incumbent is most like Johnson in that sense, in terms of a president. In terms of political figures, it's not much of a reach to realize that Joe McCarthy has become president in 2016. McCarthy...
DAVIES: And you might want to explain who he is for some of our younger listeners.
MEACHAM: Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin, senator from Wisconsin - not a particularly distinguished one. In Wheeling, W. Va., on Lincoln's birthday in 1950, he announces that he has in his hands the names of 205 communists in the Department of State. The number eventually wandered down to 57 without any real explanation. And McCarthy mastered the means of modern communications. He understood newspaper deadlines. He understood the radio. He created - his office would make phonograph records - not quite a tweet, but pretty close - of his views in a given week and distribute them to radio stations around Wisconsin so that he would have a direct line to the voters, going around the press. Sound familiar? And he was someone who ran his course in four years, which is an interesting number.
DAVIES: You know, I can imagine some listening to us and saying, well, this is a liberal historian who has certain policy views and equates liberal views with decency. What would you say to those who say, you know, you can be a decent person and believe that unrestricted immigration can pose a threat to economic well-being, or that unfair trade practices have cost Americans jobs and warrants forceful action, or that government, you know, taxes too much and regulates too much? Why are only the better angels those acquainted with liberal policy choices?
MEACHAM: I totally take that point. And I'm not saying that. I'm a huge admirer of Ronald Reagan. I'm a huge admirer of George H.W. Bush. I think when you look back at George W. Bush, who many of your listeners, their heads exploded with regularity throughout the first decade of the 21st century, you see men of character, men of a certain disposition, that no matter how much you might disagree with their policy views, I think we would tend to agree that they had the best interests of the country at heart. I think it's a live question.
And I'm perfectly willing and welcome - welcome - being proven wrong by this - by experience. I think the incumbent president has his own interests at heart, as opposed to those of the country or, frankly, those of the people who support him. And this is in no way an argument for more government or more taxes. You know, I'm in Tennessee, and we don't believe in taxes.
MEACHAM: And I've voted for presidents of both parties. But I do know just from reading history, thinking about it, that the presidents we are proud of are the ones who have been more generous-hearted and more generous-spirited than this president has been so far. You have to always hold out hope here - and I do hold out hope - that perhaps there is the capacity - there's always the capacity for redemption.
DAVIES: Jon Meacham, it's been interesting. Thank you so much for speaking with us.
MEACHAM: Thank you.
DAVIES: Jon Meacham's new book is "The Soul Of America: The Battle For Our Better Angels." Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews country singer-songwriter Ashley Monroe's new album, "Sparrow." This is FRESH AIR.
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