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Jon Meacham on The Politics of Trump; Interview With David Yazbek; Favorite Interviews of The Year. Aired 2-2:30p ET
Aired August 14, 2018 - 14:00:00 ET
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[14:00:00] CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Coming up, we're looking back at some of our favorite interviews this year. And in this addition,
understanding the America of today by understanding the America of the past.
Pulitzer Prize winning author and Presidential historian Jon Meacham on the polarizing politics of Donald Trump. Plus, the hit musical that sweat this
year's Tony Award, The Band's Visit. I spoke to star composer, David Yazbek.
Good evening everyone and welcome to the program. I'm Christiane Amanpour in London. It's a speech (ph) that sounds torn from today's headlines.
Build a wall of steel as high as heaven to keep problematic immigrants out of the United States.
But the year was 1924, the immigrants were from Italy, and the speaker was George, a governor (ph) Clifford Walker and he was addressing a national
convention of the Ku Klux Klan.
In his new book, the Pulitzer Prize winning historian, Jon Meacham explores America's vulnerability to fear business and racial strife. It's called
"The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels."
With literally the whole world trying to figure out the Trump era, not only does Meacham help us see how the fires of fear are lit, he shows how
America has come through the darkness on every occasion. Welcome to the program.
JON MEACHAM, PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: Thank you.
AMANPOUR: Good to have you. So -- so the subtitle of your book, you know, "Our Better Angels," it refers to Abraham Lincoln's first inaugural address
and, of course, at that time America stood on the brink of a Civil War. How to you does that resonate now? Why did you choose that title?
MEACHAM: Well, every era in American life has been shaped by the battle between our best instincts and our worst instincts. Uniquely among nations
we were the bounded in more or less the modern era coming out of the European enlightenment, coming out of the scientific revolution, the idea
behind the Constitution was that reason would have a chance to stand against passion in the arena.
We were founded on that idea but at every point begin -- from the very beginning, 1790s all the way until our conversation now, we've had this
struggle. And my view is that, as Lincoln put it at that perilous, perilous hour of, you know, 600 to 700,000 Americans about to die in the
Civil War, he said that he hoped that the better angels of our nature would in fact prevail.
And I think, and this is not a homiletic point, it's not a fourth of July point, it's not a narcotic one, basically our better angels have managed to
continue to make us a country that people want to come to as opposed to flee.
And I think that's an important thing for us to remember as we try to figure out how do we survive, clearly, the most unconventional Presidency
in our History.
AMANPOUR: Well, you -- you -- you say that about coming rather than fleeing. I mean certainly some people are leaving. Some under duress,
others are just leaving because they can't deal with it frankly.
And the -- the particularly sharp pointed spear leveled at the immigrants that have made America what it is. So how dark is today's era in your, you
know, construction and your narrative compared to some of those other past issues that you highlight.
MEACHAM: I think this is a lot like the 1920s. I think it's a lot like the second half of the 19th century when we decided to focus quite firmly
in a discriminatory way against immigrants.
The Chinese Exclusion Act, there were enormous fears in the late 19th century that -- see if this sounds familiar, the white working class of
America was worried as we move from the grey area (ph) to industrialized economy. A time of great economic and cultural upheaval that foreign
workers would come in and take jobs that Americans should do.
So what -- what we're living through now is the latest manifestation of a perennial tension -- a perennial fear in the American soul. And what we
have to do is what we -- what Theodore Roosevelt called upon us to do in that era, which was we had to embrace diversity.
We had to open our arms more widely than clenching our fist. But every era, as you know, is marked -- is imperfect. The fact -- Theodore
Roosevelt who called for a melting pot, who called for a new kind of Americanism, also believed in a discredited genetic theory about white
So I -- I don't think we can romanticize the past and I think there is a tendency, right now, in many places for Americans to see that everything
before Trump was somehow better. And that ever since then we've descended into this uniquely dark place.
My argument is not let's (ph) relax because we've been through this before, it's that let's get to work and figure out what it was about the
constitutional and culture inclinations of past that got us through these dark moments before.
And essentially the answer is a historically based realization that the free movement of ideas, the free movement of people, free trade,
competition, pure (ph) Adam Smith (ph) has been what's made us truly great. And if we want to make America great again, let's embrace that openness and
continue to go from strength to strength.
AMANPOUR: Except, of course, as you rightly say that pressure point is right on the openness right now and on the diversity that is America --
made America so great. I wonder what you think of this -- this new sort of study seeping into the political arena if you like that was done to explain
the Trump vote and the Trump voters.
Because many of the mainstream press, of course the conservative press as well, and all the talk after the election was that it was all about the
left behind. It was all about the middle states, the fly over states. It was all about those who, you know, were undergoing severe economic
disenfranchisement and anxiety.
And yet, this University of Pennsylvania study has suggested that it's actually about racial anxiety almost much more than economic. They look at
the -- the economics of those who -- who voted and they say that it's actually racial anxiety. What Van Jones said election night, sort of a
[14:05:00] MEACHAM: Oh, I -- I don't think there's any doubt that race is at the heart of this chapter of American history because race has been at
the heart of every chapter of American historian. It is our original sin.
Our Constitution was created to deny the full implications of what the Declaration of Independence had said we were supposed to be about. At
every point race has been a -- a difficult, difficult fault line in -- in American life.
I come from the American South. 50 years ago, we had functional apartheid in our politics here. American women have only voted for 98 years shifting
from race to gender. And of course marriage equality on -- on the question of -- of gay rights is not quite three years old.
And so the story of the country, again without sentimentalizing it, has been moving from -- has been progressive. Basically, I think President
Trump is President Trump because of economic anxiety and that is all rolled up with these racial fears.
A fear that a certain way of life is under assault from immigrants, from people of color and that somehow or another, this happened in the 1920s in
the same kind of period, five million Klansmen; Oregon, Indiana, Colorado all were taken over in many ways politically by the Ku Klux Klan.
50,000 Klansmen marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in 1925 without their mask on. So we -- we have been here before in times of stress and certainly
race will -- will forever be a factor. My own view to go to Van's point, is that in 20 years the United States is going to look a lot more like
Barrack Obama's America than it is Donald Trump's.
And I think one of the reasons Donald Trump is President is because people know that in their bones and that this was one last gasp (ph) of a -- of an
older vanishing order.
AMANPOUR: So -- so to that end, you know, describe what led you to write this book. It -- it -- it was, I think, the events of Charlottesville
MEACHAM: It was, last August. When the Neo-Nazis and Klansmen were matching to defend a Robert E Lee statue and a younger counter protestor
was killed. Two Virginia state troopers were killed as part of the operation.
And the President of the United States had a difficult time deciding which side he was on. And, you know, I spend most of my time thinking about and
reading about the American Presidency and we've had some terrible moments before but that was -- that was right up there or down there.
AMANPOUR: It was indeed. I wonder if you can talk about -- you know you talk about these different eras; the dark, devils, and the -- and the --
and the better angels sort of in competition. I was struck this week by two major commencement addresses as -- as -- you know this -- this class of
graduates go fourth.
One by a man of Bloomberg (ph) of New York and then today former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Both of them spoke about the fundamental need to
recognize truth and facts over lies and distortion.
The fundamental need for honesty in our public space to protect the very democracy and the constitution of the United States and I wonder if you can
comment on how that is -- is sort of witling away at -- at -- at the soul of America and even the better angels.
[14:10:00] MEACHAM: It is and as John Adams once said, facts are stubborn things. We're testing that, we're testing their stubbornness. We are in a
particularly fraud tribal moment in American politics.
There are 35, 40 percent on each side that believe their view of the world is absolute. They believe that any contrary fact is somehow or another
just dismissible because it doesn't fit in with their preexisting world view.
To me, that's among the most un-American -- and I don't use that phrase much. But un-American views to take, largely because the founding of the
country - so this on this repeal to cultural and political conservatives as well as more classable liberals.
The founding of the country was the clearest political manifestation of the enlightenment idea that reason should be an organizing principal in human
What - what is the American Revolution if not the political undertaking that comes at the end of an era of Gutenberg, the rise of new able type,
the democratization of information, the precedent reformation.
The entire shift from popes and (inaudible) and princes and kings who either by an accident of birth or an incident of election have authority
over other people to a more horizontal understanding.
That we're all created equal. We have the capacity ourselves to determine our destiny. It's a great western idea, and America was the embodiment of
that. If we continue to think ideologically as apposed to rationally, we're not being true to the American promise.
AMANPOUR: Well, you know, the European commission president tonight addressed that kind of question that you just raised. And remember, Europe
is America's closest alliance block; it's its biggest trading partner. This is what Donald Tusk at his speech just now.
DONALD TUSK, PRES. OF EUROPEAN COUNCIL: We are witnessing today a new phenomenon. The (inaudible) of the American administration, broken because
the latest decisions of President Trump, some (inaudible) eve think with friends like that who need (inaudible).
AMANPOUR: I mean, I haven't actually herd that recently from a European ally towards an American president. That - that's quite harsh.
MEACHAM: It is. And one of the things we - we're dealing with and obviously on the global stage is trying to separate to what extent is the
President Trump showmanship and bullying.
And ill considered it seems, social media postings. To what extent does that effect - shape our policy? And basically, we've made things as
difficult for ourselves as possible, which is kind of a classically American thing to do when you think about it.
Church Hill is repudiate to have said you can always count on us to do the right thing after we've exhausted every other possibility. And we're
certainly testing that at the moment.
This is - this is a very paroles moment in the life of the country, because the conventions that have guided us are at best vulnerable and at worst are
The question is we know that the presidency has not changed Donald Trump. The question ultimately will be whether Donald Trump has changed the
presidency moving forward-
AMANPOUR: So I want to put fourth your eulogy at Barbra Bush's funeral. And you spoke about public service as - as you would like to remember it.
MEACHAM: Barbra and George Bush, put country above party. The common good above political gain, and service to others above the settling of scores.
I think that we have to look back in order to find a way forward. And right now, the president is about assembling of scores. But we've had
presidents who have been erratic, not quite this erratic, and I think we have to ultimately hope that through protest, through resistance, through
these kinds of conversations, through the barring of witness that we will get through this.
AMANPOUR: All right. John Meacham, thank you so much.
We turn to a different and more harmonious story now, which is playing out on Broadway. The hit musical, The Band's Visit dominated this year's
Tony's awards, sweeping up a total of ten, including for best original score.
Adapted from a 2007 movie, it's a small story that offers great hope. Showing us that yes, even between the bitterness of Middle Eastern foes,
there was a time in the recent past of peace treaties and political connections. When Israelis and Arabs could come together, and make
David Yazbek is the composer and lyricist. And I sat down wit him to talk about it all in New York.
David Yazbek, welcome to the program.
DAVID YAZBEK, AMERICAN WRITER: Thank you.
AMANPOUR: So what happens when a producer calls you up and says, you know what David, shall we do a Broadway musical about a fly (ph) blown nowhere
town in Israel based on are houses really moving?
YAZBEK: The truth is when any producer calls me up and ask me to do anything, my first answer is no.
AMANPOUR: Oh really? I thought you would had said yes.
YAZBEK: No, I go charging away and then I will call back and I'll say just give me a few weeks let me think about it. Let me see it. And with this
one, seeing the movie was enough to make me turn around and say yes. (Inaudible)
AMANPOUR: So it was the movie that -- that got you to do this?
YAZBEK: Yes. The movie was the source material. Beautiful movie, "The Band's Visit," and it -- it -- the tone of the movie was so gentle and yet
so devastating and joyful, it just made me think can we translate that to a -- to a musical on stage.
AMANPOUR: Well, before we get to the actual nitty gritty of the story and all that inspired you, I just want to play for you the legendary Andrew
Lloyd Webber who has got four Broadway musicals one for the first time since Rodgers and Hammerstein. And this is what he said about story
telling making good musicals.
ANDREW LLOYD WEBBER, COMPOSER: I mean we not only have "Hamilton", which sounds like an unlikely idea. I mean the idea of an American founded
father in hip-hop doesn't sound immediately like the greatest idea for a musical just why it's a good one.
Then you've got "Dear Evan Hansen," which of course sounds like its not good idea because it's about social media and rejection, therefore, it's a
good idea. Then you've got "Come from Away" about planes coming into gander not necessarily a good idea, therefore, a good idea. Even worse
idea, the idea of an Egyptian band -- military band turning up in Tel Aviv.
AMANPOUR: "A Band's Visit."
WEBBER: "A Band's Visit," great idea. Yes, fantastic music. I mean the moment where the band plays is one of those moments where you get out of
your seat and you say yes. This is what musicals are all about.
AMANPOUR: That really is great endorsement and you do feel that way when you go to watch it that last moment where the band plays for the first
time. You keep it to the very end. Why?
YAZBEK: Well they're -- I mean these are -- these people you've seen on stage acting and moving around, they are world class musicians. So when
they play it's the deepest expression of connectivity which is what the show is about. And joy.
And it's very cathartic. And when Andrew Lloyd Webber raises both hands like that, you know you've .
AMANPOUR: Hit the sweet spot.
YAZBEK: Yes, it's the sweet spot.
AMANPOUR: So look, it is about the Alexandria orchestra, the police orchestra, right? The band, coming to this nowhere town in Israel,
(inaudible) instead of (inaudible).
AMANPOUR: And it's a mistake that leads to this extraordinary encounter. And I think we have a little bit of a little bit of a -- yes the characters
describe the town of Bay Attica (ph) in this song "Welcome to Nowhere." Let's play it.
YAZBEK: It's a town called Yoro Hum (ph) in the (inaudible) where the film was shot. And it really is a nowhere town but even people in a nowhere
town are people and they're endlessly fascinating.
And we're studiously avoiding the politics of an Egyptian band in 1996 taking the wrong turning basically to get the wrong bus ticket and ending
up in the wrong town in Israel. It is this sort of quite political story. You're not facing politics head on here by any stretch of the imagination
but nobody in the audience can avoid the fact that this is about the most contested part of the world today.
YAZBEK: If -- if we had concluded a scene talking about someone's traumatic experience during a war or something. That would have lessened
the impact of not speaking about the politics.
There's a scene in the movie where one of the Egyptians they're dressed in these kind of powder blue uniforms. He's sitting in a little restaurant
and there's a picture of a tank. This is Israeli tank. He just takes his hat off and hangs it over the picture. And that's him saying we're people.
And, you know, there's a very elemental thing about they're lost, they need food, they need a place to sleep and other people give them that.
AMANPOUR: And again, you hang this whole notion and this whole play on the idea of boredom. There's no effort to sort of sex -- sex up the city so to
YAZBEK: No, there -- there is always that first impulse to sex it up for Broadway and almost immediately all of us; David Cromer, the director, and
Eta Marmosets (ph), and I looked at each other and Orin Wolf who's an amazing producer and just said we're not going to do that.
Because if we do that it won't be -- it won't have the emotional impact. And we made the right move, you know?
AMANPOUR: And you have -- you mean you started your career after college you went to be a comedy writer, I remember this. We've known each other a
long time, for David Letterman. And then, your own music career and lots of Broadway, and now these amazing successes. How much of you is in this
play, this musical compared to the other works you've done?
YAZBEK: I'm glad you asked that, this is really me. I've made albums, I've made five albums. And when I make them I feel like that's a personal
expression. I do what I want to say, I say what I want to say -- when this came along, I wasn't exactly sure that this would happen, but it did. I
was able to really say what I wanted to say in every song. This almost feels like one of my albums to me, an album that I made with the best
musicians I could find, and the best singers I could find.
AMANPOUR: And let's not forget that you yourself, your mother is Jewish. Your father is Lebanese-Christian.
YAZBEK: Yeah, Catholic.
YAZBEK: This was my first trip to Lebanon with my father, we were visiting his father. We were in a cab on the way from the airport to the mountain
where my grandfather was, and there was this very exotic -- I don't like using that word -- there was this very pungent new flavor of music coming
from the radio in the cab. And I asked my father to ask the cab driver what it was.
The scales and the rhythms and the orchestra sound -- but mostly this voice -- this female voice. And he asked, and it was Umm Kulthum. I didn't know
who that was, but it's -- it really stuck. That song stuck, her voice stuck. She was bigger than Sinatra if you looked at the whole world, and
really that was the first trip for me that inserted that kind of music --
AMANPOUR: And let's not forget, you were seven at the time?
YAZBEK: I was -- well, yes. And I was listening to everything.
AMANPOUR: I want to just play the song that Dina (ph) is singing about Umm Kulthum.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
(END AUDIO CLIP)
AMANPOUR: Well for people of a certain generation we will remember Omar Sharif the great Egyptian actor, Dr. Zhivago, and everything and Umm
YAZBEK: Lawrence of Arabia.
AMANPOUR: Lawrence of Arabia, not to mention. And Umm Kulthum the great singer. And it's interesting to -- that you show the story of the other
(ph), that each side is able somehow to connect you know, from the other side.
YAZBEK: It's the -- the pull is always there, it's the stuff that gets in the way of it. That stuff is usually has to do with money and power. I
was just in Tel Aviv, when you go to Egypt or to Israel, you know -- the food in Israel has become great, and mostly because they love the food from
all around them.
The music, the art, the food -- that's a connecting point. That's possibly the most important connecting point, and that's why when we -- or any
administration cuts funding for the arts, they're really cutting just yet another one of those connections.
AMANPOUR: We'll talk about that just a little before we go regarding your play. The odds are being given short-shrift (ph), no matter where you look
around the world whether it's in the United States, in schools in Europe, or whatever. In fact, Andrew Lloyd Weber, has his own foundation -- his
arts foundation where he tries to enable people at state schools, kids, to have some art and music in their life. From your perspective, what is an
education in adolescence without the arts?
YAZBEK: You know, it's a one-way ticket to Trumpsville, that's how it feels to me. And when I say that, I mean, there's this move toward
authoritarianism everywhere that you're talking about. And you -- if you really are invested in the arts, you almost can't really go there. When we
play music, and I say we because I get to play with them sometimes -- not on stage, but it's this very deep connection.
I have a band that I've been playing with some of them for 20, 25 years. We love each other the way a family does, especially while we're connecting
through music. And I think `The Bands' Visit' is really about that, and I think it comes pouring off the stage.
AMANPOUR: I was going to say, do you -- do you think, do you feel every night, every matinee, that the audience really gets that thing that you're
saying? What do you think resonates most with the audience, because they do leap up at the very end?
YAZBEK: Yes. I mean, I -- I -- I was going to make a joke and say every night yes. Every matinee? Not -- not sure.
AMANPOUR: I know they did. I was at a matinee.
YAZBEK: Yes. I know you were at a matinee. I think the audience you -- when you're doing a show, if everyone is on a more superficial level is
just having a great time making each other laugh back stage and onstage that floods out. The show doesn't even have to be that great but the
audience, just like when someone laughs, it's infectious.
They feel it. When you're making music together, a lot of it is being improvised. You are connecting very deeply and I'm sure if you did some
kind of a test of brain waves or something, you would see the entire audience get on the same track.
AMANPOUR: And the -- the good chemical, the serotonin .
YAZBEK: Yes, the alpha wave and the serotonin.
AMANPOUR: David Yazbek, thank you so much.
YAZBEK: Thank you.
AMANPOUR: And that's it for our program tonight. Remember you can always listen to our podcast and see us online at Amanpour.com and of course, you
can follow me on Facebook and Twitter. Thanks for watching and goodbye from New York.