By Meacham, Jon
Newsweek , Vol. 155, No. 17
Byline: Jon Meacham
On a beautiful autumn morning in 2007, a small but important pageant of American history unfolded in the East Room of the White House. The occasion was a ceremony, hosted by President George W. Bush, to present the Presidential Medal of Freedom to a small group of distinguished Americans: Brian Lamb of C-Span was one, as was the ailing Henry Hyde, represented by his son Bob. Another was Harper Lee, the Alabama-born writer whose To Kill a Mockingbird gave the whites of the Jim Crow South an object lesson in how they might at least begin to atone for the sins of segregation.
"Forty-six years after winning the Pulitzer Prize, To Kill a Mockingbird still touches and inspires every reader," President Bush said. "We're moved by the story of a man falsely accused with old prejudices against him and an old sense of honor that rises to his defense. We learned that courage can be a solitary business. As the lawyer Atticus Finch tells his daughter, 'Before I can live with other folks, I've got to live with myself.'a" The president understandably focused on the book as a morality play, but to my mind the strength of the novel lies less in the clarity of its message (that justice is served when we remember to think of the world as it looks and feels to others, particularly the less fortunate) and more in its tragic sensibility. Good does not really triumph over evil in To Kill a Mockingbird, not for Tom Robinson, the black man wrongly convicted of rape. In Lee's all-too-real rendering, the only redemptive feature of the white criminal-justice system in the Robinson case is that the all-white jury took a bit of time before convicting, rather than coming back quickly. Progress of a sort, perhaps, but it was not progress if you were Tom Robinson, who was shot to death after the trial. "In our courts, when it's a white man's word against a black man's," Atticus tells his son, Jem, "the white man always wins." The novel is not a fairy tale, then, despite the sentiment that now shrouds it, but an honest portrait of a region, and of a nation, forever contending with the conflict between power and conscience.
I was in the audience in the White House that day and was reminded of the morning's events when news came last Thursday of the death of Benjamin L. …