Jon Meacham: What history tells us about the future
By Susan Shinn Turner
For The Salisbury Post
RALEIGH — “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”
That quote is attributed to Mark Twain, and Jon Meacham has seen certain patterns emerge in his career as a journalist, writing about and interviewing several presidents.
Meacham, a Pulitzer Prize winning historian and former Newsweek editor, spoke on “American Then and Now: What History Tells Us About The Future” on Tuesday night in Raleigh as part of the 2017 Distinguished Lecture Series. The North Carolina Museum of History Foundation, and the News & Observer sponsored this fourth-annual event.
“We have a sellout crowd tonight,” said a delighted Dr. Kevin Cherry, deputy director of the Department Natural of Cultural Resources. “This is a great event not only for the people of Raleigh, but for people all over the state.”
The annual event is the signature fundraiser for the Museum of History, Cherry said. Other speakers have included Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in 2014, David McCullough in 2015, and Doris Kearns Goodwin in 2015.
“Each of these people are solid historians, and have something to say about current events,” he added. “And they’re all great storytellers.”
That was certainly true for Meacham, who impressed the crowd with his encyclopedic knowledge of the presidency, historic facts about the nation’s highest office and the nation itself.
In his introduction, John Drescher, the N&O’s senior vice president and executive editor, noted it had been a busy week for Meacham, who spoke at commencements at the University of Mississippi and Wake Forest University.
The 48-year-old Meacham has had two full careers, both as an editor at Newsweek and as an non-fiction writer. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his 2009 biography, “American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House.” Other New York Times bestsellers include “Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power,” “Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship,” and “American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation.” His latest presidential biography, “Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush,” debuted at no. 1 on that list in 2015.
“He makes history accessible,” Drescher said of Meacham.
Meacham then told the story of a woman running up to him and saying, “Oh my God, it’s you! Will you sign your latest book?”
Meacham told the woman he’d be happy to — only to discover she had a John Grisham novel.
“Every time I think I have America right where I want it, I remember that there’s a woman with a forged copy of ‘Runaway Jury,’” Meacham said, as the audience roared with laughter.
Meacham also mentioned that his godfather was from Salisbury. Afterward, he said that was Herbert Wentz, a longtime grocer to whom one of his books is dedicated.
Turning to the presidency, he said he’d interviewed living presidents and wrote biographies of dead ones — he likes them better because they don’t talk back, he said.
“I’ve spent a lot of writing about leadership,” Meacham said, “but followership matters just as much.”
The Republic, he said, is a “great and perilous thing,” and has survived for some 250 years. Meacham believes in the words of Thomas Jefferson, who said, “Men do not simply participate at election times, but every day.”
Tending the flame of democracy is a sacred charge for every American, not just the president, he said.
Meacham admitted he missed the Trump phenomenon. “I didn’t think he’d make it this far. His appeal went past me.”
He interviewed Trump in May 2016, after he’d won the Republican nomination, on assignment for Time. Meacham asked Trump what he was reading and thinking about historically about the presidency. “It was a brief interview.”
Trump told Meacham it was an honor to be interviewed, and they had a cordial exchange.
Trump told him, “I’ve never read your books, but you’re good on TV.”
“I appreciated his candor,” Meacham said.
During the interview, Meacham asked Trump about his position on NATO.
“You read books on NATO,” Trump said “I don’t. But I’m the Republican nominee and you’re not.”
Meacham said a reporter once asked Babe Ruth, “How do you hit the long ball?”
“I don’t know,” Babe answered. “I just swing at it.”
“And that’s what we are seeing now. His character is his destiny. He’s not going to change.”
Meacham noted that in 1965, 77 percent of Americans said they trusted government to do the right things most of the time. Now, that number is 17 percent.
“That’s the gas on the garage floor and Trump was the match,” Meacham said.
He called the president a master of communications with an understanding of social media and reality TV — in the same way that Jefferson and Lincoln were fine writers, FDR understood radio and JFK understood TV.
“When Trump says, ‘There will be more on that next week,’ that’s what you say when you’re trying to build an audience,” Meacham said. “He understands the media. He can change the subject more effectively than any other leader I’ve ever read or heard about.”
Look at the first 100 days of the Trump presidency, look at the campaign, look at reality TV, Meacham said. “That’s who he is.”
Trump’s character, he said, was formed “not by the art of the deal, but the art of the headline.”
Much in the way McCarthy manipulated the media in the 1950s, Trump continues to keep his story moving, Meacham said.
“I hope and pray for more substantive results instead of chaos,” he said.
In many ways, Meacham said, Trump has embraced the presidency much like Andrew Jackson.
“Jackson was a populist outsider who came to Washington to shake things up,” Meacham said.
When Trump came to Nashville, Meacham — who lives there — decided to write an open letter to him. The Tennessean newspaper graciously ran it on the front page, he said.
The next afternoon at 3 p.m., his phone rang. It was a call from Houston, and Meacham recognized the number.
“How ya doin’?” President George H.W. Bush said. “I read your letter to Jackson.”
Meacham thought the president had misspoken, and gently said, “That letter was to Trump about Jackson.”
“Yeah but Jackson’ll pay more attention,” Bush said.
Meacham talked about four characteristics that have served presidential leaders well.
First, he said, presidents must be intellectually curious.
Meacham quoted the opening of Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, which he called the greatest sentence in the human language.
“Jefferson didn’t just throw that out,” Meacham said. “He had been thinking about history. … Being curious is absolutely essential.”
Candor is also important, he said. “If a leader gives it to us straight, we’ll do what it takes.”
Neither Johnson with Vietnam nor Nixon with Watergate did that, he said.
A president must also have humility — the capability to admit mistakes and learn from them.
“We are all here because John Kennedy was able to admit he was wrong,” he said.
After the Bay of Pigs fiasco, Kennedy reached out to President Eisenhower — the two of them just did not get along, Meacham said — who advised him to get everyone in the room before he made a decision, something that did not happen earlier. Kennedy did just that in October 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Meacham estimated the potential loss of American lives at 70 million to 100 million.
“He remembered what Eisenhower said: get everyone in the same room, weigh the circumstances and come out of it whole — and we did,” Meacham said. Otherwise, “All of our lives would be radically different.”
Lastly, a president should have empathy. Here, Meacham talked a lot about President George H.W. Bush, for whom he has enormous respect.
“Sometimes empathy gets a bad rap,” he said. “Bill Clinton felt our pain. President George H.W. Bush felt our pain, too. He just didn’t think it was the job of the president to do it.”
Meacham told the story of Bush being shot down as a Navy pilot when he was 20. He survived; his two crew members did not. Meacham believes Bush’s entire life has been “one long effort to justify the fact that he was spared when others died. He’s a tireless man. He was someone for whom putting the country first was part of his DNA.”
Meacham noted that there have been many dark hours in the nation’s history. Some people believe these now are dark hours, he said. “but we’ll come through this, and we’ll come through stronger. There’s nothing wrong with partisanship. The problem is that we’re reflexive and not reflective. If we reflexively disagree, that’s the road to madness. This is an immense legacy we’re a part of.
“If people so flawed could create a more perfect union, we can, too.”
But we have to listen to each other, he said.