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From Jefferson to Jackson, Churchill to FDR and beyond with Jon Meacham

Courtesy photo
"We are a stronger country when more of us are better off than when fewer of us are," says author Jon Meacham, who is this year's Charleston Gazette-WVU Festival of Ideas speaker.
Courtesy photo "Jefferson was quite effective at reaching on a human level to the other players in the system," says Jon Meacham.
Courtesy photo "Churchill emerged, the more time I spent with him, as the warmer human being and in many ways a truly great man. Because he was able to withstand taking the easy step in an hour of maximum danger," says Jon Meacham.

WANT TO GO?

Jon Meacham

Gazette-WVU Festival of Ideas

WHEN:  7:30 p.m., March 12

WHERE: Clay Center for the Arts and Sciences

ADMISSION: Free

INFO: Call 304-293-7132 or visit festivalofideas.wvu.eduCHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Jon Meacham has spent time with some notable figures who've waltzed across the world stage, including Winston Churchill, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

That's what happens when you write long, acclaimed books on historic personalities who shaped the times during which they lived.

When he was done with his books on them -- "Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship," the Pulitzer Prize-winning "American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House," and last year's "Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power"  -- which of the men had grown in his eyes after he rooted though their lives and legacies?

"Churchill and Jackson both grew in my estimation the more time I spent with them," said Meacham, in a telephone interview from New York, in advance of his visit to Charleston.

Meacham, executive editor at Random House and former editor-in-chief of Newsweek, is this year's Charleston Gazette-WVU Festival of Ideas speaker. He'll appear in a free event starting 7:30 p.m. March 12 at the Clay Center, followed by a reception and book-signing.

Wooing Roosevelt

The author's Churchill-Roosevelt book explored the English prime minister's political courtship of FDR. Churchill sought doggedly to woo America into first aiding and then standing arm-in-arm with England in its dicey confrontation with Hitler's mighty onrushing armies.

"Particularly in Churchill's case, I was struck by the raw human tenacity and courage to do what he did in 1940 and '41, to put up with a very elusive and quicksilver Franklin Roosevelt," said Meacham.

He recited a line of Churchill's, which summed up the prime minister's determination to convince FDR that America had no other choice but to directly enter the fight against the Third Reich's war machine, perhaps the greatest ever assembled in history to that time.

"No lover," said Churchill, "ever studied every whim of his mistress as I did those of President Roosevelt."

Meacham had his own comparison to offer of these towering, yet fallible 20th century figures.

"Churchill emerged, the more time I spent with him, as the warmer human being and in many ways a truly great man. Because he was able to withstand taking the easy step in an hour of maximum danger."

As for Andrew Jackson, America's seventh president who served from 1829 until 1837, Meacham came to admire him "because he was genuinely self-made," he said.

"He came from a part of white society in colonial America where his destiny was not in any way set to become the first president who was not a Virginia aristocrat or member of the Adams family. It required an effort of will on a human level that was deeply impressive."

By calling out special praise on these two, that is not to diminish what FDR and Jefferson accomplished, Meacham added.

"FDR and Jefferson were great men -- flawed, riven with sin and shortcoming. And yet they bent history in a direction that left the country -- and, in both cases, the world -- better off than it had been when they found it."

To Meacham's mind, that is the test of genuine greatness.

"That's the great historical test. When all is said and done and you've left the stage, are things in a better place for a larger number of people than when you first came on the stage?" he said.

"Each of the characters I've written about has passed that test."

Shrill and paralyzed

As a longtime student of power and politics, Meacham, 43, had more than a few thoughts to share about the current president and the legacy Barack Obama is trying to carve out in a time of governmental gridlock.

"I think that we are in a differing degree of partisanship, not of kind," Meacham said. "We have always been divided. What is striking about the current moment is the voices seem shriller and the process itself has become so paralyzed."

It's not just a matter of arguing until one side or another wins "which is the ordinary American way," said Meacham. "It's just arguing and arguing and arguing and not ever getting to a resolution you can take to the voters."

The Senate is ground zero of this dysfunction, he said. "Having the capacity to stop forward motion on all manner of things is something that has taken the traditional American tendency to be divisive and really put it on steroids."

And it is not that any of the procedural moves which stymie change are so different, such as the current battle over the automatic budget cuts known as the sequester that could soon ripple across the country.

For instance, the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Balanced Budget Act of 1985 "tried to set up fiscal traps for the country to force it into a certain kind of discipline," said Meacham. "[And] the filibuster has been with us for some time. It's just that all of these things are being used more and more ferociously."

Meacham himself poses -- and then answers -- the obvious follow-up question.

"Why is that? Are the current officeholders any more partisan in their souls than previous generations? I don't think so. I think it's this odd combination of 'base purity,' is the best way to put it."

Meacham referred to what he dubbed the "existential political threat" for a contemporary politician. That is, being challenged in a primary race in your own party, where you must echo and truckle to the most conservative, purist views of your party's hard-core base.

"When you talk to members of Congress, they no longer talk about the general election. They talk about the fear of being challenged in a primary," he said.

Obama's test

Whether Obama can forge a way through this tangled terrain and be worthy of the same rank as the great political actors portrayed in Meacham's books is still an open question, he said. To quote from one of his book titles, what might President Obama learn from the "Art of Power" as practiced by President Jefferson?

"I think that Jefferson was quite effective at reaching on a human level to the other players in the system," said the author. "He insisted on using the White House as a social center in order to bring members of Congress in. They might not agree with what the president said but at least should hear him say it. That was a key part of Jefferson's governing philosophy.

"The other -- and I think Obama does this well -- is a willingness to part from dogma when you had to. No one was quicker to compromise or cut a deal than Jefferson. In power, he was quite willing to trade horses and get something done and would not stand on philosophical purity. I think the president is quite good at that."

The larger test -- "because the story's not over yet," Meacham added -- is how well a leader's vision translates into the mechanics of actually making something happen.

"I define the art of power -- an 'art' not a 'science' -- as the capacity to articulate an ideal, then master the process well enough to bring that ideal closer to reality. When you think about American history, we've never had a truly transformative president who has not been good at both -- been a great communicator and great legislative mechanic."

Those are skills that don't necessarily go together, he noted.

"Jefferson and Jackson had both. Roosevelt and John Kennedy had both. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton had both. We don't yet know whether President Obama has both. So, the jury's still out on that."

The fundamental promise

So, what of the country itself and the future of what has sometimes been called the great American Experiment? Is he hopeful or not so hopeful about the future of this experiment?

Meacham reached for a little Churchill.

"Churchill once said 'The future is unknowable, but the past may give us hope,'" he said. "My intellectual tendency is to take the view we've come through storm and strife so many times before that surely we will again.

"The one caveat I would add to that is the most troubling statistic in contemporary American life is the continuing decline in median household income, the widening gap between the well-off and the broad whole of the country."

Economic inequality and its implications can be more difficult to recover from than a lot of other political and cultural problems, he said.

"So, I do think this is an important time with important choices about investment and the role of government sitting before us, at a time when the political system does not seem commensurate with those challenges.

"I am deeply concerned about whether that fundamental American promise that each generation has left things better off for the next generation will, in fact, be broken in my own time," he said. "So, it's a complicated hour."

All of that said, the "good news" is that everyone can contribute good will, thought and energy to what is, after all, a solvable problem, he said.

"It's a problem complicated in its solution, but it's not complicated to grasp it. We are a stronger country when more of us are better off than when fewer of us are. We are a better country when we are more welcoming to newcomers and those who may not be part of the mainstream than when we are less welcoming."

The long view of history serves up one of its most stringent lessons for the survival of a country and its people, he said.

"History teaches us that the fate of the many often determines the fate of the country as a whole."

Reach Douglas Imbrogno at douglas@cnpapers.com or 304-348-3017.


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