WANT TO GO?
Gazette-WVU Festival of Ideas
WHEN: 7:30 p.m., March 12
WHERE: Clay Center for the Arts and Sciences
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.
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."