Best-selling author enthralls crowd with the depth of his knowledge

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by Cynthia Price
Legal News

Jon Meacham talks about Thomas Jefferson as if they had just had lunch  together last week.

As Meacham himself said when he was in Grand Rapids last Friday, “There’s a moment in every biographer’s life when you start talking to the person you’re writing about. What I’ve been told is, it’s OK to talk to your subjects, it’s when they talk back you have a problem.”

But ultimately, the effect of Meacham’s knowledge intimacy with Jefferson is to shrink Jefferson’s larger-than-life persona to human size.

And the third U.S. President’s human side is something Meacham knows a great deal about, both in terms of his ways of achieving what he strove for, and in terms of his failings.

Meacham’s book Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power has topped the New York Times bestsellers in hard-cover nonfiction over the past month or so, settling at number two on the current (Dec. 16) list.

Hundreds of Grand Rapidians heard Meacham speak entertainingly and with erudition about Jefferson in a luncheon event co-sponsored by the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum and the Gerald
R. Ford Presidential Foundation along with the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies of Grand Valley State University.

Jefferson is not the first president Meacham has come to know historically, as was evident in his presentation. His talk was peppered with references to Andrew Jackson, the controversial seventh president of the United States. Meacham’s book on “Old Hickory,” American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House, won him the Pulitzer Price in 2009, just one of many honors Meacham has earned for his writing, editing, and community contributions.

To call Meacham’s career illustrious would be an understatement.

After attending the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, where he still maintains a residence, Meacham joined Newsweek in 1995 as a writer. A short six months later he was made national affairs editor, and it was only three years before he became managing editor of the whole publication. He was named editor-in-chief in 2006, but left Newsweek in 2010 when the Washington Post Company bought it. He has also written for Time Magazine, The New York Times, The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times Book Review, and appeared on a PBS television show called “From the press” for a year, ending in 2011.

He is currently executive editor and executive vice president at the publishing company Random House.

The books he has written also include Voices in Our Blood: America's Best on the Civil Rights Movement (2001),  Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship (2003), which was also a bestseller and ensured Meacham’s place as a well-known public intellectual; and American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation (2006).

Walter Isaacson, who wrote the authorized biography of Steve Jobs, said about Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, “A true triumph. In addition to being a brilliant biography, Thomas Jefferson is a guide to the art of power…a fascinating look at how Jefferson wielded his driving desire for power and control.”

Meacham’s discussion of Jefferson, presidential history, and political power last Friday was laced with humorous asides — for example, in talking about President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s “outsized characteristics,” he commented “One thing about politicians is they’re like all of us, only more so” — and useful insights.

He related that as he has gone around the country promoting the book, he is consistently asked his opinion about the “fiscal cliff,” primarily because the stridently partisan nature of that conflict parallels some of what was taking place in Jefferson’s time.

Though he has declined to try to resolve the United States debt problem, he observed, “There are some things that are perennial in life and partisanship is one of them.”

Meacham praised the ability to rise above partisanship, particularly as exemplifed in one president: Gerald R. Ford. Ford’s daughter Susan Ford Bales was in town because she was giving the address at Grand Valley’s commencement the following day, and she introduced Meacham. He spoke about knowing her parents, occa-

sionally addressing his remarks to Bales herself.

Calling President Ford’s decision to pardon Nixon, coming with the certain knowledge that it would cost him re-election, “an act of political courage.” Meacham continued, “I wish we had more people now who were willing to make those existential choices.”

According to Meacham, Thomas Jefferson was as prone to partisan rancor as anyone else; he talked amusingly about the Jefferson/Alexander Hamilton feud, which caused no end of irritation for George Washington.

But once in office, Jefferson worked to ameliorate partisan rifts. He engaged socially with people he had opposed in the past, inviting them to his house for dinners and sharing with them on a personal basis. “Jefferson believed intensely in the idea of sociability – that you and I had to if not love each other, at least like each other – in other words, we had to believe that our fates were linked.”

Meacham was candid about Jefferson’s failings, chief of which he considered to be not addressing the slavery question. It was not as if, Meacham noted, Jefferson was unaware of how bad slavery is. He attempted early in his career to abolish it, but never regained the will to do so in the political climate of the times.

What Meacham feels Jefferson did best is display both “a skill of articulating an ideal of where the country should go and also the deal-making skills to bring that closer to reality.

“The greatest politicians, the greatest presidents are the ones who can do both — who can practice partisanship in ordinary times yet have the capacity when the crisis comes to rise above it,”
Meacham said.

a skill of articulating an ideal an of where the country should go and also the deal making skill to bring that closer to reality.

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