Meijer's book about Arthur Vandenberg is significant politically and artistically



by Cynthia Price
Legal News

A capacity crowd thronged to the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library in Ann Arbor last week to hear one illustrious Grand Rapids citizen, Hank Meijer, discuss his book about another, the late Senator Arthur Vandenberg.

Done entirely as a “chat” between Meijer and the Director of the Bentley Historical library at University of Michigan, Terrance J. McDonald, the event included remarks by Elaine Didier, Director of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum; Michael Barr, Dean of the University’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, and Mark Schlissel, University of Michigan President.

Earlier in November, an evening focusing on the book sponsored by the Hauenstein Center of Grand Valley State University also completely filled the Loosemore Auditorium. And with good reason: Arthur Vandenberg: The Man in the Middle of the American Century is an excellent read and a significant commentary on  the difference between a politician and a leader.

Meijer himself is, as most know, the  co-chairman of the supercenter chain, Meijer. He started out as a journalist, following up earning his 1973 English degree at University of Michigan (and winning a Hopwood prize for writing) with a career as a reporter and editor, eventually becoming publisher of a weekly paper in Plymouth.

When he decided to return to the family business, he pursued an M.A. in history at Western Michigan University, completing the course work, but not receiving his degree. His advisor, Ross Gregory, was a 20th Century U.S. policy scholar.

Along the way, he found time to write his first book, Thrifty Years, the Life of Hendrik Meijer, a biography of his extraordinarily interesting grandfather and namesake, who founded Meijer. 

Arthur Vandenberg was 27 years in the making, requiring years of revision, specifically, according to Meijer, to bring an “unwieldy” 900-page manuscript down to a readable length. At its beginnings, Meijer had obtained a massive amount of material from a former biographer, David Tompkins, who did not live to write the second volume he intended when he wrote Senator Arthur H. Vandenberg: the evolution of a modern Republican, 1884-1945.

Friends and family would send him bits of information, and he cobbled together parts of Sen. Vandenberg’s story in the course of vacations and business trips. But once the writing was done, Meijer found himself with too much material. “This was a ‘life and times’ when I probably knew I would be lucky just to get a ‘life’ published,” he comments.

Through contacts at the Bentley Library,  Meijer met writer and editor James Tobin, whose consultation resulted in a workable book. “His suggestions moved me from the page here-page there edits to significant cuts,” Meijer says.

Still dense with detail, often just the right detail – for example, the current edition retains a story about Sen. Vandenberg helping a Michigan fruit grower replace money in “a Mason jar” which burnt in a fire during the Depression – the book is nonetheless a streamlined version of a complex and important life.

At the Ann Arbor event, Meijer emphasized that one of the reasons he felt so strongly about writing Vandenberg’s biography is that so few people know about this once-famed Grand Rapids son. People walk by the statue of Vandenberg at Pearl and Monroe Center without having the slightest idea why it is there.

Vandenberg spent 40 years as a senator, and was mentioned as a potential presidential candidate several times during his 23 years in the United States Senate.

He became the editor of the Grand Rapids Herald at a young age. Interestingly, several people associated with that paper became players on the national political scene, including owner William Alden Smith, who served as both a representative and senator in the U.S. Congress.

After a convoluted appointment by Gov. Alex Groesbeck as Senator, Vandenberg was re-elected repeatedly in a time when being a Republican became an increasing liability. However, Vandenberg was able to “put the greater good of the country ahead of party,” as the book jacket says; he thrived in a difficult political environment during the New Deal years.

In addition to many important but lesser-known contributions, such as insisting on updating the apportionment of congressional representatives which resulted in Michigan gaining four seats, and examining the role of arms suppliers in U.S. involvement with World War II, Vandenberg was instrumental in the formation of the United Nations and the Northeast Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

He was flexible enough to leave behind the commitment to isolationism with which he started out World War II and recognize that the world was changing. In that and other cases, he was a concensus builder who reached out to both sides of the aisle.

Perhaps it is because he was overshadowed by Gerald Ford, spurred by the notion that lightning was unlikely to strike twice by Grand Rapids supplying two great statesmen, that Vandenberg is less well-known than his accomplishments merit. But well-known or not, the man Edward R. Murrow called “the central pivot of the entire era,” whose photograph graced the cover of Time Magazine three times, definitely left his mark on the U.S. and its policy.

Possibly the strongest contribution of Meijer’s book is bringing to light how critical it is to have those serving in office prioritize the welfare of American citizens over political infighting.

At the Ford Presidential Library, when asked if there was anyone who he thought might taken on that role, Meijer responded, “There might be some who qualify, but there’s just nobody with that stature. In a Look Magazine profile in 1946, one of his colleagues said, ‘Van thinks what the American people think, just a little bit earlier.’ He was just able to capture what people wanted to hear said, what they really wanted.”

Vandenberg stands out because he knew how to make that happen, and Meijer attributes that to a willingness to make practical compromises.

When asked whether he thinks we can ever return to an era when people like Vandenberg, and Ford after him, could succeed, Meijer responds, “There are two great challenges. The first is recognizing how essential compromise is to a functioning democracy—and that it is a noble political art. The second is having someone at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, or the other side of the aisle, willing to negotiate with you to arrive at that compromise.”


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