Of presidents and politics, with Jon Meacham

Historian Jon Meacham

Pulitzer Prize-winning author and historian Jon Meacham talked frankly about politics and presidents, also cracking a few jokes, before a packed room at FDU on Thursday. (Photos by W. Scott Giglio)

By Kenna Caprio

April 21, 2017 — Fairleigh Dickinson University students, faculty and staff packed Hartman Lounge to hear from Jon Meacham, the presidential historian and Pulitzer Prize-winning author and journalist on Thursday, April 20.

As a biographer, Meacham has profiled Presidents Andrew Jackson, Thomas Jefferson and George H.W. Bush. The former editor-in-chief of Newsweek and contributing editor to Time now serves as the executive editor at Random House.

Gary Darden, chair of the social sciences and history department and associate professor of history, moderated the Q&A-style event at the Florham Campus.

The two touched on a myriad of topics including higher education, the current political climate and presidential legacies.

Conversation highlights:

On liberal arts education:

“I’m entirely a product of the liberal arts. I read everything I could get my hands on,” said Meacham, who graduated from The University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn., with a degree in English literature.

“You can’t connect the dots if you don’t know what the dots are,” he continued. “We have to be able to turn out graduates who understand illusions, can think creatively and historically in terms of decision-making.” That liberal arts base, he said, increases collective cultural literacy, making the entire workforce and the country better off.

Gary Darden and Jon Meacham

Gary Darden (L), chair of the social sciences and history department and associate professor of history at FDU's Florham Campus, moderated the event with Meacham (R).

On Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush:

Meacham spent nine years as a biographer of George H.W. Bush, mostly with father and son. Bush 41, “spent a lifetime preparing to be president,” said Meacham. In contrast, it was critically important to Bush 43 to succeed politically in Texas. Despite his long political career, Bush 41 didn’t win in Texas until the 1988 presidential election.

While the senior Bush believes deeply in public service, and was willing to compromise to achieve legislative priorities, the younger Bush hewed more closely to President Ronald Regan’s conservative philosophy and vision.

Ultimately, Meacham said, the Bushes’ “inability to curb the rise of reflective partisanship in the party,” plus the rise of conservative talk radio and the 24-hour cable news cycle, primed the country for Trump.

On Presidents Donald Trump and Andrew Jackson:

“The moment is Jacksonian — it’s unquestionably a populist and nationalist moment, with elites on the run,” said Meacham. “A lesson I hope the current president learns is — Jackson always fired the second shot.” He described Jackson as “blustering by day, careful by night,” with his political motivations and machinations. “Thank God there was no Twitter.”

Right now, he contends, under the leadership of Trump, “we’re living the political equivalent of climate change. I would expect many more twists, turns and about-faces with very little warning, and almost no reference to the past. That’s not a criticism, just an observation.”

On President Barack Obama:

“The open questions of the Obama era are Syria and the ‘red line,’ Iran and the nuclear deal and the economic crisis and long-term economic reform,” said Meacham. It’ll be years before there is a clear referendum on the Obama presidency, he added.

“I deeply admire people who go into the arena, to dodge the slings and arrows,” Meacham said of the highest office. It’s incumbent to criticize leaders, but also to improve personal citizenship, he concluded. “Could we do a better job as citizens? Damn right.”

Later in the evening, Meacham spoke at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, N.J., as part of the New Jersey Speakers Series, presented by FDU. The series brings world leaders, acclaimed authors and prominent personalities to NJPAC for presentations and conversations.