I had the opportunity this week to hear Jon Meacham deliver a lecture at the North Carolina Museum of History.  He won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Andrew Jackson, and he has also profiled FDR and Winston Churchill, Thomas Jefferson, and George Herbert Walker Bush.

In his lecture, Meacham identified four characteristics of great political leaders:

  • Curiosity.  He pointed to presidents such as FDR, JFK, and Jefferson as avid readers and intellectually curious leaders.  Look no further than Jefferson’s study of Enlightenment thought and its incorporation into American political life.
  • Candor.  He looked to the Great Depression and World War Two for leaders who were willing to talk to their constituents about the gravity of the situation without sugar-coating it.  FDR referred to it as shooting straight-from-the-shoulder, and Churchill certainly followed this pattern in handling the devastation of attacks on the British Isles.
  • Humility.  Great leaders have the ability to admit their mistakes and learn from them — despite the “ambient narcissism” that is a part of the political process.  Meacham pointed to JFK, who after the fiasco of the Bay of Pigs contacted Eisenhower for guidance and by following his advice charted a positive end to the subsequent Cuban missile crisis.
  • Empathy.  Meacham argued that empathy doesn’t have to be the Bill Clinton “I feel your pain” kind of understanding.  He explained George H.W. Bush demonstrated empathy at the end of the Cold War by not using the collapse of the Berlin Wall as a photo opportunity that would help him politically while also being quite damaging to Mikhail Gorbachev, who was in a tenuous position with the hardliners in the Communist party.

Ultimately, Meacham believes that “character is destiny.”  But that’s not to say he prefers studying only great people — instead, he suggested we can learn more from the sinners than the saints.  His closing words of hope were, “We can move forward.”  He reflected on the founding of our nation by flawed people — many of whom were slaveowners, for instance — but yet they came together to form a more perfect union.  To those who might question his highlighting of flaws, he countered that overly romanticizing the past actually does an injustice to those you mean to lionize.

Meacham explained his tests for determining the worth of studying a particular subject:

  • Is there a hole in the popular conversation about this person?
  • Is there a scholarly argument to make?
  • Are there new materials to be studied?  (Here’s how archivists can help the Meachams of the world!)

Meacham referenced the open letter he wrote to President Trump before his visit to the Hermitage in March.  Because Trump is fond of likening his leadership to that of Jackson, Meacham pointed out some of his traits that Trump would be wise to emulate:

  • Jackson valued the advice of people with experience in governmental and military affairs.
  • Despite his dislike of elements of the national government (e.g., the Second National Bank), Jackson believed our democratic system had to be preserved at all costs.  This meant both compromising on certain issues and also directly courting the understanding and support of his most ardent opposition (the nullifiers in South Carolina).

In his talk, Meacham also explained that Jackson always fired the second shot — never being the one to begin an attack and instead being in a perfect position to respond.  Jackson also understood his own vices (see humility above).

 

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