January 20, 2023

Jon Meacham

Pulitzer Prize winning-author and presidential biographer Jon Meacham discusses how today’s leaders compare to their predecessors. Meacham, who has helped craft some of Biden’s key speeches, weighs in on today’s GOP and whether Biden will run again.

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How the American presidency is written into history… .this week on Firing LIne. He’s behind some of the key messages of the Biden presidency


Biden I sought this office to restore the soul of America,


Pulitzer Prize winning-author, Jon Meacham shaped Joe Biden’s victory speech and inaugural address. Meacham is a presidential historian who has written biographies of five American presidents from Andrew Jackson to George HW Bush.


Meacham Lincoln and Bush both called on us to choose the right over the convenient


So what do the highs…and lows of our past tell us about the challenges we face?


Meacham As long as democracy is a human enterprise, which it is, then human virtue have as strong a chance as human vice to prevail.


And should President Biden run again? What does Jon Meacham say now?


‘Firing Line’ with Margaret Hoover is made possible in part by: Robert Granieri, Charles R. Schwab, The Fairweather Foundation, Asness Family Foundation, The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation, The Center For The Study Of The International Economy Inc, Damon Button, Pritzker Military Foundation on behalf of the Pritzker Military Museum and Library, The Marc Haas Foundation, corporate funding is provided by Stephens Inc.




HOOVER: Jon Meacham, welcome to Firing Line. 


MEACHAM: Thank you. 


HOOVER: You’re a presidential historian and a Pulitzer Prize winning author who has written books on Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, George H.W. Bush, and now Abraham Lincoln. What do you think is the essential quality for a successful American president? 


MEACHAM: A commitment to something larger than his, or ultimately her, own power. It’s the one theme, one of the themes that connects all of these lives. Not that they were perfect because they weren’t. But they were imperfect men who left us a more perfect union, largely because, at various critical moments, and it can just be a couple, they actually put the pursuit of the common good over the narrow, easy personal interest of the moment. President Bush Sr., for instance, knew that he would be clobbered if he did the budget deal in 1990. But he knew and believed it was the right thing to do. On an even larger scale, obviously, Abraham Lincoln’s anti-slavery commitment, while long questioned, was of long standing, in fact. And I think the lesson of all these lives, and we’ve seen anew in recent years how important this is, is that power divorced from conscience is fatal to liberty under law. 


HOOVER: Well, you recently published ‘And There Was Light’ on the life of Abraham Lincoln. You say that Lincoln was, quote, “a man who put moral commitment at the heart of what he was doing, and a duty to constitutional order itself ahead of his own power.” Are there modern day leaders that you think reflect similar qualities of character?


MEACHAM: Yes. I think of Liz Cheney right off the top of the question. I think of people who have actually sacrificed their own individual power in the cause of preserving a larger order that, for all of its imperfections, has proved durable, and has also, in our own time, proven incredibly fragile, which we also have notionally thought about. Democracy is fragile is the kind of thing we would say, but now we know it really is. 


HOOVER: And yet Liz Cheney is no longer a leader in Congress. 


MEACHAM: Exactly. And that’s courage. And one great test about the durability and the ultimate wisdom of the American people will be what happens to her next. 




HOOVER: I want to ask you about faith. Religion, and the religion of American presidents, is a recurring theme in your work. What conclusions have you drawn about the relationship between faith and leadership in America? 


MEACHAM: I think it’s usually not explicit. It’s ambient. It can be unconscious. It’s about why one gets up in the morning to do what one does. And the immensity – and you know this – the immensity and the genuine loneliness of that office – is, for the rest of us, we can only begin to guess. And so there are moments, it seems to me, and presidents have said this, that it may be, and it sounds grand, that the one everyone’s looking to you to be godlike, lowercase g. With that pressure, having a conversation with and thinking about the fact that there is another God, uppercase G, I think is reassuring, and particularly in hours of strife for them. 


HOOVER: Some people know this about you, that you’re a person of faith. And I wonder how you think about how we can depolarize the role of faith in American politics. 


MEACHAM: Oh, you don’t want to ask me that because it’s all I think about. [laughter] To me, it really is the command- It’s the central commandment first found in Leviticus, repeated by Jesus, ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself’. And there’s also the commandment in Matthew, ‘Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and all thy soul and all thy mind’. The tension comes when some folks believe that there’s a divine charge, that their view of how they love their God, their definition of God, is more important than the second part, than loving your neighbor. That’s the kind of path to Christian nationalism and a dangerous, dangerous path. I think the way to depolarize, to use your term, is not to argue for a secularization of the argument, but to engage it on theological terms. That is, ride into it. If you have Christian nationalists who think that they have an exclusive line to what God wanted and God wills, have that debate. And quote Job, and quote Saint Paul, and say we only see through a glass darkly, at this point. And so I think that I would never want to cede the ground of theology and faith to those who would use theology and faith for their own ends. 




HOOVER: You won the Pulitzer Prize for your biography of Andrew Jackson. Jackson, who is the proto American populist. He is the figure that many Trump advisers pointed to as precedent for Trump’s own slash and burn brand of politics. And when Trump toured Andrew Jackson’s home in 2017, you wrote an open letter urging him to, quote, “engage Jackson’s complexity rather than simply embrace the caricature.” What do you see now in hindsight – and I know you say it takes 30 years to really understand a presidency in the context of history – but what do you see as the points of overlap and the critical differences between the two presidents?


MEACHAM: The critical difference – and by the way, that letter I wrote had no effect whatsoever on the president – Andrew Jackson, for all of his manifold sins and wickedness, and there were a lot of them, believed in the American union. He believed in the Constitution. So it had to be protected. So there was union above all. Look, President Trump – Jackson understood popular narrative, Jackson would have been great on Twitter. But when Andrew Jackson lost a presidential election that was far closer and far more complicated than the one Trump lost freely and fairly, what did he do? He came back to Nashville and he decided that he would run again. He didn’t storm the Capitol. He didn’t send people to decertify anything. He followed the rule of law. And so, I think that to confront Jackson is to confront the best of us and the worst of us. A defender of slavery, an architect of Native American removal, those tremendous failings on the part of the life of the nation, though, were not simply Jackson’s fault. It was also a reflection of who we are. And I think if we tried to put everything on a particular figure, we let the rest of us off the hook, and I think we all belong on the hook for those. 




HOOVER: In 2004, you wrote Franklin and Winston, a book that explored the friendship between FDR and Winston Churchill and how they built an alliance that won World War Two. As we think about the current conflict in Europe, and President Biden tries to hold together an alliance against Russia as the war in Ukraine drags on, are there lessons from that alliance that you wrote about in Franklin and Winston that are applicable now? 


MEACHAM: I do think so. I think– look, Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill defended freedom in its hour of maximum danger. An ongoing lesson from that relationship is that history tends to reward: courage, name the threat and go after it, cooperation, which is building these alliances of which George H.W. Bush was a master. And I think President Biden’s maintenance of NATO in this hour has been remarkable. And a kind of candor, be straightforward about the scope and scale of what we’re facing. There’s a marvelous insight from Churchill on this. He said that, ‘The British people or the American people can face any misfortune with fortitude or buoyancy as long as they are convinced that those who are in charge of their affairs are not deceiving them, or not themselves dwelling in a fool’s paradise.’ Really interesting two pronged test, right? We want to be sure our leaders aren’t lying to us, but we also want to be sure they’re not lying to themselves. And so I think that what the Roosevelt Churchill world showed us was, give it to a straight and we’ll do what it takes. 


HOOVER: I mean, you say one of the lessons is being straightforward. And you can’t help but notice growing skepticism, especially amongst Republicans, of providing continued financial and military support for Ukraine. Is the key for President Biden and American leadership to continue being straightforward, or to be more straightforward about the cost of this conflict? 


MEACHAM: Absolutely. Just lay it out. Absolutely. This is the oldest kind of power struggle, in a nuclear age, right? Vladimir Putin saw something that he wanted, so he grabbed it. If our children did this, we would punish them. This is what he’s doing. There is an extraordinary number of atrocities. This is a primal struggle in which we could end up in a direct conflict with a fellow nuclear power. Gee, what’s second prize, to have to manage that. I mean, that’s what the president’s facing. And you think about the accidents and fortunes of war, and it could escalate very, very rapidly. And the best way to make sure it doesn’t is to try to secure the defeat of Vladimir Putin. And so I’ve been struck by the Republican skepticism of this. It feels more reflexive to me than thoughtful. It’s one of the mysteries to me about the last 5 to 6, 7 years of the Republican Party. For a long time the Republican Party was about limiting the role of the state in the marketplace and projecting force against commonly agreed upon foes and rivals. And the chief commonly agreed upon foe and rival was the Soviet Union and then Russia. And now it’s not in significant quarters, at least vocal quarters, of the American right. And it’s this return of a kind of isolationism that did not serve us well in the 20th century. And I think it’s interesting that it’s a Democratic administration – it’s interesting, not dispositive, because I would hope anybody would do it – is standing up. 


HOOVER: You just mentioned George H.W. Bush. You chronicled the life of George Herbert Walker Bush in a biography entitled Destiny and Power. Bush appeared on the original Firing Line in a 1987 special with William F. Buckley Jr. during his presidential campaign. Take a look at this clip. 


BUSH: You probably get sick and tired of hearing candidates talk about their past records. So let me make mine brief. I was a combat pilot. I was in business. I was  a congressman. I was ambassador to the United Nations, chairman of the Republican National Committee, I was ambassador to China, and I ran the intelligence community, the CIA, for three years. I must have done some things pretty well in this job because they kept giving me new ones. And I was also a husband and a father. And how’d I do with that one gang?


BUSH I guess I just want to ask you to listen to what I have to say as I spell out my goals for the future.


HOOVER: Jon, as you know, Bush lost his bid for a second term, but you write about the fundamental decency he possessed. Is decency on hiatus in politics or is it gone for good? 


MEACHAM: No, it’s not gone for good. And he would, President Bush would be the first person to say that. As long as democracy is a human enterprise, which it is, then human virtue have as strong a chance as human beings to prevail. And politics wasn’t all that pretty in 1987, ‘88 in that period. President Bush did not always do the gentlemanly, gracious thing. Ask Governor Dukakis about that. But here’s what he did do. However he amassed power, once he had it, he used it for a common good. 




HOOVER: You know, you saw in that clip also a future president, George W Bush. I’ve heard you mention that you are also Bush 43’s biographer, though it’s not widely known. What can you tell me about that project? 


MEACHAM: Well, we’re doing the same thing I did with his father. We’re doing a series of conversations that will be a book, probably after he’s gone. Although he’s in pretty good shape so I may be gone first. So we’ll have to– that will be a race to the morgue. He is, I think, a fascinating man. I think that there’s a story that is both a sequential chapter to his father’s, but it’s also a very different, he’s a very different man. A better native politician than 41, a more interesting and complicated figure than we thought, than many of us thought in real time when he was president. 




HOOVER: I want to ask you about a couple of contemporary political questions. Prior to the midterm elections, you said, quote, “Usually a vote is about policy. This year’s vote is about more than that. It’s about whether elected Republican officials will obey the law, fairly count the votes in 2024, and obey the will of the people.” In this cycle, this last cycle, election deniers lost key secretary of state races, governors races. But Republicans took control of the House of Representatives. And Trump and his allies lead in several powerful committees, as we’ve learned this week. Jim Jordan is chair of the Judiciary Committee. Mark Green is chair of the Homeland Security Committee. Both voted against certifying the election. Kevin McCarthy, the speaker of the House, voted against certifying the election in 2020. What does this say about the current state of the party of Lincoln? 


MEACHAM: Well, it’s not the party of Lincoln. That’s the first thing. It’s not the party of Eisenhower. It’s not the party of Hoover. It’s not the party of Reagan, of Nixon, or of the Bushes. I think that we are in a better place than we were before the midterm. Without question. I’m not prepared to say the crisis is over. The threat has not dissipated for all the reasons you just listed. But there’s, I think people intuitively understand that extremism is not something that we want in the long term. And it doesn’t have to be everybody. I think to me the 2020 election was far closer than I thought it would be. I mean, 74 million people looked at America in 2020 and said, ‘yeah, we want more of that’? Wow. And then there’s a critique that, well, people like me don’t want to understand those 74 million people. I live in Tennessee. I understand. And I get that it’s hard to ask people to vote for institutional reasons, which is the point of the quotation you kindly mentioned, as opposed to policy ones. But here’s what we did in 2022. Enough people in states where it could have gone the other way easily, said, ‘No. We actually believe in common sense. We believe in the Constitution.’ And I just, I feel better today than I did last September or October. And the great question for us in the next 24 months is going to be will extremism remain a step away from the center of power?


HOOVER: Let me ask you about the current president. You helped write two of President Biden’s most important speeches, his victory speech and his inaugural address. You called the experience, quote, “daunting and in some ways, quote, terrifying.” What is it like to contribute to the drafting of something that becomes history rather than writing about history? 


MEACHAM: It’s very complicated. And on another level, it’s fairly straightforward. I got to know President Biden through ideas. He kindly read a couple of books I’d written. He reached out. We talked. That’s the beginning of where it started. I’m not a Democrat. I’m not a Republican. I’m not an operative. I don’t have any political insights after, say, Antietam. So I’ve been you know, this is, this is what I do. What I do is I believe that there are certain institutions in the life of the country, there are certain impulses in the life of the country, that we would do well to reinforce and live up to. And so, insofar as the president shares that view, I like to help, I’m happy to help him articulate what those aspirational convictions are.  Basically the president of the United States, we have a president of the United States who wants to make this a more perfect union. And if I can help him, I will. 




HOOVER: President Biden has worked over the last two years really to distinguish himself from his predecessor, nearly in every way. And now he finds himself under investigation, just as the former president is, for the handling of classified documents. Setting aside the differences between the two cases, which are ample and important, how does this impact, in your estimation, President Biden’s presidency moving forward? 


MEACHAM: I have a very straightforward view of this, which is not about the specifics of the case, and it’s this. It has clearly, in the popular narrative, neutralized the critique of President Trump. It would be stupid to pretend it hasn’t. There is now a prevailing narrative of, well, everybody does it. You know, for all the differences. But that’s where that conversation is going to be. What I firmly believe, however, is that if the president runs again, and if Donald Trump is the Republican nominee, next September, October, November of 2024, when people are filling out their ballot, I wish everyone would ask themselves who do they trust with the fate of their family, their country. Is it Donald Trump? Or is it Joe Biden? Who do they really believe wakes up in the morning thinking about them as opposed to themselves. And if that’s the question, I think the president’s just fine. 


HOOVER: Do you think he should run again? 


MEACHAM: Yes, I do. 


HOOVER: Given that there are leading figures on both sides of the aisle who recognize that he is 80, and recognize that there is a need for generational change, on both the Republican and Democratic side, why should Biden run again? 


MEACHAM: I think that the choice, what Americans have to choose is who’s the best person. And I don’t particularly care how old or how young they are. I don’t think age should be automatically disqualifying at either end. I think arguing for generational change for the sake of generational change is interesting, but not compelling. He’s had a remarkable two years. Look at what he’s done. I think he should take the case to the people, and then the country decides.


HOOVER: Jon Meacham, thank you for your time, your contributions and reflections on the American presidency and of the American character. Thank you for joining me. 


MEACHAM: Thank you. Appreciate it.