Jon Meacham Interview: "What We Don’t Know Yet Is to What Extent Trump Has Changed the Presidency"
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Jon Meacham is a Pulitzer Prize-winning presidential historian. A contributing writer for the New York Times Book Review and a contributing editor of Time magazine, he is the author of the New York Times bestsellers Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House, American Gospel and Franklin and Winston.
In his latest offering, The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels, Meacham helps us to understand the present moment of crisis in American politics by looking back at critical times in history when hope overcame hatred. Our current climate of partisan division is not new, and by exploring past dark moments in American history, the author shows us how our “better angels” have again and again won the day. Meacham lives in Nashville, Tennessee.
"Nixon faced impeachment. Clinton was impeached. President Reagan was investigated for Iran-Contra. Unfortunately, there’s more precedent to this than probably we would like. But I don’t think that anyone has been investigated at this level for allegations about their campaign and a foreign power. That is different."
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What inspired you to write The Soul of America, and what are the main takeaways from the book you want the readers to understand?
Jon Meacham: Well, the rise of Donald Trump as a central political force in the life of the country was the main inspiration. The events in Charlottesville last summer where the president seemed confused as to whether he was on the side of protestors or Klansmen and neo-Nazis was a particular trigger. My goal here was to lay out moments in our past that have felt like this one and try to access whether there’s a set of lessons that can be derived that would help us get through this very contentious and divisive time.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You’re writing about some of the worst times in American history, yet the KKK and racism are still thriving today.
Jon Meacham: Yeah, and that’s precisely my point. America’s defined by a perennial struggle between light and dark, between the Klan and Dr. King, and every generation has to decide whether it’s going to side with the better angels of our nature or going to cave in to our worst instincts. That’s a struggle that’s never fully over.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): The phrase, “better angels of our nature,” is actually taken from Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address?
Jon Meacham: Yes. I think it’s self-evident. I think the defining drama of human experience is to what extent we are selfish and concerned solely with individual gain as opposed to a common good. Every society has been shaped by that question, and what Lincoln was talking about was the better parts of our nature that would enable us to put a common good above individual gain.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How did the founding fathers view the presidency, and did they use George Washington as sort of a guinea pig?
Jon Meacham: The presidency was left somewhat vague in part because the framers believed that Washington would be the first president. They trusted him because he had given up power before when he surrendered the Continental Army back to the Congress after the Revolution. They knew they could trust him not to become a despot, not to become a dictator, and he helped give form to it.
The office gradually and steadily grew in power and influence both in the letter of the law and in the spirit of the country. So much of our national life, for better or for worse, is shaped by the character and disposition of the person at the pinnacle of power.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Have there been any past presidents who were “trump-like,” so to speak?
Jon Meacham: I think the closest analogy is probably Andrew Johnson from the Reconstruction Period, a president who didn’t have a national political base, who was governing in a complicated time, had a very short fuse, a very high opinion of himself and was someone who was not particularly stable. I think that’s the analogy that’s probably closest in terms of presidents.
The American political figure Donald Trump is more like is Joseph McCarthy from the early 1950s, the anti-communist senator from Wisconsin who understood how to use popular fear to really dominate the national conversation.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Often heard from the Christian community or the Religious Right is that America was founded as a Christian nation. Is that true?
Jon Meacham: I don’t think so, not necessarily from a political or historical view, but from a theological one. It’s a confusion of the imperatives of religion with the nature of politics. The idea that a nation could be created as a theocratic state is fundamentally unbiblical really. St. Paul says in Acts that God chose no partiality. St. Paul says elsewhere that there’s not a Greek or Jew, there’s not a slave or free, there’s not a male or female, but all are in Jesus. So the idea that an American would have some sort of different religious status than someone from across the line in Alberta seems to me to be theologically unsound.
The founders wanted church and state separated, but they knew they couldn’t separate religion from politics, and that’s a very important distinction. A republic is necessarily the sum of its parts. To try to isolate or remove religion from our political life is as pointless and futile as trying to eliminate economics. It’s always going to be a part of it. But what they were really trying to do was avoid the problems of the Old World where an established church actually exacerbated the relations between nations and led to warfare and strife.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You recently said, “Just because something hasn’t happened before doesn’t mean it’s historic,” in reference to the Trump-Kim summit and the president labeling it “historic.” So what makes something historic?
Jon Meacham: Something that is a definitive event, an identifiable event in time before which things were one way and after which they were another. So I think it has to be a consequential event to be called historic, and we simply don’t know whether that is or not.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): In your interview with Trump that was published in Time magazine in 2016, and what you’ve seen so far in his presidency, is there anything he’s done that has been shocking or surprising to you?
Jon Meacham: Not. A. Thing. I think this was all totally predictable. I really do. I think nobody should be surprised. And to his credit, Trump never pretended to be something he wasn’t. There were a lot of people who thought that certainly someone would have to change their demeanor and temperament to occupy a cultural niche as important as the presidency. He’s proved that you don’t have to.
One of the things we know is that the presidency has not changed Trump. What we don’t know yet is to what extent Trump has changed the presidency itself. That’s just going to be a longer term drama.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Which president do you admire the most for his leadership through adversity?
Jon Meacham: Probably Franklin Roosevelt for confronting the twin crises of the future of democratic capitalism and the reality of World War II. Just to have done one of those would have guaranteed his place in history, but to be able to do all of that while in a wheelchair while particularly late in his term not being well physically, I think, is a remarkable human achievement. We continue to live in that achievement.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you believe, even with certain criticisms, that Eleanor Roosevelt was the most admired first lady in history?
Jon Meacham: Probably. I don’t know where Mrs. Kennedy would fall there because of the trauma of the assassination. I think Mrs. Roosevelt was probably the most influential presidential spouse because of her nature, because of the complicated relationship with her husband, and her work. She died about 17 years after he did, and she was tireless in her advocacy, and I think, a very important underappreciated figure in terms of changing the understanding of the role of women in the light of the country.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Were you a studious child, Jon?
Jon Meacham: I read a lot as a child. I always loved biographies, loved politics and loved the news. So to be able to mix all these things together is a great privilege.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Were your parents political or interested in history?
Jon Meacham: My grandfather was a judge in Chattanooga who also wrote some novels about being in the Napoleonic naval war, of all things. I grew up on Missionary Ridge, the Civil War battlefield, and so to me, it was always tactile and quite real. To me, the past was always right in front of me.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I understand that Pat Robertson also attended the McCallie school about 40 years earlier than you did. Was that a strict Christian school?
Jon Meacham: No. It was kind of broad mainstream Protestant. The founders were Presbyterians. We went to chapel every day, but it was what I would call broad church Protestant. It was not evangelical. It was in no way fundamental. It was an independent school with a chapel tradition, but was not theologically rigid in any way. Pat Robertson did not get his theology from McCallie. An interesting point there is we also produced Ted Turner, so we produced one of the great right wing figures and one of the great left wing figures in the country.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How would you describe your political views?
Jon Meacham: I’m a raging moderate. I’ve voted for Democrats and Republicans and continue to plan to do so. I don’t believe either party has a monopoly on truth or virtue.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Does the fact that Donald Trump is being investigated by a special counsel place him in a unique category with only a few past presidents?
Jon Meacham: Nixon faced impeachment. Clinton was impeached. President Reagan was investigated for Iran-Contra. Unfortunately, there’s more precedent to this than probably we would like. But I don’t think that anyone has been investigated at this level for allegations about their campaign and a foreign power. That is different.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): If you could interview Donald Trump again today, what would be your first question?
Jon Meacham: Why not reach out beyond the base? Why not decide that you’ve been given this unique unparalleled opportunity to break through a sporadic body politic, and why not use that power in a way to reach out as opposed to simply procuring the base? Do you want us, as we’re looking at your portrait through the decades, to look at you and see an unconventional president who just stepped to his base, or do you want us to look at the portrait and see an unconventional president who didn’t and was more productive and creative? That’s exactly what I would say to him.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What’s the next book, Jon?
Jon Meacham: I’m working on James and Dolley Madison. I was working on a joint biography of them before I decided to haul off and do this. So I’ll go back to the Madisons happily looking forward to returning to the 18thcentury.
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