Presidential Historian Balances Past and Present in Politics


Presidential historian Jon Meacham provided perspective on today’s White House using the lens of the past at a presentation Thursday called “The Art of Leadership: Lessons from the American Presidency.”

Meacham started broadly, noting the presidency is a reflection of the American population.

“The presidency is in many ways a manifestation of all of us,” he said.

Meacham also identified four characteristics that exemplify a presidency, beginning with curiosity. He pointed to Thomas Jefferson as an example, and how Jefferson used multiple points in history to direct his pen as he wrote the Declaration of Independence.

Meacham then focused on honesty, as politicians should have a “level of candor.” He reminded the audience that the presidents who have most gotten in trouble are those who tried to deceive the public. He explained that for a successful presidency, leaders should not lie to the people, nor to themselves.

Humility is another characteristic of a president, as politicians should be able to admit from their mistakes and learn from them. Meacham used John F. Kennedy as an example of such humility. He described Kennedy’s willingness to own up to his mistakes after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, as well as the president’s willingness to learn from his predecessors. Meacham described both Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln as “presidents learning how to do their job better.”

The final characteristic was empathy. Meacham stated, “If we do not put ourselves in others’ shoes the democratic covenant frays.” To exemplify this characteristic, Meacham looked to George H.W. Bush. As the biographer of the president, Meacham cited a story in which Bush Sr. decided he would treat others how he would want to be treated if he were in a similar situation.

When asked how he came to pursue a career as a presidential historian, Meacham stated, “For me, history was always a tactile thing.” He also mentioned an interest in how flawed people can still do good things. When discussing public figures he has met, Meacham named longtime U.S. Rep. John Lewis as an individual “as wholly good as a human being can be.”

When asked how presidents bring out the best in the American people, Meacham stated that those presidents do so “contrary to pre-existing notions.” He related this back to President Lyndon B. Johnson advocating for the Civil Rights Act “to his political peril.” He stated these presidents “understood public sentiment.”

Meacham then compared the legacy of today’s presidents to those further back in the nation’s history. He explained that it often takes around 25 years for stories of presidents to move from journalism to history. Nonetheless, the public’s view of a president can change due to the politics of the present, as history can be revisionist. To exemplify this, Meacham ended his presentation with the statement “At best, if facts change we can change our minds.”

The lecture was part of the Lester N. Mandell Distinguished Lecture Series, and supported by the Office of Global Perspectives and International Initiatives.





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