Need to Know: Q&A with Jon Meacham

The Key to Making History Come Alive Is Accepting That Nothing Is Foreordained

John Meacham (Daniel Dubois)


Jon Meacham, executive editor and executive vice president at Random House and author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House, joined the Vanderbilt faculty last summer with a three-year appointment as Distinguished Visiting Professor. During the fall semester he taught a political science course, The Fate of the Republican Party, and moderated two public lectures as part of the Chancellor’s Lecture Series. Meacham’s most recent book, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, was a No. 1 New York Times best-seller and made many critics’ “best of the year” lists for 2012. A contributing editor to Time and the former editor of Newsweek, he is a fellow of the Society of American Historians. Meacham began his career as a newspaper reporter in his hometown of Chattanooga, Tenn., and was educated at Sewanee, the University of the South.

Was teaching at Vanderbilt last semester a new experience?

It was the first time I’ve ever taught. I loved it, and the students didn’t flee from the room. John Geer [Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor of Political Science and chair of the department] has been a friend for a long time, and he’s a terrific colleague. John had terrific guests for the class: Sen. and former Gov. Lamar Alexander [BA’62] came, as did political insiders John Jay Hooker Jr. [LLB’57], John Seigenthaler and Chip Saltsman. The government shutdown might have been bad for the country, but it was good for our class discussions.

What motivated you to leave New York?

We moved to Nashville for grass and dogs. We have three children, who were all under the age of 10 when we moved in 2012. I grew up in Chattanooga, and my wife grew up in Mississippi. My grandfather Ellis Meacham and my great-grandfather were Vanderbilt alumni. The highlight of my grandfather’s life, I think, was being the Founder’s Medalist for the Law School in 1937.

What has inspired your gift for storytelling?

From an early age I was encouraged to read biographies and history, whether it was James MacGregor Burns on FDR, or William Manchester on Winston Churchill, or Churchill’s own history of the Second World War. These were big books that helped me see that history is a story. I’m a member of the school that views human actions and reactions as the major historical determinant. If you accept that nothing is foreordained, then chronology becomes your friend. Your obligation as a historian or storyteller is to put yourself in the shoes of the people engaged in those events and try to figure out what they knew when they knew it. Barbara Tuchman famously remarked that readers will go along with you when you’re telling stories about even very well-known events if you write it as it was lived, without knowing the end. That’s been an incredibly important lesson.

Andrew Jackson’s humanity as you present it in American Lion is surprising and fascinating.

He was the first self-made president, the first born outside an ethos of established power. The previous six presidents were either Virginia aristocrats or Adamses from Massachusetts. Jackson came from one of the lower rungs of white society, and largely by an act of personal will, he forced himself into the center of national life and then into the top of it.

You wrote, “Like us and our America, Jackson and his America achieved great things while committing grievous sins.”

Jackson helped create the office that Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt and FDR ultimately used to great effect. His sins and shortcomings reflected the sins and shortcomings of the country itself at that time. He was a human being who was tragically driven, to some extent, by greed and a thirst for power over the lands of the Native American and over slavery. But to put the weight of both those tragedies—and they are the two great American tragedies, African American slavery and the removal of the Native Americans—on one person is something of a cop-out.

In your subsequent book, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, your take is somewhat different from historians who have found hypocrisy in Jefferson’s use of executive power to accomplish the Louisiana Purchase.

Many of Jefferson’s seeming contradictions become explicable when you look at him as a working politician. For 40 years—from 1769 when he was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses until 1809 when he left the White House—he was almost entirely in public office. What do politicians do? They create coalitions of opinion in real time to solve particular problems for a given period of time. Was he hypocritical over the Louisiana Purchase? I suppose. But I would rather have a wise hypocrite than an unwise purist in ultimate authority. He made what I would argue was a wise decision to see the opportunity—“the fugitive occurrence,” as I think he put it—of the offer of doubling the size of the country without firing a shot. He saw national survival and strength as a higher good, as Lincoln did, as FDR did; they both explicitly pointed back to Jefferson in hours of crisis in trying to justify their own actions to ensure survival and success of the country.

What are you currently reading?

I’m working on a biography about George H.W. Bush right now, so I’ve been reading about the 1980 Republican National Convention in Detroit.

You’ve worked professionally with a number of Vanderbilt alumni, including your former Newsweek colleague Ann McDaniel [BA’77, senior vice president of Graham Holdings, formerly The Washington Post Co.]; Ann Moore [BA’71], chairman of Time Inc.; and Willie Geist [BA’97], host at Today and Morning Joe. Do you have a sense as to why so many Vanderbilt alumni have gone on to high-profile media positions?

Any great liberal arts program is going to produce people who have an affinity for, are skilled at, and are well prepared to succeed in the media business. What is required is an ability to connect dots that aren’t necessarily readily and apparently connectable.

Changes in reader habits during the past decade have had a tremendous impact on journalism. Has the weekly newsmagazine become obsolete?

I don’t think so. Time magazine began in 1923 partly because things seemed so busy then: One reason it was called “Time” was to save the reader time. So to some extent this is a familiar story on the reader side. On the economic side, it’s a more profound shift, with the disappearance of the economic model of national advertising. It’s certainly as difficult a time as one could imagine, but I think it will all settle out. We’re at the beginning of this immense shift—we’re not even in the middle of it—and that’s something we tend to forget. The digital reformation is as profound an event in human affairs as Gutenberg. It took us several centuries to figure out what that all meant, and it’s going to take some time for this.

Jon Meacham was interviewed by Phillip B. Tucker, Vanderbilt Magazine associate editor and production manager.

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