Meacham offers historical perspective on the presidency

October 31, 2017

WESTVILLE — Presidential historian Jon Meacham discussed the cyclical nature of American history and the uniqueness of Donald Trump in a speech at the Sinai Forum at Purdue University Northwest on Sunday.

Although Meacham believes Trump is unlike past presidents, he emphasized how the nation is in a different era and the world itself has become disruptive.

Nevertheless, the nation has faced major disruptions in the past, and the right kind of leadership has helped the United States withstand them, he said. Great leaders have shown four traits that can guide the country through its present challenges, he said. These traits are optimism, curiosity, candor and humility.

Meacham, former editor-in chief of Newsweek and a contributing editor of Time, won a Pulitzer Prize for “American Lion,” a 2008 biography of Andrew Jackson, and has also written other presidential histories, including biographies of Thomas Jefferson and George H.W. Bush.

Meacham urged Trump to adopt these traits. He spoke of the optimism of Ronald Reagan, who switched from being a Democrat in 1962, but did not fight the past. He used language of hope to build a coalition of the same sort of people who were drawn to the Democrats’ New Deal decades before, Meacham said.

Meacham also spoke of the humility of John F. Kennedy after the Bay of Pigs invasion failed. Prior, he had contempt for Dwight Eisenhower, but they talked about how to improve foreign policy, and this cooperation helped save the U.S. from nuclear war.

"We’re here in large measure because Kennedy was willing to admit a mistake," Meacham said.

He said Americans are at their best when they conquer fear and mistrust, whether from the anti-Mason movement, the anti-Catholic movement or the Ku Klux Klan.

"That is the fundamental guiding insight of the entire American experience," he said. "We are most at risk when we fear more than we hope."

This is not to say all the nation’s challenges have been equal.

"I think this is the biggest moment for political disruption since the Whigs fell apart in the 1850s," Meacham said.

The party systems have usually changed when there was a central issue, he said. For example, the Whig Party dissolved because it could not come to a position on slavery, but the new Republican Party did.

Other defining issues have included industrialization, leading to former President Theodore Roosevelt’s strong third-party challenge in 1912, and the Great Depression-era debate about the shortcomings of capitalism, leading to the New Deal transformation of the Democratic Party.

The major issue now is globalization, Meacham said, and the issue is dividing both major parties.

"Do these parties make sense? I think not really," he said. "I think this is the moment of maximum opportunity to take one of the parties and change it,” he said.

He said that’s why Trump was able to pull off a "hijacking of the Republican Party," in which the passengers sided with the hijacker. Trump was a Democrat a few years ago and, even now, he acts as if he is head of the party without being part of it.

"It’s like he rented a car at the airport," Meacham said.

Trump has invited comparisons to Jackson, whose portrait is now in the Oval Office. He visited Jackson’s tomb on what would have been his 250th birthday and laid a wreath. At the time, Meacham wrote a public letter to Trump and asked him, if he wants to embrace Jackson, to embrace more than the crazy parts.

Jackson was controversial, like when he said he regretted not shooting his 1832 election opponent and hanging his own vice president. But Jackson also had admirable traits, like being a strong defender of the Union and valuing experience, the Constitution and compromise, Meacham said.

Although Trump gained the most political traction when he started doubting President Barack Obama’s birthplace, Meacham believes racism is not what made Trump president. This is an era in which a study found a family needs a household income of $130,000 to live the post-World War II ideal of the middle-class life, he said.

"If those who oppose the president overly demonize the opposition, that ultimately is as bad for the country as the reverse is," he said.

He said the nation is also facing the problem of people not interacting with those of other viewpoints.

"We don’t have enough in common,” he said, decrying the situation. "As a basic historical matter, periods of greatest concession were periods of greatest economic growth.”