published Wednesday, November 21st, 2012

In Chattanooga, Jon Meacham says Thomas Jefferson could teach us a lot


by Chris Carroll
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jon Meacham jokes around with the audience before discussing his newly published book, "Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power" during "An Evening with Jon Meacham," an event hosted by the Arts & Education Council at Lindsay Street Hall in downtown Chattanooga Tuesday night.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jon Meacham jokes around with the audience before discussing his newly published book, "Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power" during "An Evening with Jon Meacham," an event hosted by the Arts & Education Council at Lindsay Street Hall in downtown Chattanooga Tuesday night.
Photo by Alyson Wright.

McCallie School graduate, onetime Chattanooga Times reporter, former Newsweek editor-in-chief and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jon Meacham traveled to the Scenic City on Tuesday to promote his new book.

Now executive editor and executive vice president of Random House, Meacham traveled from his Nashville home for an hourlong reading at Lindsay Street Hall. The new book, “Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power,” is on sale now.

A graduate of Sewanee: The University of the South, Meacham, 43, covered Chattanooga politics in the early 1990s before nearly two decades as a Newsweek reporter and editor. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for “American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House.”

The Arts and Education Council sponsored Meacham's appearance here. Before the reading Tuesday, he spoke with the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Q: In The Art of Power, you paint Thomas Jefferson as an American Renaissance man who tackled politics, medicine and numerous other disciplines. What would Jefferson have to say about the current gridlock in Washington? How would he recommend curing it?

A: Well, he had his own gridlock. He governed by learning from his mistakes. He understood that partisanship was going to be an essential part of democracy. He knew the best one could do was to seize the moments you could, build as many human bridges as you could and try to cut the deal you could cut. You can’t rip him from his context, but his context had a lot in common with our own.

Q: In writing about how President Jefferson dealt with gridlock, you describe dinner parties he hosted for congressmen from both parties. On “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” you compared Jefferson and President Barack Obama in calling them tall, cool and cerebral leaders. But it’s been said Obama detests hobnobbing with members of Congress. Could he learn something from Jefferson?

A: That’s the central lesson, I think. Jefferson believed sociability and affability were not just polite thing[s] to do, but crucial to building the kind of culture where you would actually have a mutual concession of opinion. Because if you didn’t care about the other guy, then why would you care about their fate?

If you saw yourself as linked to everyone else, then you were going to be a better citizen because the good of the whole was also good for you.

The clearest lesson for the incumbent president is that he does need to reach out more to the other players in the system. It’s not going to produce this amazing bipartisanship, but in a crunch, you might get a couple of votes.

And life, as you know, is largely lived in the crunch.

Q: Why has Jefferson’s outreach style — caring about the other guy, as you said — failed to materialize in the current Congress?

A: Three things happened in the last 20 years.

One, gerrymandering has gotten so much more precise. There are no more [congressional] swing districts, basically. And so most congressmen don’t have to worry about a general election. They have to worry about a primary, which puts an emphasis on partisan purity as opposed to coalition building.

Second, because of the nature of fundraising and the nature of modern life, so few members actually move to Washington and make their lives there. And so they don’t know each other. They’re on airplanes or on the phone.

I understand the citizen-legislature point, but if you’re talking about what’s different from 40 years ago and today — when George H.W. Bush was elected to Congress and Howard Baker was elected to the Senate in 1966, they moved to Washington. If you know each other, you’re just more likely to, again, not vote with them 90 percent of the time, but maybe 10 percent of the time.

The third thing is the atomization of the media and the speed with which interest groups and interested parties can communicate and apply pressure. The digital-political marketplace has made it much more difficult for lawmakers to move in a bipartisan direction. By and large, if you’re really, really engaged in the process, you’re going to be pretty much committed to one side or the other and now you can apply that pressure so quickly.

Q: Has the digital-political marketplace replaced the military-industrial complex in terms of influence?

A: Yeah! It has. Somebody the other day threw in the word “entertainment,” and I think that’s right. You have cable [news], you have all this and so you create this kind of alternative universe, which is quite real to the fellow casting the vote.

Q: Jefferson popularized the phrase “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence, but he owned slaves until his final hour. How would you describe his legacy on slavery?

A: Terrible. He’s not indicted before the bar of history, he’s convicted. The most effective politician of the early republic gave up after 1784 on trying to find anything that would press the country toward abolition or emancipation.

In the end, he simply couldn’t extricate his own comfort to follow the implications of his creed. It’s a great tragedy, and there’s no excusing it.

My view is that the moral utility of history is not to make ourselves feel better by feeling superior to the past, but to note that their failures could be our failures. What crises, problems and injustices are we living with that we could redress now so that posterity doesn’t have a chance to wag its finger at us?

Q: What surprised you most about Jefferson?

A: What I found was a man much more driven by appetite than many portraits have had it. He was a virile, carnally hungry man from the very beginning. He had immense appetites for wine, women and song, and politics and power. He was an incredibly sensuous Renaissance figure.

I stayed overnight in Monticello in doing the research, and I saw the light hit his room first. That afternoon, I wandered down to the cemetery and the light stayed on his grave until the end. Which is an interesting metaphor, I think, for his deep engagement in life and the possibilities of it.

Q: How do you evaluate Jefferson from a historical perspective?

A: I think he’s the most successful politician of the early republic. From 1769 to 1809, he was more or less constantly in public office or thinking about it. From 1800 to 1840, for 36 of those years, either Thomas Jefferson or a self-described Jeffersonian was president of the United States.

I do think he’s a great figure because he articulated a promise. The fact that he fell short of it doesn’t make the clarity of the articulation any less significant.

It’s hard to imagine exactly which direction we would have taken politically in the first decade or so if he had not been a counterweight to Washington, Adams and Hamilton. So his capacity to create an opposition party, to create the give and the take of the democratic culture — it is an immeasurable accomplishment.

Q: Not to skip to the next book tour, but you’re researching President George H.W. Bush for an upcoming project. What has surprised you in researching America’s 41st president?

A: I’ve known him for about 12 years now. He’s a more complicated and interesting figure than many people think. His is a great American life, and I look forward to jumping in with both feet as soon as my wife lets me.

Q: You’ve gone from Chattanooga Times political reporter to Newsweek reporter to Newsweek editor to Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer and historian. Do you miss anything about newspaper journalism in the Scenic City?

A: I loved every day I was at the Chattanooga Times. It was the best experience I could ever have had. Forever indebted to [former Times publishers] Ruth Holmberg and Paul Neely for taking me on when I was 18 years old in the summer after my first year at Sewanee.

And there was [former Times reporter and columnist] Dick Kopper. Dick was an immensely important figure to me. No man could do more with a bottle of bourbon and a bowtie than Dick Kopper.

So there were many lost nights at the Pickle Barrel, but I treasure them all. And I have yet to encounter any situation, force, interplay of interests that I didn’t encounter either at Sewanee or in Chattanooga. So the perennial human themes are very much present.

Contact staff writer Chris Carroll at ccarroll@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6610.

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