Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Jon Meacham has written four books on American presidents, including one on Andrew Jackson (sometimes cited by Donald Trump’s campaign and White House as an inspiration). So he’s the perfect man to ask about presidential politics then and now, as reporters did during a briefing before his speech Monday morning in the Ringling College Library Association Town Hall series.
“Analogies are few and far between,” he said of the current administration and past ones, even Jackson’s. While the “late” Steve Bannon, a former Trump adviser, may have wanted to emulate Jackson’s outsider image, “I don’t think any analogy holds from the 1820s and 1830s to now,” said Meacham. “This may be the most unconventional White House in history. It’s a great experiment, and we don’t know how it’s going to turn out.”
Meacham added that part of the attraction of Trump for voters in the 2016 election was that, of the nine presidential elections taking place between 1980 and 2016, “Seven of them had either a Bush or a Clinton on the ballot. People decided they wanted to try something different, and they got it.”
Meacham told the audience that when he interviewed Trump in 2016 at Trump Tower, the Republican nominee said upon meeting Meacham, “I haven’t read your books. But you’re great on television.” (Meacham turns up frequently on shows from Morning Joe to Meet the Press.) Unlike candidates who are extensively briefed before an interview, Meacham said, Trump “was entirely relying on his gut and his intuition.”
Meacham’s lecture at the Van Wezel did not center exclusively on the current occupant of the White House. He told great stories about past presidents as well, from ones he never met to the one he perhaps knows the best, George H.W. Bush. “My book on him [Destiny and Power] was supposed to be posthumous, but the sonofabitch won’t die,” he joked. In his closing remarks, he shared a more emotional Bush story, about a letter the former president had written to his mother a few years after the death of his young daughter, Robin. “I asked him to read it aloud for me,” Meacham recalled, “and he broke down sobbing doing it. His chief of staff asked me why I asked him to read the letter.” The answer, shared between Meacham and Bush, was, “To know someone’s heart, you have to know what breaks it.”
Meacham also discussed the divisiveness of the nation today (“We’ve been here before, in the 1930s, and in fact it’s been worse than now”) and the role citizens play in steering America where it should go. “Leaders are mirrors of our country as much as makers; they can only get it right if we help them do it,” he said. The three attributes those leaders—and the nation—need most, according to Meacham, are curiosity, a capacity to learn from mistakes, and empathy. “In our history, we’ve been our very best when we can put ourselves in others’ shoes,” he said.
To learn about the rest of the Town Hall lecture season, visit rclassociation.org.