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Meacham Mixes Humor, History to Impart Presidential Lessons

By Kathy Gurchiek  3/13/2013
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Photo by Steven Purcell

With equal parts humor and historical insight, best-selling author Jon Meacham wove tales of how U.S. presidents prevailed during times of crisis and how others can learn from them.

Meacham was the keynote speaker during the March 12 opening session of the Society for Human Resource Management’s 2013 Employment Law & Legislative Conference in Washington, D.C.

The Random House Publishing Group executive vice president and executive editor is author of the New York Times best-seller Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power (Random House, 2012) and in 2009 received the Pulitzer Prize for another New York Times best-seller, American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House (Random House, 2008).

He’s a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, conducts interviews for the PBS show “Need to Know” and is a former editor of Newsweek.

Pretty heady stuff, but Meacham recalled a lesson in humility when a fan approached him several years ago at the National Book Festival in Washington, D.C. Thrilled to see her favorite author, the woman asked him to stay put while she ran to buy a copy of his latest book for him to sign.

She returned with John Grisham’s newest legal thriller.

“I’m a Southerner. What do you do?” asked Meacham, who didn’t want to embarrass the woman. “I just signed the damned thing. I just hope her children don’t put it on eBay to pay for her health care or something,” he said to laughter.

History Rhymes

Meacham reminded attendees, some of whom will visit Capitol Hill to advocate on behalf of HR issues, that “the sound and the fury” of politics dates to the beginnings of U.S. government.

He quoted author Mark Twain, who supposedly said “history does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme,” a reference to oft-recurring historical themes.

“Certain perennial forces are at work in American life and global life,” Meacham explained, including internal dissension even among those of the same administration or party.

He identified four principles that he’s observed in his work researching and writing about U.S. presidents, and the lessons they impart:

The absolute centrality of personal contact. Meacham related how Thomas Jefferson invited various members of Congress to dinner every night that Congress was in session, and how Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, D-Mass., was the first person Ronald Reagan invited to the White House when he became president.

“It is much harder to demonize someone [and] it’s even harder to disagree with someone if you’ve seen them face to face,” Meacham pointed out. “The way to manage that ambiguity is to know one another. Without that sense of commonality, we’re not going to make it.”

The importance of a certain level of public candor and clarity. How many times at your organizations, Meacham asked, has the person at the top not been candid and clear with everyone?

He pointed to Franklin Delano Roosevelt—president during the Great Depression and World War II—who told the American people in a radio address “the news is going to get worse before it gets better.”

Meacham continued: “It’s a covenant of modern democracies that if you level with all of us, then we’ll do what it takes. … Without that, the whole thing falls apart. Chaos results in the absence of clarity.”

Importance of learning on the job. The greatest example of a leader who learned on the job was President John F. Kennedy, who often referred to his predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, as “that old asshole,” Meacham said. When things went wrong with the Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961, he said, Kennedy realized “the old guy wasn’t so dumb after all.”

Kennedy invited Eisenhower to Camp David, where Eisenhower asked JFK if he’d met with all interested parties and sorted through all scenarios before moving ahead with the ill-fated invasion. Kennedy did have meetings, but not all parties had been involved.

Fast forward to 1962 and the Cuban Missile Crisis: Kennedy, recalling Eisenhower’s advice, “learned not to make decisions in isolation and was willing to ask questions and pace and wait and was willing to cut a deal [with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev],” and the threat of nuclear war was narrowly averted.

Willing to make a principled compromise—the ability to depart from dogma.

Meacham pointed to Abraham Lincoln, who said as he came into office as president that if he could preserve slavery and preserve the union he would do so. But Lincoln was “furiously practical” and made political deals to get the votes he needed to abolish slavery.

It’s a lesson he hopes his three children learn.

“I would want them to be principled pragmatists,” he said. “If you insist on 100 percent your way, you’re not going to get very far. … They need to acknowledge the other guy’s point. If you don’t, nothing works.”

Meacham thinks applying these four principles will help Americans live up to the Founding Fathers’ legacy.

“It can all slip away pretty fast,” he said. “Liberty is always a tenuous thing.”

 Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News.

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