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5 Questions: Jon Meacham on History, Politics and the ’16 Presidential Campaign

“What I try to argue is that history may not offer us a GPS to the future, but it does offer us a way of thinking — a habit of mind that gives us some sense of proportion about the problems of the present,” Pulitzer-prize winning historian and author Jon Meacham told AMP.

Meacham is the executive vice president and executive editor at Penguin Random House and is a contributing editor for TIME magazine. His presidential history books include works on Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Franklin Roosevelt and George Herbert Walker Bush. He won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography for “American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House.” He recently published “Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush.”

He spoke at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock April 5. The event was held in partnership with the Clinton School of Public Service and the Winthrop Rockefeller Distinguished Lecture Series.

Before the event, AMP had the chance to chat with Meacham about the history of American politics and what it means for the 2016 presidential race.

1. The subtitle of your presentation is “lessons from the American presidency.” What are some of these lessons, and what should the current presidential candidates be paying attention to?

What I try to argue is that history may not offer us a GPS to the future, but it does offer us a way of thinking — a habit of mind that gives us some sense of proportion about the problems of the present. To what extent is the partisanship of the hour an anomaly of the past and to what extent is it a continuation? To what extent is the populist fervor surrounding the Republican frontrunner an anomaly? To what extent is it part of a pattern?

In terms of leadership itself, there are three or four or five things that I think most great presidents — great leaders of any kind really — have in common: a connection to the overall culture of their time, a capacity to master the means of communication of a given era, an openness to compromise and a kind of intellectual honesty, that is an ability to say they’re wrong when contrary data comes up. There’s not a business leader in the world who wouldn’t want to take into account contrary data.

I focus on the presidency because it’s the most vivid. It’s affected the most number of lives and continues to do so. I do think that in terms of understanding the chaotic nature of 2016, the only thing we’ve got is to look back and try to put this in proportion to other chaotic times.

2. Some say history is “predictable.” Is there anything predictable about what’s happening in the current campaign?

They’re always divisive, by their very nature, their contest. They are always marked by hyperbole. From the battle over the ratification of the Constitution, American political actors and leaders have argued that, “If you don’t do X, then the end of the world is nigh.” It’s just naturally hyperbolic.

There are a couple of reasons for it, depending on where you are oriented. If you believe that the United States was a great Enlightenment enterprise — the triumph of reason over superstition — then anything that might threaten that enterprise is threatening the enterprise itself. If you’re more theologically oriented and you believe that the United States is a city upon a hill and has a divine mission, then you believe anything that puts that at risk is significant. It’s interesting how those two impulses — one secular, one religious — run through American history. And, they’re very much at work now.

My own sense is that this is an extreme version of a familiar American pattern and that in the end, things will work out. But it is going to be, as Wellington said at Waterloo, “a close-run thing.”

3. You’ve written books about four U.S. presidents — Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Franklin Roosevelt and George H.W. Bush. What do these guys have in common as presidents?

They were all ferociously ambitious. They all believed in the country. They were driven both by a desire for personal success but also by an impulse to make gentler and better the life of the nation. They each governed at a moment of particular definition or redefinition of what it meant to be an American in the world.

We’re in another such moment. Globalization and its implications is the defining issue of the time — its economic, global, national security implications. Borders have not mattered so much since they were first drawn.

So, the candidate, the party, the political entities that can speak most compellingly about what to do in that context will be the one who will succeed the most.

4. Your latest book about President George H.W. Bush was released last fall. Do you think the timing of its release had any impact on Jeb Bush’s failed bid for the GOP nomination?

I don’t. We were publishing before we knew he was running. I think the Trump tsunami was such a force that maybe in an ordinary year, it might have loomed a little larger. In a world where you had Trump arguing about whether he still sold steaks, I don’t think my little book really shaped the destiny of the republic.

5. What are some of the main takeaways from “The Art of Leadership: Lessons from the American Presidency”?

The main point is that we have been through crises before. There are characteristics in leadership that we should look for in order to get through the crises of our time. Looking back is really the only way to look forward — not to say, “This is how Thomas Jefferson would have dealt with the Pacific trade pact.” It’s not that, but it is to give you a historical sensibility, a habit of mind, that enables you to put the Trump issue or Hillary’s issue in context with other movements.

My message is that history is not a perfect predictor, but the more history you know, the more proportion you have about what might happen.

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