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Jon Meacham – 2009 National Book Festival

Jon Meacham – 2009 National Book Festival


>>Female Speaker:
From the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.>>Marcus Brauchli: I’m here to introduce a remarkable
phenomenon in our profession. While most journalists are in
a state of near perpetual panic about our collective future,
Jon Meacham is in a state of thoughtful reflection
on the past and what it might tell
us about the present. While many journalists struggle
to find the right phrase or complete their next story, Jon churns out columns,
letters, and books. He’s even a fabulous
television personality. Compounding our badly suppressed
sense of journalistic envy, he’s also the quintessential
southern gentleman, thoughtful, eloquent, and wry. Jon was born in Chattanooga,
Tennessee and was raised in part by his grandfather, Judge
Ellis Meacham, a writer. Jon went to the University of
the South in Sewanee where he and his family still
keep a home. He joined Newsweek,
a sister publication of The Washington Post, in
1995, and he rapidly ascended. He became national
editor that year, and became managing
editor, the number two spot, in 1998 at the age of 29. Three years ago he was
named the magazine’s editor. There are two words I
associate with Newsweek under Jon, energy and relevance. There’s an urgency and
dynamism to the magazine that pulls you into every issue. It’s well written and it’s
recently been redesigned to place a greater
emphasis on the journalism that distinguishes it. That is all Jon. Jon has written three books,
all historical works: “Franklin and Winston: An Intimate
Portrait of an Epic Friendship,” which chronicled the
relationship between Roosevelt and Churchill; “American Gospel:
God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation,” which describes the spiritual
underpinnings of this country; and most recently,
“American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House,” a
biography of Andrew Jackson which won this year’s
Pulitzer Prize for biography. The Pulitzer board described the
book as “An unflinching portrait of a not always admirable
Democrat but a pivotal President
written with agile prose that brings the Jackson
saga to life.” Please join me in welcoming
a journalistic polymath and a role model, a
hugely accomplished author, and a terrific editor,
Jon Meacham. [applause]>>Jon Meacham: Thank you. Thanks to Marcus, who is
the editor of what we think of as the Newsweek of
Washington, D.C. [laughter] So, thank you, very, very generous. I have two quick observations. You’re here for a while
because of the rain, so I hope you all
are very interested in Jacksonian America. [laughter] And secondly,
three people since I got here have said, “Mr.
Grisham, would you sign this?” [laughter] I said, “You know,
he’s taller and richer.” [laughter] And I
have little hope of achieving either
at this junction. That’s a true story. I’m delighted to be here. It’s thrilling to be with
people who care so much about what, what we care about. Marcus and I are lucky to work
for The Washington Post Company, which is a formidable force,
we think, still in the life of the nation and to the world. Philip Graham, the founder
of the modern Newsweek and the late publisher
of The Post, used to say that journalism
should be the first rough draft of history. Once, when I was a very
young Newsweek writer, we got something wrong in our
periscope section one week, and I was in Evan
Thomas’s office, who was then the
Washington bureau chief, when Mrs. Graham called
because a senator had called her about the mistake, which
she was not thrilled about, and you could sort of hear
her voice through the phone as Evan said in his
defense, “Well, but ma’am, it’s just supposed to be the
first rough draft of history.” [laughter] To which I heard
her — the voice come through, “But does it have to be
so God dammed rough?” [laughter] So we struggle
and try to do what we can. I want to talk about
Andrew Jackson, always a vivid topic
given the man himself. We are in a city surrounded by
monuments to great presidents. The Washington Monument is
here, Jefferson, Lincoln. For Jackson there’s the
statue in Lafayette Park, and that’s appropriate, I think, because he can keep
an eye very close in on what his successors
are doing. He would like that. One of the ways to
think about Jackson, think about any president
really, is what did their
successors make of them. And so when I started
looking into that, you realize that Lincoln, who
was no Jacksonian Democrat to say the least, he
was a Henry Clay man, even though Jackson had given
him a very important job, in May of 1833, Jackson
made Lincoln the postmaster of New Salem, Illinois. And his gratitude for that
enormous post was not vast, unfortunately. But when Lincoln came
in January of 1861 to write his first
inaugural, he sent for Jackson. He called for four documents. Lincoln had adjourned
to the second floor of his brother-in-law’s
store in Springfield. He asked for a copy
of the Constitution, a copy of Webster’s Second
Reply to Hayne, the Clay speech on the Compromise of 1850, and Andrew Jackson’s
Nullification Proclamation of the 10 of December, 1832. Now, when you hear Nullification
Proclamation, I want you to try to control your blood pressure, because it’s pretty
glamorous to talk about. It is a hugely important
document with the unfortunate title of
the Nullification Proclamation. But it is where Jackson made
a thunderous case for union against states’ rights,
against nullification, against John C. Calhoun. Jackson said his only two
regrets in public life were that he had not shot
Calhoun and hung Clay. [laughter] So some
things never change. [laughter] The critical thing about that crisis was
we were a young union. We had not had the decade
upon decade upon decade to form what Lincoln would call
the mystic chords of memory. And Jackson was an interesting
champion of union given that he was basically,
in his own phrase, a Jeffersonian Republican
of the old school. What was it about him that made
him such a champion of the idea of union despite
everything else? I think it had to do with how he
was born and how he was raised. Jackson was orphaned at 14. He never knew his daddy. His father had died
before he was born. His mother and his brothers
died in the revolution. He thought of America
as one great family, and that was his phrase. His family’s blood,
in many senses, had consecrated the union, and
he could not envision a world in which that sacrifice
would have gone to waste and to naught. I want to talk for a
second about his father, because presidents of the
United States interestingly tend to either have a
very strong father in the picture or
no father at all. If you are raising normal
children, give it up, they will never be president. [laughter] That’s my excuse. [laughter] Great childhood. If you run through the history
of it, you think about it, strong father, Adams, Roosevelt,
Bush, John McCain, nominee. If you think about no father
at all, Ford, Clinton, Obama. I asked President Obama, when he
was Senator Obama, about this, about this idea that why was
it that fatherless sons tended to do so well in political life. And he said that he
had always thought that men were always
trying to either live up to their father’s
expectations or make up for their father’s
mistakes, and he had tried to do both in his life. I think that’s true of Jackson. He was a dependant
from a very early age. He had to be raised by
relatives, by kith and kin, who weren’t all that thrilled
to have another mouth to feed and another person to raise. Andrew Jackson was
what we would call in a later era a troubled teen. He tended to slobber
when he got furious. His temper was already
being honed. He was a handful,
and he felt always that he was somehow
not in control. And I think that exacerbated his
feelings and his personality, his hunger to be in charge. His mother said a
very interesting thing to him early on, suggested
that he become a minister. For the cause of God
and of the country, I think it’s probably
best that didn’t happen. Militant Christianity would have
had no greater champion come to think of it. But the critical thing was
I think that put a seed in his mind that he could be
the person who was in charge, the person in control,
the person ordained. Ordained means he who
sets things apart. He says this is important,
and it’s important because I’m saying so. He grew up driven by an ambition
to be the central figure, to have authority among
men, to shape the world, bend the world as he saw fit. And I’m convinced
that as he grew older, the union replaced
the immediate family. He, in his mind, was the head
of that family, and that was one of the major psychological
reasons that he was such a ferocious
champion of union. I want to read you one paragraph
from the nullification speech that when you think that
it was written in 1832, written so rapidly,
Jackson was using the pen, the papers were falling
off his desk in what is now the Lincoln
bedroom was his office. They were falling off the
desk he was writing so rapidly and having the pages picked
up and taken to Decatur House, where Edward Livingston
was doing some editing, but it was coming
out of his pen. This is what Jackson said to
the people of South Carolina. A quick word about
South Carolina. [laughter] Okay. I don’t need to do
it, excellent. [laughter] I’m in Tennessee,
and we think of South Carolina as Tennessee without
the hardback books. [laughter] I just
alienated an entire state. [laughter] Just kidding, some of my best friends
are South Carolinians. [laughter] I know a
lot of them from — I went to, as you
heard from Marcus, I attended the University of
the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. For those of you who may not
know it, it’s a combination of “Brideshead Revisited”
and “Deliverance.” [laughter] Very particular
kind of culture. [laughter] But South Carolina
has always been trouble for the union. No yelling, please. Here’s what Jackson
said to them in 1832, “Contemplate the
condition of that country of which you still
form an important part. Consider its government, uniting
in one bond of common interest in general protection so
many different states, giving to all their
inhabitants the proud title of American citizen,
protecting their commerce, securing their literature
and their arts, facilitating their inter
communication,” 1832 remember, “defending their frontiers,
and making their name respected in the remotest corners
of the earth. Consider the extent of its
territory, its increasing and happy population,
its advance in arts which render life
agreeable, and the sciences, which elevate the mind. See education spreading the
lights of religion, morality, and general information
into every cottage in this wide extent of our
territories and states. Behold it as the asylum
where the wretched and the oppressed find
a refuge and support. Look on this picture of
happiness and honor and say, ‘We, too, are citizens of America.'” It was
a powerful and, again, thunderous statement coming
from Jackson, particularly since Jackson’s reputation
was not simply as a, to say the least,
a man of words. He was the quintessential
man of action. He threatened to field an army
and march into South Carolina. He would lead it himself. He threatened to hang the first
nullifier he could get his hands on. He, again, subtle, subtle guy. But in point of fact,
he was subtle. While he was making
these grand statements, he was absolutely
handling the legislative and diplomatic situation with great skill quietly
behind the scenes. It was his administration that ultimately resolved
the crisis without violence. He would sit up late
in the night in the White House
writing letters to his ally on the ground in South
Carolina insisting: don’t make the first
move; don’t provoke them; make them be in the wrong. Once during the Bank War a
delegation came in looking for relief and Jackson
exploded, spit, and spewed, and knocked things
down, and said, “This is not the place to come.” The delegation scurried out
and as soon as the door shut, Jackson returned
to normal and said, “Didn’t I manage them well?” [laughter] He understood
the mask of command and understood what
it took to lead men. The thing about Jackson’s
presidency that drew me to it is how modern it feels. It is absolutely true that there
are features of the presidency as we understand it now that
can be traced to Washington, and Adams, and Jefferson,
and Madison, and Monroe, and John Quincy Adams, but
the idea of a democratic, lower-case D, leader with a
covenant with his supporters in constant communication with
them, arguing that as president, he is the, as he put it, the only directly
elected representative of the American people,
is really the beginning of the presidency as
we recognize it now. Jackson — you know, it
used to be said of FDR that FDR’s philosophy of the
presidency was himself in it. [laughter] That’s actually
true of a lot of them, I think. It’s certainly true for Jackson. I want to talk for a second
about the strong presidents who explicitly credited Jackson with this view of
the presidency. T.R. said, explicitly,
“I modeled my presidency after the Jackson,
Lincoln school.” FDR had what you might call
a man crush on Jackson. He was virtually
obsessed with him. He had on Pennsylvania Avenue,
for his inauguration in 1937, FDR had the inaugural
stand built as a replica of the Hermitage, Jackson’s
house in Nashville, Tennessee. He saw himself, FDR did, as
the embodiment of Jackson. As Jackson had fought the bank
and entrenched interests, he, FDR, was putting the
New Deal together and fighting the malefactors of great wealth,
to use that phrase. He very much wanted
Jackson and Jefferson to together be the patrons
of the Democratic Party. When Truman was growing up as a
politician in Missouri, he was, as well, obsessed with Jackson. He was in charge of doing
a statue there in Missouri for the local county, and
actually, Truman drove to the Hermitage to
measure Jackson’s uniforms to make sure all of the
measurements were exactly right. He had a bronze of Jackson in
the oval office, and I think, summed up Jackson’s appeal
on the positive side as well as anybody ever did,
which Truman tended to do, when he said, “Jackson
looked after the little guy who had no pull, and that’s what
a president is supposed to do.” So, he was a champion
of the little guy. He was a champion of
a powerful presidency. He saw himself as
their defender. He was the creator, I believe, of populism as we
continue to understand it. One more little bit
from his cannon. This is from the bank
veto message of 1832, another glamorous title, I know. This was such a powerful
document that Nicholas Biddle, his opponent in the
Bank War, actually paid to have the message
printed up and distributed, misreading the politics
so profoundly that he sent Jackson’s
message out on his own dime or on the bank’s dime. This is the moral equivalent of the Republican
National Committee in 2008 having the audacity
of hope printed and sent around to the country. [laughter] It was
that level of insight. But here’s what Jackson said. This is how he defined
what government should be: “It is to be regretted,”
Jackson said, “that the rich and powerful too often
bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes. Distinctions in society
will always exist under every just government. In the full enjoyment of the
gifts of heaven and the fruits of superior industry,
economy, and virtue, every man is equally
entitled to protection by law, but when the laws undertake
to add to these natural and just advantages, artificial
distinctions to grant titles, gratuities, and exclusive
privileges to make the rich richer and
the potent more powerful, then the humble members of
society, the farmers, mechanics, and laborers who have
neither the time nor the means of securing like favors to
themselves, have a right to complain of this injustice
to their government.” That continues to be
the populist urtext. Jackson believed that the state,
because it was formed ultimately of the people, the
will of the people, the desires of the people, could
be and had to be an instrument of virtue and for good. He was, let us not
forget, arguably one of the cruelest men
to ever be president. He was an unrepentant
slave owner. He was an active
opponent of abolition, not simply a passive figure. He was the architect
of the Trail of Tears and Indian removal. One of the most important
acts of legislation in the 19th century, which is
almost completely forgotten, is the Indian Removal Act
that passed in May of 1830. He was one of the worst figures
if you were on the other side. If you were in his
way, he was merciless. One of the things you have to do if you make your living
the way I make mine, and you’re not John
Grisham — [laughter] — so for the other 306 million
of us, is you have to look back and decide what to do with
retrospective moral judgment. Should we condemn blindly or
completely when there’s a reason for that, or do we have to put
ourselves back in that time to recover the temper
and spirit, prejudices, and passions of that era. I am very much in
the latter camp. Arthur Schlesinger used to
say that self-righteousness in retrospect is
easy, also cheap. And I think the best thing
we can do with the sins, and omissions, and crimes
in some cases, the outrages of people like Jackson,
of people like Lincoln, of people like our
founding fathers, is to find in those outrages
the knowledge, the strength, the willingness to look
around in our own time at the injustices
that surround us. One generation’s good is the
next generation’s clear evil. And so before throwing rocks
at the past, I think we have to be cognizant of the moral
failings and issues of our era, for we would want the same
level of consideration when the future judges
us now, later. I want to leave you with this. Jackson’s second inaugural,
which is not as famous perhaps as Lincoln’s, maybe just
a little difference there, he said the following. He was involved in a
standoff with South Carolina. Secession was in the air. The war with the
bank was going on. He was trying to create an
America that would be fairer, juster for those parties he
was interested in for whom that should happen, and
wanted to be very clear about the issues at stake. The time at which I stand
before you is full of interest. The eyes of all nations
are fixed on our Republic. The event of the existing crisis
will be decisive in the opinion of mankind of the practicability of our federal system
of government. Great is the stake
placed in our hands. Great is the responsibility which must rest upon the
people of the United States. Let us realize the
importance of the attitude in which we stand
before the world. Let us exercise forbearance
and firmness. Let us extricate our
country from the dangers which surround it
and learn wisdom from the lessons they inculcate. Those were wise words then,
and I think wise words now. Thank you all very much. [applause]>>Male Speaker: Thank you.>>Male Speaker: Hi Jon –>>Jon Meacham: There you are. Hi.>>Male Speaker: Hi. How are you doing?>>Jon Meacham: I’m
well, thank you. I was going to wear that hat. Male Speaker: It’s for
the rain, but I’m inside. I think at the very least
he had the finest set of hair any president had.>>Jon Meacham: He did. If John Kerry had won,
there would be a race.>>Male Speaker: There
would be a race. [laughter] And John
Kennedy wasn’t bad either. What I would like you to comment
on, if it makes any sense, is that it seems like Jackson
was the first president who didn’t really ever think of
himself as a British subject. His family was tortured by the
British, he fought the British in 1812, and did that give him
a sense of being a true American and that sense of
us versus them? And what’s meeka [spelled
phonetically] really like? Strike that.>>Jon Meacham: Yes, absolutely. We are in a — with Jackson we
have the first self-made man who was ever president. He was the first
non-planter from Virginia or Adams from Massachusetts. When he was 14 he was
briefly a British prisoner of war during the Revolution,
during that vicious fighting down south, and a British
officer said, “Polish my boots.” He refused, and the British
officer hit him over the head with a saber, leaving a
gash the length and width of a man’s finger in his head. It was there until
the day he died. He very much saw the
British as the enemy. He was pretty good on the
diplomacy with them ultimately when he was president, but he
saw himself as an American. He saw himself as a
republican, lower case R. And he was the first
president to see himself also as a democrat, lower
case D. Male Speaker: In your research what did
you find Native Americans of that time saying and
writing about Jackson?>>Jon Meacham: That’s
a great question. What did native Americans
of that time say and write? One of the things you have to do when you’re making
these judgments in retrospect is judge the
level of thinking on the side of reform in those
years themselves. One of the things I love doing
in this book was learning more about Jeremiah Evarts, a name I
don’t know how familiar to you. He was the William Lloyd
Garrison of Indian removal. I think the reason we don’t
know more about Evarts and we do about Garrison is Garrison
won, and Evarts lost. There were a number of
essays, a number of protests, documents produced in order to make the moral
case against removal. Native Americans found him to
be a great father, upper case G, upper case F, which was
the custom of the time, who represented a
government that tended to break its promises. It’s such a complicated
question in some ways and then it’s quite simple. We wanted the land in the
eastern United States. This is exactly where I grew
up in southeastern Tennessee and Georgia, and the death knell
was sounded when they found gold on Cherokee land in
Northeast Georgia. And that was that. So there’s no sugar coating
this or explaining it away. Well, there’s explaining it. There’s no excusing it. One more? One more.>>Male Speaker: Can I ask?>>Jon Meacham: Sir.>>Male Speaker: So, Jackson
instinctively may have cared about the little guy,
but can you point to any progressive
legislation and laws that he would have
gotten passed? I know it was the little
bit early for much of that from the presidency, but things that would have actually
benefited as opposed to sort of tearing down things
like the bank.>>Jon Meacham: Well,
he believed very much that a balanced budget, paying off the national debt
was ultimately the rising tide that would lift all boats. The war against the bank was
motivated by political concerns but had benefits for working
people, broadly farmers, laborers, and mechanics,
as he put it, because what he really wanted to do was destroy any rival
economic and power centers that might be able to
profit more at the expense of the public wheel
than was right. So, that was, that
was the main thing. And also, the — I go back to,
and I’ll leave you with this, Jackson saved the union
at a critical time. There was nothing foreordained
about the American experiment. We were always in danger
from the Whisky Rebellion through Secession
through 186; 1865, really. We were at risk. And Jackson set the
stage for Lincoln. Without Jackson there
would have been no Lincoln, I firmly believe. And one of the things
that I think we have to do when we look back is try
to discover what is it that can help us
pushing forward. And with Jackson, I think,
it was a concern for, as Harry Truman said, the
little guy, and that concern, as president Truman said, is what a president
is supposed to do. So, thanks very much. [applause]>>Female Speaker: This
has been a presentation of the Library of Congress. Visit us at loc.gov.

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