NewsNov 2, 2017

Populism, presidents, politics take center stage

Historian Jon Meacham mixes humor, serious messages and hints at a way out of acrimony and divisiveness

John Meacham speaks at a podium at the Boston Speaker Series.

Despite acrimonious partisan bickering and continual hostilities in Washington — or perhaps because of it — many people cannot get enough of political inside baseball and the seamier side of American history.

The night after Halloween, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, presidential historian and Southern gentleman Jon Meacham treated a Symphony Hall audience to stories and quips about past and present White House inhabitants, quotes from historical figures and even some notes of optimism.

Meacham, author of books about Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson and George H.W. Bush (originally intended as a posthumous biography, “But he won’t die!”), greeted the appreciative crowd at our Boston Speakers Series as “the largest collection of dorks in North America,” except, he noted, on those occasions “when I dine alone.

The historian strafed the audience with self- and President Donald Trump-deprecating humor for 90 minutes, leading things off with some chat about “Old Hickory,” the subject of his 2008 book “American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House” and a fellow Tennessean. While venerating Jackson’s bravery in battle and savvy politics, Meacham also unflinchingly mourns the bigotry, violence and genocidal tendencies of America’s seventh president.

He also pointed out that another historical figure was considerably less charitable. When Jackson spoke at Harvard, former president John Quincy Adams said Old Hickory deserved an ASS, rather than the honorary LL.D. (Doctor of Laws) the school bestowed.

From left: Assistant Professor Tatiana Cruz, John Meacham and College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Dean Steven Shapiro
From left: Assistant Professor Tatiana Cruz, John Meacham and College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Dean Steven Shapiro

Of course, the earthy putdown was hardly the most grievous indignity Adams inflicted on Jackson. After Jackson received the majority of popular votes and the plurality of electoral votes in the election of 1824, the presence of another candidate, Speaker of the House Henry Clay forced the election to the House of Representatives (under the 12th Amendment). By virtue of a “corrupt bargain,” Adams was selected president by the House and Clay became secretary of state. 

While the hero of the Battle of New Orleans had been outfoxed, Jackson successfully painted the loss as an example of political elites sandbagging ordinary folks, establishing his own course for the presidency in 1828, and making American politics more democratic henceforth.

Populism today

Though Jackson’s eventual presidential victory empowered a broader cross-section of people (he was the first president to hail neither from Massachusetts nor Virginia), Meacham acknowledged that the franchise hadn’t been extended enough, and that Jackson’s own bigotry was an impediment. Blacks wouldn’t get the right to vote until after the Civil War and, realistically, had no access to the ballot box until after the Voting Rights Act, signed by Lyndon Johnson nearly a century later. Women wouldn’t get the right to vote in national elections until 1920. So, populism’s role in leveling the playing field was limited at best and, in its darkest aspects, moved the nation backwards, Meacham indicated.

While he peppered his lecture with jokes at Trump’s expense, Meacham expressed worry at the president’s anti-immigrant tone and the tendency of his most hard-core supporters to dig in against the diversity — racial, religious and cultural — that has historically elevated this country. Meacham says monuments to the Confederacy have no place on public land, adding that he is still puzzled that many people haven’t learned the lessons — or even acknowledged the causes — of the Civil War.

Earlier in the day on campus, in Marran Theater, Meacham wondered how strong Trump’s support would be if the economy weren’t so strong at the moment, as tough times tend to test the limits of affinity. Would Americans unify to achieve progress, or would they become further balkanized?

At Symphony Hall, Meacham drew a parallel between today’s zeitgeist and the early 1930s. He quoted Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s assessment that the two most dangerous men in America were Louisiana Gov. Huey Long, who could lead a popular rebellion from the left, and Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who seemed likely to lead an insurrection from the right.

From left: Lesley student Wei Wei, Jon Meacham and Greg Gilman.

Looking back to go forward

However, Meacham said that forward-thinking leaders like FDR and Winston Churchill were instrumental in pulling the United States and England out of the depths of economic depression and war.

Those men and, later, John F. Kennedy, while not perfect, were imbued with empathy for others, the willingness to speak candidly to citizens and the humility to admit mistakes. Kennedy — who Meacham said approached the presidency like James Bond (in all ways) — launched the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion right out of the gate, then had to admit his failure and political inadequacy to a rival he detested, former President Dwight Eisenhower, whom JFK viewed as square, even barbaric. However, he sought Ike’s counsel, which eventually resulted in the peaceful resolution of the subsequent Cuban Missile Crisis.

Will another Great Depression, world war or prospect of nuclear hostilities be necessary to get America on the right track politically? Meacham doesn’t think so.

But it will take intellectual curiosity, candor, humility and empathy from the president, and something more.

“We do need a president and a populace that believes the future can be better,” Meacham said.

A president must show the direction forward, not backward and not point the finger at others, if the republic is to abide.