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Curiosity, candor, empathy: Meacham discusses presidential leadership

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Author discusses the American experiment at Florida Supreme Court Historical Society dinner

Jon Meacham

Jon Meacham

Of all the challenges facing the United States — racial justice, the coronavirus pandemic, the pandemic-caused economic hardship, the growing divide between rich and poor — the biggest is what historian Jon Meacham called the “epistemological crisis.”

Meacham, the featured speaker at the Supreme Court Historical Society’s January 28 annual “Supreme Evening” (virtual this year), explained that this crisis “is the idea you don’t confront reality, but if you find it inconvenient, you simply deny it and invent another.

“That’s a cancerous condition for a democratic republic based on reason, where you need curiosity, candor, and empathy,” he said. “That puts the entire experiment at risk.”

Meacham, a Pulitzer Prize winner who has written books on Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, the relationship between Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, the late Congressman John Lewis, and George H.W. Bush, mixed humor with his observations.

Referring to his introduction by event emcee and former Bar President Hank Coxe as a “renowned presidential historian,” Meacham said that was like being called the best restaurant in a hospital: “You want to win, but it wasn’t that hard.”

He then proceeded to show why the “renowned” is well deserved and why he’s devoted to history.

“In an era where we agree on so little on the basic facts, there is a possibility that the history of the country can offer some common ground,” Meacham said. “Churchill said, ‘The future is unknowable, but the past should give us hope,’ and I believe that as deeply as I believe anything.”

Meacham said his study shows that Americans venerate liberators, not captors. He identified curiosity, candor, and empathy as three characteristics that have advanced the country, fulfilling the promise of the Declaration of Independence and constitutional order.

“Do you want to be Joe McCarthy, or do you want to be Margaret Chase Smith? Do you want to be Bull Connor, or do you want to be Martin Luther King or John Lewis? Do you want to be Abraham Lincoln, or do you want to be Andrew Johnson? I think the answer to all those questions is pretty clear,” he said.

Curiosity, Meacham said, shaped the Founding Fathers. The American Revolution came at the end of a 300-plus year period of enlightenment that saw the invention of the printing press, scientific advancements, and various reformation movements that reoriented societies from hierarchies ruled by kings, popes, and princes, to those where people had more self-determination, he said.

“That shift found its fullest political expression in the American Revolution,” Meacham said. “It would not have happened without a generation of people who were engaged in understanding the currents that shaped the world in which they found themselves. And without that curiosity and without that capacity to acknowledge and grapple with facts even when, and perhaps especially when, they’re inconvenient, the American experiment would have ended long ago.”

Candor, he said, means “being straightforward about the scope and scale and difficulties of national enterprises.”

Roosevelt warned the country early in WW II that war news would be worse before it got better, Meacham said. And Winston Churchill’s inspirational “fight them on the beaches” speech after Dunkirk included an acknowledgement that England might be invaded and the conflict had to be carried on from other parts of the empire and with help from others.

“Great leaders level with us,” Meacham said. “The covenant of modern democracies in many ways is, ‘If you give it to us straight, we’ll do what it takes’….When you look back on American presidents who have gotten into trouble…almost always that trouble is rooted in an inability or a reluctance to level with us, whether its Vietnam or Watergate — and I’ll stop there.”

As for empathy, Meacham called it “the gasoline, it’s the fuel of a democratic republic. Because if we don’t see each other as neighbors, if we simply see each other as members of warring factions, then the covenant breaks down because somedays I have to give you something, and somedays you need to give me something….

“The capacity to see ourselves as part of a whole, a part of what Dr. [Martin Luther] King called ‘the mutual garment of history,’ is not a liberal coffee mug or tote bag slogan…. It is in fact the living heart and the tangible reality of a democracy.”

Meacham said American history has continually evolved and he said modern America stems only from 1965, when the Voting Rights Act ended “de facto apartheid” and in effect a white totalitarian police state in the South, including his native Tennessee (where he still lives). He said much unrest today stems from the “nativist, populist, often racist, isolationist” backlash against that time, and reflects forces that have ebbed and flowed in American history.

“These were all reactions to a fear of modernity and fear, as Edmund Burke said, is the most unreasoning of emotions,” Meacham observed.

Meacham, who took audience questions, was asked how he, who had attended Ronald Reagan’s first inauguration after being a pre-teen volunteer in his campaign and was the official biographer of George H.W. Bush, came to support and write speeches for President Joe Biden, including speaking at last summer’s Democratic Convention.

“I believe the last four to five years presented an existential crisis to the democracy I would like to live in and would like to leave to my three children,” Meacham said.

He said he views American history since 1933 to 2017 as “a figurative conversation between FDR and Ronald Reagan” on the role of government in commonly agreed domestic issues and how to confront commonly agreed international enemies.

“What we experienced in the last four years was not a sequential chapter to that, it was more a chaotic one,” he said. “I think in many ways, what President Biden is doing…is the restoration of what I hope is a respectful and ultimately illuminating conversation about how we solve problems.”

He said he and Biden have been long-time friends and they discussed how Biden could present his message to the country.

“I was honored to do that,” Meacham said. “I think this is a patriotic moment. I climbed out of the stands and got on the field.”

Meacham closed his prepared comments by recalling working with the elder President Bush on his biography. He had asked the former president to reread the letter Bush wrote to his mother in 1958 on all the ways he missed his first daughter, Pauline (nicknamed Robin), who had died from leukemia five years earlier. That was shortly after his second son, Jeb, was born. The letter concluded, “We can’t touch her, and yet we can feel her.”

Bush broke down crying in the middle, and his chief of staff came in and asked Meacham why he had had Bush reread the letter.

“I said, ‘Well if you want to know someone’s heart,’” Meacham began to explain, but then Bush interrupted and finished, ‘“You have to know what breaks it.’”

“That’s who we should be,” Meacham concluded.

Videos from the Historical Society event — which included interviews with the newest Supreme Court justices, John Couriel and Jamie Grosshans; a state of the judiciary address by Chief Justice Charles Canady; and the presentation of the society’s Lifetime Achievement award to former Justice and retired U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals Chief Judge Joseph Hatchett — will soon be posted at

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