Power  /  Argument

Can America’s Problems Be Fixed By A President Who Loves Jon Meacham?

How a pop historian shaped the soul of Biden’s presidency.

At one point during their conversation at the University of Delaware, Biden asked Meacham, “What is the most important attribute for a president to have?” Meacham answered without hesitation: “It’s all about temperament and vision.” The presidents remembered most fondly, Meacham explained, are the ones who “reached beyond their base of support” and have done so in a way that has surprised us: Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation, Lyndon Johnson and the Civil Rights Act, Ronald Reagan playing with children alongside Gorbachev in Red Square. The biographies consistently praise those seeming apostasies, as well as the art of the compromise and the importance of a sound character.

The formula both flatters and flattens the American experience. Meacham is strict in his mission to evaluate his subjects only by the standards of their eras. “He is not a man of our time but of his own, formed by the historical realities of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. He must be seen in that context,” Meacham writes of Jefferson in the introduction to his 2012 volume, seemingly less an injunction to historicize than an attempt to narrow the terrain of judgment. “It is also true, however, that many of his concerns were universal. His was a particular life of perennial significance.”

In enjoining readers to grade on a moral curve, Meacham assumes we’ve advanced along its arc, as if the past four years weren’t a convincing argument otherwise. The result is a historical view that places Jefferson, an enabler of slavery, and Jackson, an adamant defender of it, on equal footing with another Meacham subject, John Lewis, who dedicated his life to fighting the institution’s legacy—all of them great patriots because they served with nothing but their country’s best interests at heart, particulars and outcomes be damned. Lost on Meacham is the possibility that those very interests might have been built on the subordination of certain classes of people. You won’t find a ton of structural explanations for the state of America in his writings—save, perhaps, for the fact that the American structure of government places a premium on compromise. Presidents may not be “molders,” but in Meacham’s work you’ll still find a country shaped by their rhetoric and ideals. By way of explaining historical and contemporary political developments, he’ll quote Heraclitus: “Character is destiny.”

It’s easy to see how a politician like Biden plugs into a Meachamian worldview. “Meacham can evoke that liberal era in which Biden came of age,” says Sean Wilentz, a historian at Princeton University. “It’s memory and politics and spirit.” The president also is a devout Roman Catholic who finds resonance in the Episcopalian Meacham’s homiletic histories.