As a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, a historian who has profiled Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson and George H.W. Bush, Jon Meacham can find no parallel for President Donald Trump, describing his tumultuous first 100 days as “uncharted American waters.”
But nothing should surprise the public about his behavior in the White House, Meacham told an audience of 600 Tuesday night at Raleigh’s Fletcher Opera Theater. He rose to power as a “showman who tapped into that great American frustration,” and he takes few cues from history.
“Character is destiny,” Meacham said in an earlier interview, “and so no one should be surprised that this is the way this has unfolded. He is the same person he was on the campaign trail, which is the same person he was as a New York developer and, as important, I think, if not more so, the same person he was when he mastered reality television.”
For more than an hour, the former Newsweek editor turned Random House publisher aimed a historian’s eye on Trump’s young presidency, material that offers both fresh subject matter and ample one-liners.
“I want someone to keep an eye on Twitter and make sure he’s still president,” Meacham joked. “Nyet!”
But even after a blizzard of Oval Office news that drew comparisons to President Richard Nixon – the firing of FBI director James Comey, the possible existence of White House tapes – Meacham resisted comparisons even to the chief executive felled by the Watergate scandal.
“It may be unfair to Nixon,” he told The N&O. “You know, Nixon was a tragic figure. He had the seeds of greatness in him. He did some great things as president, and his fall was classic Greek tragedy because his vices were attached to his virtues. I don’t think we know yet whether Donald Trump has the capacity to be a tragic figure. My own view is he doesn’t have the epic scope. He doesn’t have the upside to be a fully tragic figure. He may be taping conversations in the Oval Office, which nobody has done since Nixon.”
Meacham, who turns 48 on Saturday, graduated from the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn., an institution he described as “a combination of ‘Downton Abbey’ and ‘Deliverance.’ ” Near the end of his stint as editor-in-chief at Newsweek, he won the Pulitzer for his Jackson biography “American Lion.” He regularly appears on the MSNBC program “Morning Joe” and often as a guest on HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher.”
Trump appears briefly in his most recent book, “Destiny and Power,” which follows the life of the elder President George H.W. Bush. In it, Trump mentions his availability as a vice presidential candidate, a suggestion the 41st president found “strange and unbelievable.”
But when Meacham went to Trump Tower in New York last year for a Time magazine interview, the Republican nominee told him, “I never read any of your books, but you’re great on TV.”
Meacham said the interview took place “back when we were against NATO, I think,” and that Trump told him, “You read books about NATO, and I don’t. But I’m the Republican nominee, and you’re not.”
“It was hard to argue with that,” Meacham said.
In his speech, titled “America Now and Then: What History Tells Us About the Future,” Meacham illustrated four qualities of presidential leadership:
▪ Curiosity. President Thomas Jefferson was curious enough to absorb the ideas coming out of the Enlightenment movement in Europe, which he then translated for American politics.
▪ Candidness. President Franklin Roosevelt believed in the early days of World War II that the news would get worse before it got better, and he thought the American people deserved to hear it.
▪ Humility. President John Kennedy knew that he had botched the Bay of Pigs invasion, and he sought advice from President Dwight Eisenhower, whom he had previously referred to as “that old (expletive).” Eisenhower’s recommendation guided him through the Cuban Missile Crisis.
▪ Empathy. Bush did not travel to Berlin after the fall of the Berlin Wall, knowing his appearance would provoke and prove politically difficult for Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
One of Trump’s gifts is the ability to communicate, understanding modern pathways to the public in the same way Roosevelt used radio and President Ronald Reagan grasped television.
Still, Meacham could find little instruction from the past.
“I think we’re in largely uncharted American waters,” he told The N&O. “Speaking comparatively, it may well be that we have an administration that tends to the autocratic. I noticed somebody has reported this week that some foreign leaders really see the Trump family almost as a Chinese one in terms of princelings – where there’s this odd combination of public and private interests. So there may be global examples.”
Meacham’s wit and wisdom
On President Donald Trump’s comparison to President Andrew Jackson:
“I don’t think Andrew Jackson is quite right. I understand why that is in the conversation, if only for the hair.”
On Jackson’s legacy:
“Jackson is a dark and dismal chapter, but he is a chapter. ... We learn as much from sinners as from saints.”
On President George H.W. Bush’s good nature:
George Bush once shook the hand of a department store mannequin. ... Lyndon Johnson would have tried to register that mannequin, and God knows what Bill Clinton would have done.”
On President George Washington, who, like every president, felt besieged:
“This is a man who never had an opponent.”
“There’s nothing wrong with partisanship. We’re supposed to disagree. ... The problem is when partisanship becomes reflexive and not reflective.”
On the news cycle:
“It was only seven days ago that James Comey was trending. Doesn’t that feel like the Peloponnesian War?”