- March 22, 2017
Presidential historian and Pulitzer Prize winner Jon Meacham’s lecture Feb. 12 was part stand-up comedy act and part commencement speech.
Meacham had the audience in stitches at points with anecdotes of his interactions with past presidents.
Despite the humor, the second event in this year’s Ringling College Library Association Town Hall Lecture Series was about Meacham’s advice for weathering a tumultuous presidency.
“You can’t simply expect the leaders to get it right,” he said. “They can only get it right if we help them do it.”
Meacham opened with a story about meeting Donald Trump in 2016, months before the general election. What stood out to Meacham was not the man himself, but a young family he saw walk into the lobby and look around with wide eyes. The couple’s young son asked his father, “Do you think HE uses the same door?”
“Donald Trump had somehow or another become a superhero,” Meacham said. “Donald Trump is president of the United States today because he was reaching that family.”
Meacham, whom you may recognize from his regular appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” or from his writings in Time magazine and The New York Times Book Review, explained how “the most unconventional administration in history” came to be.
He explained that 18% of Americans trust the government to do the right thing some or most of the time.
He said it’s generally believed a family of four needs to make $130,000 annually to be middle class. But the norm in the U.S. is closer to $55,000 annually.
Meacham called this the perfect storm, although he cringed at his own use of the cliche.
He compared Trump’s presidency so far to the Civil War and the Great Depression — both times of widespread divisiveness.
Meacham said there are three characteristics that have gotten Americans out of “moments like this” in the past: curiosity, the capacity to learn from mistakes and empathy.
He mentioned the decision of the New Deal-era Works Progress Administration to subsidize writers and artists to find out as much as possible about the world around us. He pointed to President John F. Kennedy’s willingness to admit he made a mistake, and learn from it, which got the U.S. out of the Cuban Missile Crisis. And he told a story from President George H. W. Bush’s childhood, where he showed empathy for a classmate that translated into how he dealt with the fall of the Berlin Wall.
“A nation is a multitude of rational beings united by the commonality of the things they love,” he said.
The next RCLA Town Hall lecture will be March 5, featuring Michael Lewis.