Jon Meacham

Stories by Jon Meacham

  • Co-Conspirators in Government Dysfunction

    It is the truth of the hour: Washington—or, if you prefer, "the system"—is in extremis, trapped in a depressing cycle of partisan dysfunctionality. There is something to this, but the broad indictment of the capital and its culture too often fails to include the government's co-conspirators: We the People. Though it is more fun to blame the president, or the Congress, or cable television, or the blogs, or Sarah Palin, in fact the system that has been declared unworkable in op-ed land is working the way it was supposed to work. It is a sign of success, not failure, when things move slowly, or not at all.Which leaves us with two possibilities. We can change the system so that it will not work as it does now. (Good luck with that.) Alternatively, we can own up to the reality that Washington is not an abstraction but a mirror. Our political life is a reflection of who we are, no matter how unattractive we may find the image looking back at us. Washington is an expression, not a...
  • Meacham: The System’s Not to Blame. We Are.

    I am generally skeptical about the likelihood of rapid wholesale political or cultural change. Perhaps my reservations that the world can suddenly reform and redeem itself comes from a habit of seeing things historically, a perspective that suggests life improves only after much work and strife. In a self-interview in 1956, Robert Penn Warren asked himself, "Are you a gradualist on the matter of segregation?" To which he answered: "If by gradualist you mean a person who would create delay for the sake of delay, then no. If by gradualist you mean a person who thinks it will take…time for an educational process, preferably a calculated one, then yes…It's a silly question, anyway, to ask if somebody is a gradualist. Gradualism is all you'll get. History, like nature, knows no jumps. Except the jump backward, maybe."That has always seemed pretty accurate to me. Warren's observation came to mind after a visit last week to the University of Texas at Austin, where a student wondered...
  • Meacham: Perspective Versus Cynicism

    History can be a problem. if you spend a lot of time thinking about the political past, you tend to see the events of the present time differently than you do if you are consumed by the passions of the hour. A habit of mind that puts most things in context with what has happened before—weighing them, if you will, to gauge their gravity in comparison to ages past—has its virtues and its vices. The chief virtue is that you probably know how we got to a certain point, and that things have almost always been worse. The chief vice is that a historical sensibility can be seductively numbing, producing a kind of reflexive cynicism and even self-importance. Well, if you knew what I know, then you wouldn't think Sarah Palin is an issue—hell, just remember George Wallace. Or: You think Obama's a radical? This guy is a hopeless gradualist. LBJ would wipe the floor with him.I struggle with this tension between perspective and cynicism all the time, and I suspect many of you do, too. We are...
  • Meacham: The Tea Party Could Help Us

    Five hundred and fifty miles and two days apart, two political rituals with deep roots in American life unfolded last week: the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., and the tea-party convention in Nashville. It is tempting to contrast the two affairs as emblems of a divided nation: the Washington Hilton vs. the Gaylord Opryland Hotel, the establishment vs. the outsiders, the elitists vs. the populists. In Washington they were gathering for an event that first began under Dwight Eisenhower, with Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama offering their broad views of faith and public life. In Nashville, the conservatives were hosting their first major event, with Sarah Palin and Roy Moore, but it was an experiment in an old and problematic political undertaking: the organization of anger.But what if the two moments are more than a study in contrasts? What if they can be seen as complementing, rather than clashing with, each other? If we take both sides at their word—a leap, I admit...
  • Meacham: Obama's No Radical

    Obama is accused of being too radical, but he's been governing from the middle for a year. So why all the anger? Because he's leading with his head, not his heart.
  • Jon Meacham: The Winter of Our Discontent

    They knew it would happen. "I told the president a year ago that, given the economic forecasts, his standing would be less in about a year," Obama senior adviser David Axelrod told me in the aftermath of the Democrats' losing Edward Kennedy's Senate seat for the first time since 1952. Obama's reaction to Axelrod's remark? "He acknowledged it, but it's one thing to talk about in theory and another to live through it." The president, Axelrod adds, is as unflappable as ever, but the political and economic turmoil of the moment is, to put it mildly, far from fun: "Who wouldn't want to govern at 70 percent instead of 50?"One reason for the White House's dispiriting winter is its failure to make the connection between policy and people very clear—or, in some cases, clear at all. On a deeper and more fundamental level, however, the Massachusetts vote, the death of broad health-care reform, and the president's dark political hour are about more than the usual tactical wars of Washington. As...
  • Meacham: Why Liberal Arts Matter

    At noon last Wednesday in Sewanee, Tenn., in a 19th-century Gothic hall dominated by a sandstone fireplace and decorated with portraits of somber bishops, the University of the South—my alma mater—elected a new leader, John M. McCardell Jr., the former president of Middlebury College. (We refer to our president as vice chancellor, in the English tradition. If the fates had ever brought Anthony Trollope and Tennessee Williams together to collaborate, Sewanee might have been the result.) Those of you who share an affinity for small institutions know the power of sentiment at such moments—how the old rooftops remind us of when we were young, and all of that. Arguing the interests of Dartmouth before the Supreme Court, Daniel Webster captured this feeling well: "It is, sir, as I have said, a small college. And yet there are those who love it."I love Sewanee, an Episcopal university tucked away on 13,000 rural acres of the Cumberland Plateau. It is a place where students and faculty wear...
  • Jon Meacham: A Case for Optimistic Stoicism

    Perhaps it was the economy, or maybe it was our mindlessly divided (an altogether different thing from being intelligently divided, which is the natural state of a democratic republic) political climate. But for whatever reason, my holiday reading included Gregory Hays's 2002 Modern Library translation of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, which I had at hand when news came of the attempted bombing of Northwest Flight 253.It turned out to be a fortuitous coincidence, for the musings of the second-century A.D. Roman philosopher-emperor had a particular resonance as the country confronted terrorism anew. "If you've seen the present then you've seen everything—as it's been since the beginning, as it will be forever," Marcus wrote. "The same substance, the same form. All of it."And there were, in fact, many moments of painfully predictable reflexive reactions to the attempted bombing. Republicans took the occasion to allege that the president of the United States is soft on terror....
  • Bill Clinton on Global Philanthropy

    From his vantage point as a global philanthropist, the former president talks about the 21st century's interdependent world as it is—and as it could be, if we do the right things.
  • Jon Meacham on Newsweek's Interview Issue

    In the White House, John F. Kennedy offered Ben Bradlee one of the finer definitions of our craft. "What makes journalism so fascinating and biography so interesting," JFK remarked, is "the struggle to answer that single question: 'What's he like?' " I have never come across a clearer mission statement, and the spirit of Kennedy's point informs this special edition of the magazine, our first Interview Issue. Rather than interposing ourselves between you and a collection of thinkers and doers, we thought it wisest to convene the most interesting people we could to talk about the future and let you get a sense of what they are like for yourself.What comes next is our concern, but before we move forward we should pause for a moment to look back. The immediate past is particularly instructive, I think, for 2009 offers an object lesson in the management of expectations. Things are neither as bad as many feared, nor as good as many hoped, since that cold, clear noontime when Barack Obama...
  • Meacham: Obama, Faulkner, and the Uses of Tragedy

    Speeches have a terrible time with middle age. In the moment, a powerful address can move a crowd or a wider audience. In the long run, too, oratory often offers insight into the mind and motives of those who came before us. Most major addresses by public figures, however, are doomed to obscurity once their immediate impact has faded and before they are rediscovered by posterity—if they ever are. President Obama's Nobel acceptance speech may suffer the same fate, but I doubt it. The remarks he delivered in Oslo did what memorable speeches do to achieve memorability: they were consistent with, and codified, the longtime language and vision of the speaker. We remember "with malice toward none" and "we have nothing to fear" and "tear down this wall" because the words embodied the essential Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Reagan, respectively. Obama's Nobel speech cannot be summed up in a similarly pithy quotation. Taken all in all, though, it is likely to endure because it is the testament of...
  • Realism We Can Believe In

    The left wanted a messiah, and the right believed it had found the perfect foil: a Democratic president with an exotic name and an alleged disdain for the largely mythic rural world of God-fearing gun owners. In truth Barack Obama—like the nation he leads and the world that is watching closely—eludes glib categorization. For a long time he believed that he was successful in elite circles (Columbia, Harvard Law) because other people, black and white, saw in him what they wanted to see, not necessarily what was there. Now no sentient person should be in much doubt about the nature of the 44th president. The -Afghanistan deliberations and the ensuing address at West Point give us, I think, the clearest insight into the real Barack Obama that we have yet had. He is comfortable with ambiguity and with tragedy, but believes, with Franklin Roosevelt's old Groton headmaster, Endicott Peabody, that "the great fact to remember is that the trend of civilization itself is forever upward; that a...
  • Why Dick Cheney Should Run in 2012

    Gallup is not asking about him in its prospective polling, and his daughter Liz's recent Fox News Sunday allusion to a presidential run provoked good-natured laughter, as though the suggestion were just a one-liner. Float the hypothetical in political conversation, and people roll their eyes dismissively.But I think we should be taking the possibility of a Dick Cheney bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012 more seriously, for a run would be good for the Republicans and good for the country. (The sound you just heard in the background was liberal readers spitting out their lattes.)Why? Because Cheney is a man of conviction, has a record on which he can be judged, and whatever the result, there could be no ambiguity about the will of the people. The best way to settle arguments is by having what we used to call full and frank exchanges about the issues, and then voting. A contest between Dick Cheney and Barack Obama would offer us a bracing referendum on competing...
  • A Look Inside Iran's Regime Driven By Nuclear Ambitions

    They warned him not to talk. When Maziar Bahari was finally freed after 118 days in an Iranian prison on phony espionage charges, he was instructed never to speak of what had happened in jail. If he told his story, his interrogator said, he would be hunted down. "We can put people in a bag no matter where in the world they are," the interrogator said. "No one can escape from us."This week's cover is Maziar's declaration of independence from the threats of a regime that imprisoned and tortured him for months. As you would expect, it is a compelling narrative, told by a skilled journalist and filmmaker. But it is something else as well: a rare glimpse inside the mind and motives of a regime riven with internal rivalries and driven by nuclear ambitions.The revelations—of paranoia, irrationality, insecurity, pride, and fury—are unsettling. Diplomacy and security depend on having rational actors in positions of power. Maziar's experience suggests that there are rising elements of the...
  • Why Palin Matters to Obama—And to You

    Richard Nixon sensed trouble. seated in the cow palace in San Francisco at the GOP convention in 1964, he listened as Barry Goldwater said: "I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty—is—no—vice." A 41-second ovation ensued. Then Goldwater continued: "And let me remind you also—that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue." As Rick Perlstein reconstructs the scene in his book Before the Storm, Nixon reached over to keep his wife, Pat, from rising politely with the crowd. Later Dwight Eisenhower called the Goldwater speech an offense to "the whole American system." The crowds did not care: Goldwater was one of their own, riding in from Arizona to take the GOP from the Ikes and the Rockefellers.Goldwater was a seminal figure, and is too often caricatured as a nuclear cowboy by the left and as a conservative John the Baptist by the right. But as Perlstein's reporting makes clear, Goldwater was seen in real time as an extremist, as the embodiment of...
  • Rethinking the Lessons of Vietnam

    Napoleon was not a particularly philosophical man, but an observation of his that has come down to us bears thinking about. "What is history," he once asked rhetorically, "but a fable agreed-upon?"Well, it is lots of other things, chiefly a story of nuances and near misses. The most useful way to think historically—that is, the way to frame the present in terms established by past experience—is to remember that we are often too quick to package the past into Napoleonic fairy tales. Countries shape and reshape their pasts in the way individuals bring order to their own experiences by creating internal psychological narratives in which memory stokes both hope and fear.There is much danger here, of course. Like individuals, nations always risk falling into denial or can fall prey to reinventing reality to smooth out the rough edges of the past, turning the complexity of experience into too-neat morality tales. We should instead be always open to rethinking and reinvestigation, for in...
  • The Great American Ideological Crackup

    Shortly after the 2004 presidential election, I was chatting with a senior figure in the Democratic Party when, inevitably, the talk turned to why John Kerry had lost. My interlocutor's theory of the case: the voters did not know the truth about George W. Bush. Why didn't they know the truth? I asked. The reply: because of Roger Ailes.On hearing that a particularly dopey man we both knew had gone to rehab for drinking, a friend of mine once sent me an e-mail that said: "You know, that's an awful lot to blame on alcohol." To adapt the image, the 2004 victory is an awful lot to credit Ailes with. The head of Rupert Murdoch's Fox News Channel, Ailes (whom I know) is a talented and influential man. He rose from The Mike Douglas Show to become a maker of presidents, from Nixon to Bush 41, and his channel is a big player in our politics. But if he and Fox News were as omnipotent as Democrats fear, John McCain and Sarah Palin would be in the White House.Still, to many liberals, Murdoch and...
  • Meacham: McChrystal and Gates on Afghan Debate

    Coming from Robert Gates—the epitome of the soft-spoken, buttoned-down public servant—the rebuke was particularly striking. Military officers, Gates said last week, should give their advice to America's civilian leadership "candidly but privately," an allusion to Gen. Stanley McChrystal's remarks in London about the need for counterinsurgency, not counterterror, in Afghanistan. Less noted was the fact that Gates included civilians in his admonition, a broader criticism of all leaks. But the general's comments, which came in a question-and-answer session after a speech to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, are the ones that have roiled Washington and the foreign-policy establishment, producing a head-snapping conversation in which conservatives are cheering the suggestion of dissent within the ranks and liberals are going on about how military officers should shut up and salute. Consistency, though, has never been an especially widespread partisan virtue.The...
  • Editor's Letter - Meacham

    On Nov. 2, 1945—All Souls' Day in the Catholic tradition—J. Robert Oppenheimer spoke to scientists at Los Alamos. "It is clear to me that wars have changed," he said. "It is clear to me that if these first bombs—the bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki—that if these can destroy 10 square miles, then that is really quite something. It is clear to me that they are going to be very cheap if anyone wants to make them." Oppenheimer basically had it right: nuclear weapons are not particularly cheap, but the knowledge, once unleashed, could not be contained. This was a persistent concern among the scientists who made the Manhattan Project come to life, including Albert Einstein, who wrote FDR in 1939 about "extremely powerful bombs of a new type." (The Pulitzer Prize–winning book American Prometheus, by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, is essential reading about the beginnings of the bomb.) Those present at the creation feared what has come to pass: the steady proliferation of the means of...
  • Know Thy Enemy. And Then Defeat Him.

    For several weeks now—beginning in the last days of August—people inside the Obama administration, the military, and the diplomatic community have been unusually unanimous on the subject of Afghanistan. Their refrain: we do not know what is going to happen; no one knows what is going to happen. Then they pause, and, in case we missed the point, say: we do not know what is going to happen.This is at once unsettling and reassuring. One would like to think that the leaders of the nation have the course and conduct of an eight-year war well in hand, and it is clear that they do not. But it is also clear—and this is the reassuring part—that the president and the military are intent on a healthy and thorough review of the policy."Know thy enemy" is an ancient principle of warfare; in his Art of War, Sun Tzu suggests that victory will come only when warriors know both themselves and their foes. Knowing more about the enemy was the animating idea for this week's cover on the Taliban, a...
  • Meacham: Words Have Consequences

    The wars of the Obama presidency—the tea parties, the heckling, the charges of racism—are covered breathlessly, but they are, sadly, all too familiar. Controversial presidents have always inspired epic love and epic hate; Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, TR, FDR, JFK, LBJ, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, and George W. Bush are among those who commanded the loyalty of millions and endured the enmity of many. Given our short national attention span, it may come as a surprise to some that our present ferocity is the historical rule, not the exception. To want to look backward sentimentally is understandable: it is more pleasant to be a Scarlett O'Hara, thinking about tomorrow, than it is to be a William Faulkner, for whom the past is never past.But the airbrushing of what has come before leaves us ill equipped to judge the significance of the passing scene. That is why the sooner the political conversation takes into account the fact that there has never—never—been a golden age of bipartisanship,...
  • I Was a Teenage Death Panelist

    Though I did not realize it on either occasion, I have twice served on death panels. The first was more than two decades ago, when my grandmother was ill and there was little hope of recovery. My grandfather asked me (in passing, to be sure; I was 16) whether we ought to prolong her life by artificial means or let her die what I clearly remember his calling "a noble death." Then, last year at this time, my father was diagnosed with a fatal case of lung cancer (three packs of cigarettes a day for 40 years will do that to you) and quickly ended up on a respirator for several days, with, the doctors advised, no hope of ever waking up. His wife and I consulted over a painful weekend and made what was to us a clear decision. A priest was summoned, prayers said, and the machines turned off. He died within moments.Such situations are not what the right-wing opponents of President Obama's health-care reform were thinking of when they coined the term "death panels," a lie crafted to foment...
  • Meacham: We Shouldn't Withdraw From Afghanistan

    The answer came quickly, and clearly. in may president Obama gave NEWSWEEK an interview on what he had learned in his first months in office. When asked what had been his most difficult decision, Obama answered without hesitation: the order to send 21,000 more American troops to Afghanistan in this, the eighth year of the war there. Later in the conversation, Obama said that the American people, broadly defined, understand and appreciate the complexity of many of the problems facing the country. The implication was straightforward: that he, with his professorial talent for explanation, was the man for a moment when America, or at least the chunk of it that had voted for him, was willing to hear him out, often at length.I recalled these points of the president's last week during one of Washington's periodic outbreaks of attention to the war in Afghanistan. The occasion was the submission of a report by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the new commander there, which reportedly details a...
  • Understanding Teddy Kennedy

    In the 1950s, Charlottesville, Va., was—as it largely remains—an idyllic place of Jeffersonian architecture, Blue Ridge vistas, and seemingly endless white horse-country fences. It was fashionable in certain Eastern circles for children of the Ivy League to journey south for law school at the University of Virginia. Louis Auchincloss did it, and so, in 1956, did Edward Moore Kennedy. "At law school he was already known for three things that stayed with him: drinking, driving fast, and women," says Charles Peters, the founding editor of the Washington Monthly, who overlapped with Kennedy at UVA. The substantive side of Kennedy—the one that has received so much attention since he died of brain cancer at 77—was in evidence, too, if less noted. "He and John Tunney, who became a senator from California, won the moot court, and you didn't win that if you didn't have good lawyerly instincts. That was a big deal."There it all was, in Albemarle County in the years of Eisenhower: Teddy...
  • Meacham: Kennedy, Personality, and Power

    It fell to him, the youngest, to tell his father. On the afternoon of Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, Edward Moore Kennedy was in Washington, presiding over the U.S. Senate—a ceremonial chore assigned to junior lawmakers—when word came that the president had been shot in Dallas. He found his sister Eunice Shriver, and together they flew from the capital to Otis Air Force Base on Cape Cod. From there they were driven to Hyannis. Ambassador Joseph Kennedy Sr., stricken by stroke but still mentally alert, was napping. Unsure how to break the news to the president's father, the household staff had unplugged the patriarch's television, telling the old man that it was on the blink. When the senior Kennedy pointed to the plug, Teddy put it back in the wall and surreptitiously ripped the wires out of the back of the set. The next morning, after mass, Teddy and Eunice returned to their father's bedroom. "There's been a bad accident," Teddy said. "The president has been hurt very badly." The...
  • Meacham: Hitler and Health Care Don't Mix

    Churchill should have known better. Campaigning in 1945, he delivered a speech suggesting that an unchecked Labour government would impose a socialist regime whose survival would require "some form of Gestapo." The British people had just finished nearly six years of war with Nazi Germany—the campaign fell between VE and VJ days—and recoiled at their prime minister's comparison of an opposition party with what he had once called "all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule" in the noble days of 1940.His wife, Clementine, hated the evocation of the Nazi regime, and said so in advance, but the prime minister, his blood up, charged forward nonetheless. The speech became a touchstone for those who wanted to paint Churchill—the man who had saved the nation—as a hopeless reactionary. The Conservatives lost, and Churchill received, as he put it, "the Order of the Boot."The important point for us is that even Winston Churchill, at war in the political arena, became so agitated by the passions of...
  • Mike Ross, a Man From Hope

    Mike Ross is not exactly what you would call a colorful character, at least not in the context of national political theater. An Arkansas Democrat and five-term congressman, he is an amiable former state legislator and chief of staff to his state's lieutenant governor. Before the past few weeks, it is safe to say that few people outside Arkansas's Fourth Congressional District had heard of him, and you have to have been engaged in the details of the struggle over the president's health-care bill to have heard of him even now. But Ross—who is, inevitably, from Hope—is not a bad way to gauge where real people stand on the big questions being debated in Washington.And what do I mean by "real people"? Pretty much anybody who is not Glenn Beck or Sarah Palin. It is not news that there is often a disconnect between the topical and the truly long--lasting: there will always be human-interest stories or tabloid fare. (It all depends on your point of view. Some people wept when Michael...