"The only thing worse than winning a second term is not winning a second term.” —jon meacham, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, political commentator, author of “Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power,” and native Chattanoogan, discussing the prospects for President Obama’s second term on “The Today Show,” on Friday, Nov. 9.
Jon Meacham could have been talking about any American president when he offered his prognostications for President Obama’s second term following his decisive re-election last week. In particular, he might well be referring to Thomas Jefferson, who served as the nation’s first secretary of state, its second vice president and it’s third president for two terms from 1801 to 1809. It is Jefferson’s influence and legacy Meacham finds so intoxicating and pervasive, a dynasty that that lasted for 36 of the 40 years between 1800 and 1840 in which Jefferson or a self-described Jeffersonian held the presidency—a feat that remains unmatched in American politics.
Meacham examines Jefferson’s preoccupation, pursuit and execution of power in his new book, “Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power,” arriving in bookstores just in time for the recent election. He may be uniquely qualified to investigate Jefferson’s Svengali-like grip on American politics, reaching back in time from the subject of his previous best-seller, the Pulitzer Prize-winning “American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House.” That book probed the politics of the battle-tested Tennessean and seventh U.S. president whose enthusiastic followers created the modern Democratic Party. A Jeffersonian, Jackson also served two terms, from 1829 to 1837, a period that later became known as the era of Jacksonian democracy.
Meacham, a Chattanooga native, will visit the city at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 20, for a program at Lindsay Street Hall to read from and discuss his new book, the recent elections and American politics during a talk and question-and-answer session hosted by the Arts & Education Council. Meacham will sign copies of his book, which are free to ticket-holders, following the engagement. The event kicks off the AEC’s Celebration of Southern Writers, to be held from April 18-20, 2013, in Chattanooga. Proceeds from the appearance benefit the organization’s literacy programs. Tickets are $50 and $100 and are available by calling (423) 267-1218.
But why Jefferson—again? There are volumes of Jefferson biographies, more than a dozen in the last 30 years, examining, praising and criticizing every aspect of the revered Founding Father. Meacham is undeterred. Besides the fact that Jefferson looms large in the age of Obama as the president we think we know best, Meacham says it was Jefferson’s day-to-day life that attracted him to this towering figure. Jefferson, Meacham points out, was consumed with the pursuit of power and his tactics, talents and influential gifts became a template for every great modern president who followed him—including Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. But it’s also personal for Meacham.
“One of my many character flaws is that I like politicians,” Meacham said during a phone interview last week. “I blame Chattanooga for that. I grew up in the era of Dalton Roberts, Pat Rose, Gene Roberts—that whole generation of guys.”
Meacham, 43, was born and raised in Chattanooga, a graduate of both the McCallie School and the University of the South, a former Chattanooga Times reporter who went on to become editor of Newsweek before exiting journalism to pursue his fascination with political history in a series of best-selling books focusing on the American presidency. He is currently executive editor and executive vice president at Random House in New York and contributes frequently to TIME and as a guest on such political programs as “Morning Joe” and “Meet the Press.” He is currently working on a biography of President George H.W. Bush.