Meacham cites lessons of leadership

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Journalist and historian Jon Meacham, the keynote speaker at the MMA Annual Meeting on Jan. 24, urged local officials to follow the maxim of President James Madison, who called politics “the art of the possible.”
 
“You are in the same business that Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson and Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt were, which is basically the management of public affairs, trying to build coalitions for the common good in real time,” Meacham said.
 
Meacham, who has written books about Jefferson and Jackson as well as the wartime relations between Churchill and Roosevelt, said the key qualities of successful leaders are their ability to learn from mistakes, their use of a narrative that people can connect with, and a passion for what they do.
 
“The central characteristic of a great leader is the capacity to learn on the job,” he said.
 
As an example of learning from mistakes, Meacham cited Jefferson, who in 1781 fled Monticello as British troops approached, partly because he believed he no longer had the authority to lead because his term as governor had expired.
 
Jefferson, according to Meacham, learned from the experience that sticking to the letter of the law is not always wise. Two decades later, when France was offering to sell the huge swath of land that constituted the Louisiana Territory, Jefferson quickly closed the deal in Paris, even though such a transaction technically required a constitutional amendment.
 
“I suggest that Jefferson did what he did because he remembered how it felt when he had not acted swiftly and surely” in Monticello, Meacham said.
 
Jackson, as president, expressed outrage when South Carolina threatened to secede from the union in 1832. But as the “nullification” crisis continued, Jackson developed a more nuanced approach to the crisis, which ultimately proved successful.
 
Meacham also cited modern presidents, including John F. Kennedy, who were able to learn from mistakes. Kennedy admitted to his predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower, that the meeting prior to the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba in 1961 “was more of a presentation” than a discussion, with no opportunity to explore in detail the potential hazards of the plan.
 
During the Cuban Missile Crisis the following year, according to Meacham, Kennedy “convened the longest-running committee hearing in history. … It was absolutely the result of Kennedy’s disaster in April of ’61 that led to that decision.”
 
Meacham cited several presidents, including Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, who benefitted from an appealing narrative.
 
“Every great leader masters the means of communication of their time,” he said.
 
In closing, Meacham said, “If you can learn from real-time mistakes, if you can make that story the basic transaction in all the storm and strife, you’ll have a successful presidency.”
 
In response to questions from the audience, Meacham said he is skeptical of those who say that “things have never been worse” in American government, citing, for example, Fort Sumter and the battle that launched the Civil War. “It has always been difficult,” he said.