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Meacham discusses journalism, history

Meacham discusses journalism, history

April 2nd, 2017 by Jenny Gray in Local News

Tim Riley (right), director and chief curator of the National Churchill Museum in Fulton, presents a gift to journalist and author Jon Meacham, who spoke at Westminster College on Saturday, April 1, 2017. The framed gift was an original ticket to see former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill's Iron Curtain speech presented in 1946 at the college.

Photo by Jenny Gray /Fulton Sun.

A big brown wasp hummed around the rear pew of Westminster College's famous church Saturday, garnering a few brush offs but not much more attention.

The poor insect couldn't distract from the internationally-respected journalist and author Jon Meacham, who was in the process of presenting the Enid and R. Crosby Kemper Lecture. Author of "Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship" (2003), Meacham spoke of the two men and how they probably saved the world.

But first, ego.

"There was a moment eight years ago when I was walking down the Washington Mall," he said.

Meacham was on the way to speak about his book about Andrew Jackson, "American Lion."

"A woman ran up to me, which doesn't happen enough," Meacham said with a grin. "She said, 'It's you!' I said, 'Why, yes.'"

The woman asked for an autograph and ran off to grab her book while Meacham dawdled, pleasantly pleased by the attention, he said. Then she came back and broke his heart.

"Hand to God, she brought back John Grisham's latest book," he said, laughing.

Meacham interviewed many of the great, and not-so-great, people of his times. Starting his career at the Chattanooga Times, he became a writer for Newsweek in 1995, then rose to editor-in-chief. His resume also includes TIME magazine, Washington Monthly and Random House. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 2009.

One would think he's done it all — but he hasn't interviewed Russia's Vladimir Putin, he said.

"I've never met him," he said.

Meacham's latest book tells the story of George H.W. Bush — now 92 years old. He said Bush seems to keep tabs on him.

"A couple weeks ago, I wrote a letter to my local paper," said Meacham, who also serves as a trustee of the Andrew Jackson Foundation.

Jackson served as president from 1829-37, founded the Democratic Party and came from humble beginnings with numerous tragedies.

Bush had noticed that letter, which discussed President Donald Trump's new comparison to the likes of Andrew Jackson. Trump recently installed a painting of Jackson in the Oval Office and also paid a presidential visit to Jackson's home in Hermitage, Tennessee.

Following the visit, Meacham wrote the letter, addressing it directly to Trump. (Read it at usat.ly/2nLYDIq). Then his telephone rang.

"George H.W. Bush called," Meacham said. "He said, 'I read your letter to Jackson.' I said, 'That letter was to Trump.' He said, 'I know, but Jackson would have paid more attention.'"

Access Westminster

Earlier Saturday, Meacham met with local reporters and took questions and talked about the role of journalists.

Accomplished journalist and Pulitzer Prize winner Jon Meacham spoke privately to journalists Saturday morning, April 1, 2017, and then gave the Enid and R. Crosby Kember Lecture to the public later at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Aldermanbury, at Westminster College in Fulton.

Accomplished journalist and Pulitzer Prize winner Jon Meacham...

Photo by Jenny Gray /Fulton Sun.

"Ya'll remember Groundhog Day?" Meacham said, referencing the Bill Murray movie where every day is the same as the day before. "This is it."

Truth is what good journalists seek, he added.

"St. John may have been right: And ye shall know the truth, and the truth will set you free," Meacham said. "But what is truth?"

Meacham claims much of the information coming out of the current White House leans toward propaganda.

"(This) White House makes Nixon look translucent," he added.

He recently deduced people have their minds made up and there's not much journalists can do to change that.

"I had a fascinating conversation last Saturday night," Meacham said. "It was like talking in a foreign language without headphones. We had different versions of the facts."

Responsible reporting is more important than ever.

"Bizarrely, we are in a kind of golden age of reporting," he said. "There's no better time to be a journalist but the audience may or may not be impervious to having their minds changed."

Just before Meacham's lecture, he and a group of others were ceremoniously inducted as Churchill Fellows of Westminster College. Each new member was announced by Edwina Sandys, also a fellow and granddaughter of Winston Churchill. The list included Meacham, Westminster College President Benjamin Ola. Akande and retired Gen. David Petraeus, also on hand to speak Saturday afternoon.

As the beribboned medal was placed around Akande's neck, Sandys said, "I think you are Churchillian, as well," and then told the gathering, "Grandpa (Churchill) is in our hearts and therefore, with us."

For the occasion, she wore a newly presented scarlet robe, a replica of the robe Winston Churchill wore when he gave his Iron Curtain speech at Westminster College on March 5, 1946.


Meacham spoke at length about Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt. He said the two World War-era leaders shared a great ability to study and understand historical events, and then make modern decisions.

"They were like a couple of emperors fighting for a common cause," Meacham said. "They always maintained a deep bond of mutual respect."

They approached each other and their constituents with straight talk and courage.

"Leaders and followers must trust each other — necessary relationship," Meacham said. "'If you give it to us straight, we will do whatever it takes.' It's a covenant. 'If you deceive us you will break the bonds of trust.' Candor is absolutely essential."

He added Churchill and Roosevelt took responsibility for solving the problems of their times, and successfully led their nations through World War II.

"(They) left us with nothing less than liberty," Meacham said.

He closed his remarks calling for the audience to hold elected officials to a high standard.

"I urge all of us to ask of those who would be put in charge of our affairs to have a sense of history," Meacham said. "There is no new thing under the sun, said the preacher. History is a diagnostic tool, not a how-to guide."