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Bad Advice

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Jon Meacham, presidential biographer and evidently person who does not understand the presidencies he studies, offers some really bizarre advice for Barack Obama in his second term:

With his second inauguration just a few days away, Jon Meacham has some advice for President Obama: Take a lesson from your long since deceased predecessor Thomas Jefferson.

Meacham, author of Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, says one of the keys to Jefferson’s success was that he built personal relationships with senators and members of Congress. He says Obama “has not been particularly good at this.”

Every night Congress was in session, Jefferson would invite members to the White House for dinner and managed to forge friendships with even some of his staunchest critics.

“He wanted to weave attachments,” says Meacham. “There’s a wonderful story about a New England Senator from New Hampshire, a federalist, who came in 1803 two years into Jefferson’s term believing Jefferson to be evil incarnate. And he came to dinner so much that by the end of the term they’re exchanging pecan recipes.”

In gaining personal friendships within Congress, Meacham says Jefferson was able to get the votes he needed to pass his agenda.

Um, no. It’s entirely possible that Jefferson did become friendly with some Federalists. I don’t know. But the Federalist Party as a whole hated the man and his agenda through his entire presidency. Let us not forget that the primary issue in the nation at this time was the United States’ position vis-a-vis Britain and France. Around these issues revolved such lovely events in American history as the Alien and Sedition Acts, War of 1812, and Hartford Convention of 1814, where some Federalists advocated the secession of New England from the nation rather than live with Jeffersonian rule. Admittedly, by this time it Madison as president, but it was still Jefferson’s party. The major policy issue of Jefferson’s second term was the Embargo of 1807, the worst foreign policy move in American history. How did the Federalists, who Jefferson had so charmed by having them over for a glass of wine or whatnot, respond? They were infuriated. New England shippers openly flouted the Embargo, starting a vigorous black market trade with the British. Jefferson used federal agents to track down smugglers, leading to open condemnation of his tyrannical policies by his political opponents.

I’ll admit that I am not a historian of the Early Republic. If this was the presidents between McKinley and FDR, I could offer deeper analysis of important pieces of legislation. So maybe there’s something I’m forgetting, something where Jefferson’s charm made an actual difference for his policy agenda. But I’ve never even heard of such a thing before when reading of the Jefferson presidency. It sounds like a massive projection by Meacham for what he wants to see from Obama.

The bigger point is the power of the belief among the Beltway punditry and Very Important People (here I include Spielberg and Kushner) that if the party in power (actually only the Democrats) just were nicer to Republicans, so much more could get done. Maybe Obama can invite Rand Paul to the White House and spin a 23 minute Lincolnesque story about some people he knew 20 years ago back in Illinois. Paul will be sure to change his mind and support gun control!

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