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Bad Advice

[ 60 ] January 18, 2013 |

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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  1. arguingwithsignposts says:

    I’ll admit that I am not a historian of the Early Republic.

    Somewhat ironically, neither is Meacham. I had a chance to speak to Meacham for some time once when he was a guest speaker at a college I worked at. He is as clueless about journalism and the Internet as he appears to be here. It is no wonder Newsweek cratered under his leadership.

    • Aaron says:

      To me, it sounds like he’s trying to sell a book by pitching a theme that ties into a popular conceit among beltway journalists and pundits, particularly the ones who were hoping for another Clinton, who could be counted on to make them feel important. Never mind the Evan Bayh-type complaints about divisions between the parties and the absence of bipartisan socialization. Never mind that there’s not actually any evidence that having more people over for dinner would improve the President’s ability to get things done.

      When a big donor or VSP complains that Obama is stand-offish, you can pretty much count on it not being about the President, not being about policy, not being about the passage of a legislative agenda, but being about them. Obama received some criticism for the early lapses in his care and feeding of donors, and in our political culture you do have to provide the type of personal contact, photo ops and the like that keep contributors happy, but the biggest problem seems to be that the President isn’t interested in hearing Richard Cohen-types lecture him about how he could solve the problems of the nation in an afternoon, let alone smiling and nodding as he receives the lecture. I read an article that described a donor complaining that when he had the opportunity to meet with the President, instead of talking politics the President was asking him about his vacations. It did not appear to occur to the man that the insights he hoped to share might be less than brilliant.

      • Timb says:

        It’s like Meachem missed the Republican primaries when John huntsman was taken so seriously for having served in an administrative role for his country

      • brewmn says:

        Yeah. Sadly, on my 45-minute commute (one way), I hear variations on this stinking pile of bullshit on NPR at least half-a dozen times every single day.

        • Larry says:

          Yes, NPR has now long since become far, far less and worse than useless. They are now the premier Beltway ass-kissing first cousins of the Republican Party, you know, best buds of the compassionate conservative party that doesn’t exist, the last bastard child of the DLC, the DLC and NPR both having earned an oblivion that’s arriving way too late, and giving cover to and encouraging stupid narcissistic hack carny sophist idiots like Meacham. Hey, speaking of Meacham, I just saw a Newsweek in a car dealership service department lobby with a cover devoted to that dynamo of political brilliance named D’Souza, or something. Yes, Meacham, NPR, Newsweek, the Washington Post, Broder, Richard Cohen 99% of the time, Colin Powell (don’t get me started; too late!), and worst of all, all the half-witting et al and et cetera handmaiden minions of phalangist Dominionism, both religious and secular. Oh, and does your train broadcast NPR over its intercom or do you dial it up yourself. If you dial it up, quit punishing yourself. If it’s the train, then invest in some ear buds and iPod. Sheesh, it’s your own fault!

          • brewmn says:

            My sirius radio is broken, and will require a trip to the dealer for which I don’t have time.

            I’ve been listening to more and more sports talk, which is only slightly more braindead than NPR is when domestic politics are being discussed.

      • fledermaus says:

        “To me, it sounds like he’s trying to sell a book by pitching a theme that ties into a popular conceit among beltway journalists and pundits, particularly the ones who were hoping for another Clinton, who could be counted on to make them feel important.”

        Doris Kearns Goodwin called and wants her schtick back.

        In all honesty lack of accurate historical knowledge is probably a requirement for a journalism job in DC.

      • Hogan says:

        Every night Congress was in session, Jefferson would invite members pundits 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 columnist from New Hampshire the Washington Post, a federalist really funny guy, who came in 1803 two years into Jefferson’s term the late Devonian period believing Jefferson informed policy decisions to be evil incarnate. And he came to dinner so much that by the end of the term they’re exchanging pecan recipes autographed David Brooks columns.”

        I think you broke the code!

  2. Bruce Vail says:

    The Embargo Act of 1807 was the worst foreign policy move in American history?

    Geez, I thought that distinction was reserved for LBJ’s adventure in Viet Nam, or maybe the 2003 invasion of Irag.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      No.

      The Embargo of 1807 basically drove the American economy into a massive depression.

      • Bruce Vail says:

        Depression is a terrible thing indeed.

        More terrible is two million dead Vietnamese, almost 50,000 dead US soldiers, and many more wounded on all sides.

        Let’s keep a little perspective here.

        • Erik Loomis says:

          I’m talking about terrible for US interests. I am not talking about morality.

          • Bruce Vail says:

            I won’t concede the point. The damage of the Viet Nam war extended beyond morality and death to the erosion of US standing overseas (‘US interests’) and corrosive domestic discord.

            At least we can agree that Meacham is a boob.

        • Malaclypse says:

          Not to discount the millions of dead at all, the Embargo happened when the US was less than 20 years old. From a strictly America-centric perspective, the Embargo was the only foreign policy fuck-up that really could have broken the Republic.

          Which is not at all meant to detract from the millions of dead foreigners the other two fuck-ups caused.

          • Bruce Vail says:

            That’s more like it.

            The embargo was an obvious failure that damaged the country. But it looks like a pretty small thing now compared to the numerous bloody blunders in the ensuing years.

            • Cheap Wino says:

              I wonder where Viet Nam will fall on the list of policy fuck-ups in 200 years. My guess is it’s already in the process of taking a back seat to complete inaction on climate change.

              • Malaclypse says:

                Yea, but that fuckup is more domestic policy than foreign.

                • Cheap Wino says:

                  Interesting question(s). The US categorically refuses to take the lead on climate change, to the point of being an anchor. The issue is international in consequence. Is it a domestic policy problem or an foreign policy issue? Is there a term for something in-between? Being the largest polluter per capita by far, to what degree will domestic policy changes (were they to occur) begin to have an affect?

            • cpinva says:

              sorry, you’re wrong.

              “The embargo was an obvious failure that damaged the country.”

              your ego aside, the embargo did more than simply “damage” the country, it nearly vivisected it. last time i checked, vietnam didn’t result in states considering (actual) secession (vs the “i didn’t get what i wanted from the election, so i’m going to take my toys and go home” type of secession today), the embargo did. had it spiralled totally out of control, the two countries would consist of the new england states, and the rest. maybe three, with the confederate states.

              so yeah, vietnam sucked, big time, but came nowhere close to the damage thankfully averted, as a result of the embargo act.

              • Bruce Vail says:

                Not sure that I get your point.

                The high water mark for the New England secessionists came with the Hartford Convention, which took place after the embargo had been ended and the War of 1812 was underway. So the closest the country came to splintering was during the war with Britain, a war that the embargo was aimed at avoiding.

          • Bruce Vail says:

            One of my college professors was a great admirer of Jefferson, and I remember him twisting himself in knots defending the embargo.

            He argued that Jefferson was under enormous pressure to join Britain’s war against France and the embargo was the only practical option to avoid that. He characterized the unwillingness to go to war with France as an honorable act of loyalty to a country that had aided the Revolution. The professor argued that the economic damage to the Northeast states was a high price to pay for peace, but was justified by enormous danger posed by involvement in a general European war.

            • rea says:

              He argued that Jefferson was under enormous pressure to join Britain’s war against France

              Oh surely by 1807 the presure was to join France’s war against Britain?

              • Bruce Vail says:

                Indeed, that was very much at the heart of Jefferson’s dilemma.

                He openly favored the French (hence the British hostility), and was attacked for that by the Federalists. Therefore to maintain official neutrality and peace, the embargo had to be applied to both Britain and France.

            • greylocks says:

              Jefferson wasn’t a francophile so much as an anglophobe. Any tender feelings he had for Napoleon were of the enemy-of-my-enemy variety.

    • Murc says:

      Apropos of nothing, I’d like to note that every textbook I had as a child spoke of the Embargo of 1807 as a political masterstroke, a triumph of Washingtonian principles that, while it was widely ignored, kept us out of war.

      Yeah, I don’t know either.

      • cpinva says:

        i don’t believe dolly madison would agree.

      • NonyNony says:

        And I’d like to note that my High School History textbook apparently said nothing about the Embargo of 1807 at all, because until I hit college what I knew about Jefferson involved him being a Great Man who Wrote Documents Important To The Founding Of Our Nation, that he was the President who enacted the Louisiana Purchase, and that his head was on Mount Rushmore. Also Sally Hemmings (not in the textbook).

  3. c u n d gulag says:

    After covering that meeting, Meacham added: “There were several Republican Congressmen in the White House who were screaming, ‘M-Fer, I want more iced tea!’”

  4. Derelict says:

    I’m always amazed at how, no matter how egregious the offensive behavior coming from the right may be, it is ALWAYS the Democrats who are being uncivil and failing to reach out.

    Having watched Obama offer to give up what (up until now) have been the most deeply held principles and policies of Democrats in pursuit of “The Grand Bargain” only to have Boehner and Co. demand even more, I can’t help but wonder what more it takes for the Washington press corps to finally realize just where the problem lies, and to finally point that out publicly.

    • c u n d gulag says:

      To be fair, Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann did mention who the party to blame is.

      See them on TV much lately?

      They were on all of the cable and network news channels for years and years – and now, their only hope for appearances are that either Stewart, Colbert, or the hosts at MSNBC’s evening or Saturday morning shows still have their numbers.

      They have, effectively, been “disppeared.”

      I think that a “lesson” was sent by the 5 or 6 corporations who control the MSM.
      And I think that “lesson” took – “Both sides do it!” is to remain the meme.

      • Linnaeus says:

        Orrnstein and Mann have the added distinction of being apostates, at least in this context. You’d think that, from a journalistic point of view, this would make them more likely to appear on TV, radio, etc. Not so.

    • L.M. says:

      Democrats are the party of appeasement, by virtue of not always believing that we should be at war with everyone everywhere all the time. Also too, Democrats are responsible for the gridlock in Washington, by virtue of not always immediately surrendering to the Republicans.

  5. ploeg says:

    Could be that, when Jefferson had his political opponents over for dinner, Jefferson tended to give rather more than he got (which, with respect to Jefferson, was in retrospect a good thing).

  6. ralphdibny says:

    “Obama could benefit from these tips from a long-dead President, and so could you! Buy my book now, available wherever you have Internet access!”

  7. pedant says:

    It’s Meacham, not Meachem.

  8. Clark says:

    If I can’t rely on Jon Meacham, I just don’t know what I’ll do.

  9. Timb says:

    It sounds like a massive projection by Meacham for what he wants to see from Obama.

    You give this obsequious bullshitter too much credit, Erik. This isn’t projection; it’s book promotion. Just like when this a-hole was pimping his Andrew Jackson book and spent months comparing Cheney and Bush to Jackson, who was a lion ya know.

    Meachem apparently never understood anything he read about Jefferson. Jefferson CREATED the first party system in an attempt to gain power and because he hated Hamilton and Adams. One would think the historian advocating bipartisanship would be one to acknowledge the Founder of the first political party is not an exemplar of no parties. I choose to believe he knows this, but is just trying to sell books. Dishonest hack is what Meachem is.

  10. Bobby Thomson says:

    It’s not just bad history, it’s plagiarism as applied to the current administration. This is the same bullshit the usual suspects have been peddling for the last four years.

  11. crosspalms says:

    Gee, do you think if I invited some racist assholes over for dinner the House would take up my agenda?

  12. John says:

    Hmm…the Louisiana Purchase was ratified on October 20, 1803. It required a 2/3 vote of the Senate to be ratified. That’s 23 out of 34. There were, um, 25 Republicans and 9 Federalists in the Senate. Two of the Federalists (John Quincy Adams and Jonathan Dayton) did vote for the treaty, but their votes were unnecessary.

    That’s about the only thing during Jefferson’s presidency that I could imagine might have required Federalist support. And it didn’t, and he didn’t really get Federalist support.

    So, yeah, this is super-weak.

  13. “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!”

    Toss in Michelle Obama’s peach pie recipe, and maybe you can even get his support for the Civil Rights Act!

  14. Also, isn’t Obama about as chummy with individual members of Congress (or, Senators at least) as any President since Ford or LBJ? Ya know, with the whole “being a former Senator thing?”

    • John says:

      He’s too aloof and standoffish. Supposedly. He only trusts his small circle of intimates, and leaves everyone else out of the loop. Supposedly.

      • Uncle Kvetch says:

        He’s too aloof and standoffish. Supposedly. He only trusts his small circle of intimates, and leaves everyone else out of the loop. Supposedly.

        You know, I’m wary of throwing around accusations of racism willy-nilly, but c’mon…how much of this is “uppity” by any other name.

  15. Scott Lemieux says:

    PErhaps an even bigger problem is that because of Congress’s stage of institutional development Jefferson had a power over his party and the legislative agenda that no president would ever have again. And given his majorities, what did he really need Federalists for anyway?

  16. rea says:

    The only real basis for this view of Jefferson is the celebrated lines from his first inaugural address:

    … [E]very difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.

    But it didn’t really work out that way in practice . . .

  17. Murc says:

    You know, shouldn’t more Congresspeople and Senators get pissed off over this kind of thing?

    Because it essentially implies that they don’t have agency; that all a President has to do is invite them over and ply them with booze and folksy anecdotes and suddenly they’ll vote the way he wants. Even though plenty of people in the Congress are empty suits, they usually don’t like being CALLED empty suits to their face.

    You’d think at least a few Tea Party types would be all “I wouldn’t care if Obama came over and mopped my floors for me every week, I’d never vote for anything he proposed.”

    For that matter, you’d think a few Democrats would be all “I found George W. Bush to have a certain amount of charm face-to-face, and he was always inviting us over to do stuff, but that didn’t mean I was going to vote for his bullshit.”

    Christ.

    • Bobby Thomson says:

      For that matter, you’d think a few Democrats would be all “I found George W. Bush to have a certain amount of charm face-to-face, and he was always inviting us over to do stuff, but that didn’t mean I was going to vote for his bullshit.

      You would think that, wouldn’t you?

  18. Crackity Jones says:

    Can you suggest some reading on legislation between McKinley and FDR? Need not be a popular or general audience source.

  19. Alan in SF says:

    Jon Meacham still hasn’t gotten over getting dumped by Lennay Kekua.

  20. Randy says:

    On the other hand, the comic possibilities of that soiree would be immense. Who would not like to be a fly on the wall when Michele Bachmann and Louie Gohmert came by for dinner?

    Meacham, of course, is too dazzled by his own seriousness to have intended such a thing.

  21. Darkrose says:

    So basically, Meacham is saying that Obama should be more like the guy who would have…owned him, back in the day?

    Uh, yeah.

    One of the things I really admire about Obama is that he doesn’t constantly raise his eyebrow and say, “Cracker, please.”

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