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The Biden Institute at the University of Delaware hosted a discussion with presidential historians on Dec. 7 at Mitchell Hall. On stage, from left to right, were Jon Meacham, Doris Kearns Goodwin and Valerie Biden Owens, who served as moderator.

Presidential leadership

Photos by Evan Krape

Historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Jon Meacham discuss U.S. leaders in a visit to UD

As two of the world’s most preeminent presidential historians spoke with the president’s sister, Valerie Biden Owens, at the president’s alma mater in the president’s home state with the president’s name stamped on a backdrop behind them, it was impossible to avoid the obvious questions.

During a chat about presidential leadership on Tuesday, Dec. 7, hosted by the Biden Institute at Mitchell Hall, Doris Kearns Goodwin and Jon Meacham summoned the ghosts of their highest ranked Commanders in Chiefs to share what their advice might be for Owens’ brother, President Joe Biden, as he fights to pass monumental pieces of legislation in a divided country.

Meacham, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, the current Canon Historian of the Washington National Cathedral and regular contributor on cable TV news programs, picked out a slightly surprising name: former President George H.W. Bush, a one-term president but “a great example of someone who did all he could, sometimes to his political detriment, simply to do the right thing.” Meacham wrote a biography of George H.W. Bush, entitled Destiny and Power.

“He believed that a big part of being president was keeping bad things from happening. And sometimes the calculus is you take short-term pain, because you think something is right in the long run. I don't know if you've heard of him, but Joe Biden is someone who I firmly believe understands that, too,” said Meacham, who has been an informal adviser to Biden. “He sees the struggles of the moment not as what we’ve got to take care of this afternoon, but, we've got a century here.”

Also mentioned among the best were Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt, while Donald Trump and James Buchanan were cited as the worst.

Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has written books about several U.S. presidents, including Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson.

A Pulitzer-winner and television commentator in her own right, Kearns Goodwin selected President Lyndon Johnson, the subject of one of her books, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream. 

“If you were Lyndon Johnson, you’d probably say, get Manchin and Sinema into the White House, and sleep them over there, and don’t let them leave until they come to some sort of agreement,” she said, referring to the two Democratic senators currently holding all the cards in Congress. 

Kearns Goodwin also talked about her connection to Johnson, who took most of the spotlight for battling for and winning passage of the Civil Rights bill and pushing through one of the most consequential agendas in history in a short span. 

Meacham goaded Kearns Goodwin into telling the story of the time Johnson invited her to a picnic lunch. Johnson had a bit of a reputation, she said, so when he asked her, she became very concerned. “I was constantly chattering to him about steady boyfriends even when I have no boyfriend. He said he wanted to discuss our relationship.” It wasn’t until he told her that she reminded him of her mother that she knew she was on a platonic date.

While the laughs were plenty, with all three ribbing each other throughout the night and sharing humorous anecdotes, much of the focus was on the future of a country brought to the brink of revolt less than a year ago and so divided it couldn’t come together to fight a deadly virus.

Kearns Goodwin pointed to past great leaders’ ability to rally the American people to come together for a common cause, as President Franklin Roosevelt did during the Great Depression and World War II. She said that even the best of the presidents, even FDR, would have a difficult time bringing the country together at the moment. “I don't know that we have that in us right now, even with the right leader, because everything is so fractured and because we have an individualized culture. Why were we not able to deal with COVID as a war against a common enemy for all of us? And yet it became partisan to have masks or vaccines or social distancing. It has to do with culture and has to do with identity. A lot of things have come together to make it much harder to be a leader.”

Meacham said that, in his mind, the United States is only 57 years old, with its true birthday taking place on July 2, 1964, the day the Civil Rights bill was signed and everyone could vote. As such, it is fragile, he said.

Historian Jon Meacham has written books about several U.S. presidents, including Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson and George H.W. Bush.

Fortunately, the founding fathers understood this, and made the Constitution difficult to navigate, Meacham said.

“The reason it's so hard to get anything done in this country is because they figured that most of what we would want to do would be wrong. That's why you could barely understand the Constitution. They made a bet against human nature and the notion was that our appetite, our ambition, our greed, our lust for power, for place or position, for advantage or privilege, were perennial forces,” Meacham said. “And so the idea that we would fall prey to those appetites, which is what happened in 2016 — that happened for too many people in 2020 — is not really surprising. Nativism, xenobia, racism, extremism, anti-intellectualism, unreason ... these are always ebbing and flowing. And the task of our time is to make them ebb a little bit more than the flow.”

Owens, chair of the event’s sponsor, the Biden Institute, asked: “How do you explain that within the span of four years we’ve gone from Trump to Biden?”

“Progress,” Meacham said, to laughs and applause.

And, despite the odds, even more progress is possible, Meacham told a student who asked what advice they would give to future leaders.

“See, it's in your hands, which is both terrifying and thrilling,” Meacham said. “President Biden says that we have made a decision to be dysfunctional. A meteor didn’t hit us and suddenly we’re all polarized. A bunch of folks who are made in the likeness and image of God, many of them born in the United States of America, have decided that they would rather support a particular side, come what may. And having decided it, you can undecide it.”

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