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      Philadelphia Speakers Series

      Jon Meacham Opens series With Presidential Politics

      Sam Starnes

      jon meacham, philadelphia speaker series

      Philadelphia Speakers Series

      Ryan Raiker, ’16, a School of Business Administration alumnus and current MBA student, poses with presidential historian Jon Meacham at the Philadelphia Speakers Series presented by Widener.

      Jon Meacham has written critically acclaimed biographies of Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson and most recently, George H.W. Bush. As a journalist, he has had a front row seat to presidents and presidential candidates for more than two decades.

      But, he said, he has never encountered a candidate like Donald Trump. Meacham, a former Newsweek editor who spent two hours with Trump in May while reporting a TIME magazine cover story, said, "It was like interviewing the admiral from Mary Poppins."

      Meacham's Sept. 26 appearances on campus and at the Kimmel Center to open the 13th season of the Philadelphia Speakers Series coincided with the first debate between Trump and Hillary Clinton, what Meacham called, "Arguably, the biggest day in presidential debate history."

      Many of Meacham's remarks and most of the questions he fielded were about Trump, whom he described as the "least conventionally prepared president in history." He said Trump, who won more Republican primary votes than any candidate ever, is by far the most successful populist candidate in modern times. "It's as though a hijacker got on the plane and the passengers sided with the hijacker," Meacham said.

      Presidential Character

      Meacham, an executive vice president and executive editor at Random House whose book, American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House, won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize, also discussed the need for examining the past. "History itself has the capacity to be a unifying force," he said. "It has the capacity to shed light instead of generating heat."

      He said three character traits make for great presidents: humility, and being able to admit and learn from mistakes; a sense of proportion, as in not overreacting; and empathy. He said courage and a thick skin are important as well. "Even if you are a great president, 49 percent of the country wants you fired."

      The Campaign of America's Discontent

      Meacham cited a survey that he said demonstrates the nation's political mood. In 1965, 77 percent of Americans believed the federal government would do the right thing. Today, he said that number is only 19 percent. He attributed some of the political discontent to the estimate that the annual household income required to maintain a middle class lifestyle is $135,000, while the average American family earns $57,000.

      Meacham said a portion of Trump supporters have desire to overturn the political system and reject all traditional candidates. "Some people who are voting for Trump are acting out of a political nihilism," he said. "They want to blow the whole thing up."

      Will Trump win the race? "I don't think he's going to win, but I don't know," Meacham answered, adding he thought Trump had no chance to win the Republican nomination.

      And will American politics get better in the future? "We get the politics we deserve," he said. "I think it is going to get worse before it gets better."

      The Philadelphia Speakers Series, presented by Widener, resumes on Oct. 17 with Ehud Barak, the former prime minister of Israel. Barak will also appear on campus at 12:25 p.m. in the University Center Webb Room. To reserve a seat at this lecture, e-mail

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