|Meh on the guests again -- think I need that week off :~/
I'm perpetually unimpressed by Jon Meacham. This bit from the NYTimes review for his current chunk o'wood pulp, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, pretty much explains why:
Meacham is one of several journalists turned historians who belong to what might be called the Flawed Giant School. Other members include Walter Isaacson (on Benjamin Franklin), Evan Thomas (on Robert F. Kennedy and Dwight Eisenhower) and Jonathan Alter (on Roosevelt and the New Deal). Books in this mode usually present their subjects as figures of heroic grandeur despite all-too-human shortcomings — and so, again, speak directly to the current moment, with its diminished faith in government and in the nation’s elected leaders.
And this, from a bit further on in the same review, makes me think that no, maybe I won't just give in and buy the book for Dad (who loves historical biographies):
Few are better suited to this uplifting task than Meacham. A former editor of Newsweek, he has spent his career in the bosom of the Washington political and New York media establishments. His highly readable biographies are well researched, drawing on new anecdotal material and up-to-date historiographical interpretations (thereby satisfying both journalistic and scholarly expectation). At the same time his rendering of people and events reflects and reifies Establishment values and ideals. His new book lacks the conceptual boldness of those by Ellis and Gordon-Reed but lies close to his own preoccupations — as gleaned from the many glittering names in his acknowledgments, from Robert Caro to Mika Brzezinski, that exhibit an impressively well-tuned appreciation for the social status quo.
Meacham reaches the same conclusion about Jefferson, this time writing on the heels of a bruising presidential campaign in which voters have openly expressed their alienation from politicians as a class and have objected to the ever-growing partisan divide and the resulting near-paralysis of the federal government. The time does seem right to highlight Jefferson’s skills as a practicing politician, unafraid to wield “the art of power” or to put it to uses often at odds with his small-government ideology. So insistently does Meacham stress Jefferson’s pragmatism, which at times made him appear hypocritical to his followers no less than to his opponents, that in places the book has a curiously focus-grouped quality, as though Meacham has carefully balanced the consensus view of Jefferson the visionary “framer” and “founder” against the dissenting claims of assorted critics and skeptics, apportioning equal time to each. But to be fair, he also suggests that Jefferson himself was attuned to the medley of voices and competing interests. And what could be more reassuring in 2012 than a biography that explains how in turbulent, divided times a great president actually managed to govern?
More reviews at B&N (Pub Weekly says "Meacham’s book is a love letter to its subject", Kirkus calls it "An outstanding biography that reveals an overlooked steeliness at Jefferson's core that accounts for so much of his political success," and the B&N review points out that it "presents the third President not as a democratic idealist or hypocrite; but as a consummate pragmatist whose abilities to improvise and adapt to the flux of affairs helped ensure the success and even survival of the great American experiment. Certain to receive major reviews.")
“Jefferson understood a timeless truth,” Meacham writes, “that politics is kaleidoscopic, constantly shifting, and the morning’s foe may well be the afternoon’s friend.” One hears the ice cubes clinking in President Reagan’s highball as he and House Speaker Tip O’Neill shared drinks and jokes in the White House and hammered together a deal on Social Security. Jefferson too “believed in the politics of the personal relationship,” Meacham observes, and “saw himself as a political creature,” not only the philosophe and dreamer others supposed. In moves that Meacham clearly admires — and that he implies are instructive today — Jefferson repeatedly reached out to his enemies and showed ideological flexibility. ...Hamilton, looking “somber, haggard and dejected beyond description,” as Jefferson later remembered, pleaded for help. Realizing “matters were dire,” Jefferson pitched in. “The beginning of wisdom, Jefferson thought, might lie in a meeting of the principals out of the public eye,” Meacham writes. “So he convened a dinner,” on the grounds that, as Jefferson put it, “men of sound heads and honest views needed nothing more than explanation and mutual understanding to enable them to unite in some measures which might enable us to get along.” And in this case the stakes were high, for “if everyone retains inflexibly his present opinion, there will be no bill passed at all,” Jefferson warned, and “without funding there is an end of the government.” Needless to say, a compromise was reached. “Jefferson had struck the deal he could strike, and for the moment, America was the stronger for it.” President Obama and Speaker Boehner, are you listening?
But Meacham doesn’t simply dispense soothing history lessons...