“He’s like an upside-down iceberg”: historian Jon Meacham on Joe Biden

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“He’s like an upside-down iceberg”: historian Jon Meacham on Joe Biden


He has been described as the “historical muse” of Joe Biden, an informal occasional adviser to the US president and contributor to some of his key speeches, including the inaugural address.

In March, Jon Meacham hosted a meeting between Biden and a group of fellow White House historians that lasted more than two hours. What did he learn about the 46th president?

“He’s like an upside-down iceberg,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian says over the phone. “You see most of it and it’s not rotation: there just isn’t much of a mystery to Joe Biden. The last four or five minutes of his press conference in the East Room [on 25 March] when he spoke of democracy and autocracy, that was about it.

Media reports on the meeting recounted how Biden took notes in a black book and at one point turned to historian Doris Kearns Goodwin and said, “I’m not FDR, but …” Meacham does not recall this remark, a reference to former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and does not see Biden as self-aggrandizing.

“It wasn’t about how to shape my heritage? This is how previous presidents have handled fundamental crises. The FDR appeared less because of the legend of the FDR, but more in 1933 the question was open whether democracy would survive the 1930s. So how do you articulate a democracy case with all its inherent mess ?

This existential struggle between democracy and autocracy, repeatedly emphasized by Biden in his first 100 days as he contemplates the growing threat from China, is the president’s own formulation and precedes his meeting with historians, Meacham says.

But to come back to that upside down iceberg metaphor, the 51-year-old author, who spoke at last year’s Democratic national convention, suggests that what you see with Biden is what you obtain. Future biographers will be hard pressed to uncover a “real Joe Biden” we all missed back then. (In that sense, maybe, we’ve finally found something he shares with Donald Trump.)

Jon Meacham was one of a group of historians who met Biden in March at the White House. Photography: HBO

“I suspect that 90% of what I’ve heard Joe Biden say in private for years, he says in public, and the remaining 10%, it’s not like there’s a dark, secret side to Biden, ”Meacham says. “I’m stumped, honestly. I think part of that is being 78, thinking it was all done – he had no expectations [of becoming president] in 2017.

“So I think people should take him at his word. My experience with him – and we’re friends – is that he’s very straightforward. There isn’t a lot of Machiavellian stuff behind the scenes. It might not have been true when he was 40, but he is now almost 80 and it is.

Barack Obama also welcomed Goodwin and other historians to the White House, apparently more focused on the lessons of Abraham Lincoln than on Roosevelt. Trump nurtured Mount Rushmore’s ambitions but had little time for presidential academics and, at around 100 days, hosted right-wing rockers Ted Nugent and Kid Rock with former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin.

Meacham – whose new podcast, Fate of Fact, features historians Michael Beschloss and Eddie Glaude Jr, who both attended the Biden summit – remembers how Bill Clinton put together a list of truly consistent and sizeable presidents. wondered how he could continue. he.

“It’s not Biden and I’m not saying that somewhere in his brain it’s not happening; I don’t know, ”he said. “But I think I have a pretty good idea of ​​this and I think he really sees it as an existential moment for democracy. He sees clearly definable issues that need to be addressed and, as case studies of past successes and past failures can be an arrow in his quiver, I think that’s what he wants.

The Roosevelt parallel, manifested in a giant portrait in Biden’s Oval Office, persists not only because the 32nd President helped defeat fascism in World War II, but also because his New Deal in 1933 drove America out of the Great Depression. Faced with multiple crises, including the coronavirus pandemic, Biden has sought to restore confidence in both government and democracy with a daring $ 6 billion spending plan that also echoes the ‘Great Society’ by Lyndon B Johnson.

Meacham speaks via video at the 2020 Democratic National Convention. Photograph: Reuters

Some hailed it as a fatal blow to Ronald Reagan’s four decades of trickle-down economics. But Meacham, a biographer of Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson and George HW Bush, wouldn’t go so far: “One way of thinking from 1933 to 2017 was like a figurative conversation between FDR and LBJ on one side and Reagan and George W Bush on The Other. Every president was somewhere in this conversation.

“Trump was not a sequential chapter to this. I think Biden is back in this conversation. It is clearly in FDR / LBJ mode but I see it as a resumption of a conversation about how to achieve mutually agreed ends. Biden is not creating new government agencies. Is it a swing? Certainly from George W Bush, yes, but it’s not outside the American mainstream.

Trump’s break with the mainstream and the Republican Party’s willingness to follow him off the edge of the cliff is the starting point for Meacham’s podcast to explore polarization and “how and why the facts became a victim of the war in the United States. United States ”, culminating in the deadly insurgency on the United States Capitol on January 6.

Republicans made election promises election after election but failed to deliver on them, he argues, leading to increased frustration among their voters. “We haven’t seen any of our major political parties lose their bearings perhaps so deeply in American history. I wanted to try to give a historically informed understanding of why this has happened now, on the grounds that if you have a diagnosis you can at least think about the treatments.

“I don’t think Trump came out of the ether. It took a long time because the base itself was disillusioned and harmed by the scarcity of the fruits of victory dating back to World War II. It’s not just that Trump himself has superpowers; it’s a matter of context. The podcast is basically my understanding of why so many otherwise sane Republicans have embraced a personality cult.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered his first
President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered his first “fireside talk” on the radio in 1933. Biden now sees parallels with the situation facing Roosevelt, whose New Deal helped pull the United States out. of the Great Depression. Photography: AP

Biden’s first 100 days were certainly less loud and melodramatic than those of his predecessor, a palate cleanser devoid of childish slurs or storms of nightly tweets. But he has made little headway on his two-party pledge as Republicans embark on a long fight against his lofty legislative goals. “Boring, but radical,” is the analysis of Texas Senator Ted Cruz.

However, Meacham – whose 2018 bestseller The Soul of America foreshadowed the central theme of Biden’s election campaign – notes that his approach strongly questions the general public as Republicans turn to questions of “culture wars.” Such as the rights of transgender student athletes. or the withdrawal of six books from Dr. Seuss due to images insensitive to racism.

“I have a feeling he argued for an American as opposed to a partisan reaction to a series of crises that he defined and articulated. He’s not repeating the mistake that was made during Obama’s years of seeking Republicans’ membership because they can’t deliver; in terms of foreign policy, it does not really have a partner for peace.

“He’s basically decided he has to do whatever he can because he genuinely believes it’s an emergency and he does it in a temperamental way that’s more sympathetic than divisive, which forces the Republicans into an even smaller corner where, because he actually is widely popular, you end up fighting for Dr. Seuss. Republicans are in this perpetual bar fight, so they grab whatever they can. I don’t think this is a sustainable governance strategy. “

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