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Learning from the past: What former presidents can teach us about future presidents

Author Jon Meacham highlights traits from former presidents to guide the search for future leaders.

Regardless of whether individual farmers view President Trump’s time in office as a positive or negative, there’s no denying he and his administration shook up the agricultural landscape from 2016 to now.

Since Trump’s inauguration, he’s targeted agriculture – specifically with trade – as a foundation of his tenure. He’s referred to farmers as great patriots on Twitter and said they’ve been treated unfairly for years. During Trump’s trade negotiations, some farmers have grown impatient and faced hard times that some attribute to the president. 

On the other side, with the 2020 election looming, the Democratic Debate took place in Des Moines on Tuesday. The debate covered many topics, including trade. Regardless of who takes office in 2020, trade and agriculture will continue to play an important role. 

With a vital stretch approaching for presidential candidates, presidential historian and author Jon Meacham visited the city on the same day to discuss politics at the Land Expo. Meacham’s written about several U.S. presidents in history.

He stated that he’s voted for both Democrats and Republicans in the past and anticipates he will continue to do so. Meacham declined to dive into current candidates and elected to look at history for guidance instead. 

The 50-year-old historian plucked traits from former presidents that he’s learned from firsthand experience or stories and applied them to what Americans should seek from future presidents.

“My view is that if we talk about our politics in historical terms, we raise the chances that we can actually have an illuminating – as opposed to infuriating – conversation,” says Meacham.

Meacham points out liberal views often turn toward data and facts that emerge from history, while conservative views focus on tradition, meaning both parties tie in the past and history.

During the speech, Meacham isolates four characteristics presidents need to be successful for the country and its citizens.

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Meacham turns to the birth of the U.S. to explain the importance of curiosity. The Declaration of Independence says, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Thomas Jefferson – the man who jotted down that sentence – was influenced by conversations about recent movements before 1776. Meacham lists the Scientific Revolution, Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press, the rise of reason, and a handful of other notable events.

The world shifted from a vertical organization to a horizontal one in the late 1700s, according to Meacham. Class importance and authority declined, while people gained the opportunity to forge their own paths, opening up the rights to freedom of thought, expression, and faith, Meacham says.

“Jefferson was able to set that journey in motion because he had been curious – because he had been engaged in that conversation,” Meacham says. “I don’t see how we can get through our generational test without being curious about climate, about the access to prosperity, about finding a way through this reflexive partisanship, where we pick a team and then decide who’s right as opposed to deciding who’s right and then picking a team.”

Meacham says that test won’t be passed until Americans confront those issues by being curious with an open mind.

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The presidents who faced the most trouble in history failed to be transparent with U.S. citizens, according to Meacham.

Meacham cites Lyndon B. Johnson with Vietnam and Richard Nixon “in damn near everything” as the two main examples.

“If you don’t level with us, we tend to suss it out,” Meacham says. “That’s the nature of a thinking democracy. If you’re a curious democracy, there’s a greater burden on the president to be candid.”

Meacham says Americans demand the truth, and if they don’t receive it, they’ll figure it out eventually as history shows.

He points out Franklin D. Roosevelt’s approach during World War II that he modeled after Winston Churchill’s candor as a quality example.

“‘The news is going to get worse and worse before it gets better and better, and the American people deserve to have it straight from the shoulder,’” Meacham restated from Roosevelt during 1942.

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The third trait mentioned deals with the ability to admit mistakes. 

When John F. Kennedy took office in 1961, replacing Dwight Eisenhower, he quickly tried to make an impact with the Bay of Pigs Invasion.

After the failure, Kennedy approached the man he replaced for advice. The 44-year-old Democrat and the 70-year-old Republican met to improve Kennedy’s time in office.

Over lunch, Eisenhower noted how Kennedy conducted meetings. Instead of a group meeting, members of the administration met individually with the president. Eisenhower suggests adjusting this to gain the big-picture view, and Kennedy agrees.

Jumping to 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis challenges Kennedy. Meacham says estimates showed 70 to 100 million Americans could’ve died if the situation had escalated. 

Kennedy deployed Eisenhower’s suggestion, calling a group meeting that lasted 13 days and helped avoid catastrophe. 

“We came through that crisis, not least because Jack Kennedy had the guts to learn how to do his job better,” Meacham says.

Read more from Land Expo: USDA official sees trade progress for ag


Meacham says empathy remains potentially the most important trait for a president.

“Empathy is the capacity to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes,” Meacham says. “It may be the single-most important characteristic of leadership and citizenship.”

Meacham jumps to the George H.W. Bush era when the president showcased empathy.

Before diving into another story, Meacham notes a famous quote from Bush: “I have opinions of my own, strong opinions, but I don’t always agree with them,” to give an idea of Bush’s personality.

Meacham starts his Bush story by referencing a classmate of Bush’s at Greenwich Country Day School. The school held an annual obstacle course that Bush always won. The school and Bush agreed to give the other students a head start in his final year at the school.

After the other students kicked off the race, Bush started. As Bush dealt with barrels associated in the challenge, he noticed his classmate wedged in the barrel. Bush yanks his classmate out of the barrel and finishes the race with him. 

When Meacham heard this story originally, he approached the president about it. Meacham asked Bush why he did it. Meacham says Bush kept it simple: He’d never been stuck in a barrel but if he were stuck in a barrel, he’d want somebody to lend a hand. 

Meacham describes the response as “be nice because they might be nice when you need them,” a version of the Golden Rule. 

“If we’ve learned anything since we’ve climbed out of the caves, it’s that empires rise and fall, regimes rise and fall, parties rise and fall,” Meacham says. “You better hope it’s your team in charge if you’re going to put your faith in a system where someone has to be totally in charge.”

After the school story, Meacham moves to Bush’s time in office during the fall of the Berlin Wall, which represented the missing freedom in communism. 

Bush refused to give a speech after the event despite the positive result in Americans’ views. Meacham says Bush viewed Mikhail Gorbachev, the president of the Soviet Union, as a man stuck in a barrel. 

Bush anticipated that a celebration of the event would jeopardize the peace after the Cold War. 

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Along with being together, democracy requires people to at least listen to one another even if there are conflicting views.

Meacham provides historical numbers to supplement his point. Meacham says 40% of Republicans voted for Johnson in 1964 and 40% of Democrats voted for Nixon in 1972. In 2016, 1% of Democrats voted for Trump and 1% of Republicans voted for Hillary Clinton. 

“Too many of us don’t think enough about it,” Meacham says. “And if we do it, we should do it in an empathetic way.”

Meacham referenced earlier in the speech that politicians often act like they do because they’re seeking a reelection or a positive legacy, meaning they reflect the citizens that they represent to appeal to them. As the speech neared its finish, Meacham returned to the traits he highlighted for politicians and citizens.

“Curiosity, candor, humility, and empathy are the characteristics that if we can at least tip-toe toward and try to embody, I think we stand the best chance of being a generation that we remember more warmly than we have much of a chance of being at the moment,” Meacham says. 

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