Hoping for reason

Meacham and Grisham discuss America’s history of divisions

by Janet Smith


SUMMARY: Bestselling writers Jon Meacham and John Grisham talked about U.S. presidents, political polarization and books in a collaborative event between the John Grisham Writers Hour and the Madison Vision Series: Contemporary Issues in an Engaged Society on Sept. 12 at James Madison University.

What happens when two bestselling writers and friends, one who specializes in historical nonfiction and the other known for legal-thriller fiction, come together to chat about politics, history and the state of the nation? When the men are Jon Meacham and John Grisham, the result is an evening of colorful storytelling, good-natured ribbing over book sales and genuine concern about the future of America.

On Sept. 12, the audience in a nearly filled Wilson Hall Auditorium on the campus of James Madison University witnessed a conversation that gave glimpses of President George H.W. Bush, commentary on political polarization and perspectives on why to write a book.

The event, the latest presentation of the John Grisham Writers Hour, was held in partnership with the Madison Vision Series: Contemporary Issues in an Engaged Society, which honors James Madison’s conviction that cultivating an informed and educated citizenry is essential to the health of our republican democracy.

Meacham is a renowned presidential historian and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, who also contributes to The New York Times Book Review and Time.

He has studied and written about the leaders of this country during a variety of political climates. Most of the subjects within Meacham’s biographies were practicing civic engagement, a value JMU works to bestow upon its students. Among his subjects are Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Bush.

Meacham is currently working on a biography of James and Dolley Madison. James Madison is viewed as a quiet, scholarly man, Meacham said, “but there was a political skill in this little guy.” Of Dolley Madison, he said, “She was the most important woman of the first 30 years of the republic.”

His work on the Madison biography has been interrupted on several occasions, including after the tragedy in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017, which prompted Meacham to write The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels. The book explores political and social division in America.

Meacham and Grisham discussed the current political climate, with Grisham asking if this is the worst time in our nation’s history. While agreeing with his host that the population is incredibly polarized, Meacham explained that America of 100 years ago was also divided. Opinions on isolationism versus globalism split the country, while the Ku Klux Klan reenergized to the point that several state governors were among its members.

“There is a perennial battle between our better angels,” Meacham said. A century ago, “The American people realized there were forces that were flowing that needed to ebb.”

Studying history to write bestselling books gives Meacham a measure of hope for America’s future. “Will people get tired of this show?” he asked, referring to the current administration, which he described as resembling a reality TV show.

“It is essential to have the capacity to rethink things,” Meacham said. “We must use reason.” He pointed to his own reassessment of Bush. Before being asked by the former president to write his biography, Meacham admitted that he viewed him as “a hapless WASP.” After getting to know Bush, however, and having unlimited access to him and his family, including personal diaries, Meacham reassessed. “If you have to give the nuclear codes to somebody, you might as well give them to him,” he said.

Awarded the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 2009, Meacham’s book, American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House, was a New York Times bestseller. His Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush, published in 2015, was a No. 1 New York Times bestseller.

Meacham’s other New York Times bestsellers include Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship, exploring the relationship between the two great leaders who piloted the free world to victory in World War II, and American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation.

Grisham is the author of 40 novels, all of which have become international bestsellers. His books have been translated all over the world and nine of his novels have been turned into major motion pictures.

The biannual John Grisham Writers Hour is sponsored by the JMU College of Arts and Letters. Grisham and a fellow writer discuss books, current events and the artistic process. Grisham’s previous guests, who visited campus in the 2018-19 academic year, are National Book Award winners James McBride and Alice McDermott.

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Published: Friday, September 13, 2019

Last Updated: Friday, September 13, 2019

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