Jon Meacham, library honoree, says history's lessons are invaluable
Published 8:58 am, Thursday, May 23, 2013
The foibles of historic figures -- and history itself -- illustrate how the lessons of the past stay relevant and vital, according to Jon Meacham, Pulitzer Prize-winning author, editor and veritable statesman.
Meacham received the Westport Public Library Award during its 15th annual Booked for the Evening fundraiser on Wednesday. Nearly 300 supporters were on hand to honor the Random House executive vice president, writer of acclaimed histories former Newsweek editor in chief and frequent guest on television panel discussion programs.
A medley of excerpts from Meacham writings, historic notes and songs led off the award program, followed by remarks from the honoree, who shared views on the current state of America and the lessons of history.
"It's a damn miracle we got this far," Maecham said. "This republic was not supposed to last this long."
Meacham, who grew up and currently lives in Tennessee with his wife and three daughters, said that in order to strive as a nation, "We have to know each other ... If we don't know each other as neighbors ... there would be no reason for me to sacrifice," he said, citing the social needs of others.
"A republic will not work," he said, "mutual decisions will not be made, if we don't know each other."
Meacham, whose books include biographies of Andrew Jackson and Thomas Jefferson, stressed a humanistic understanding of the past and the people of those eras. "I think we learn more from the sinners than saints," he said.
"History is the story of flawed, sinful human beings hopefully trying to do the best they can with what they have," he said. "If we don't treat people in the past as what they were ... then the past loses its ability to teach.
"It becomes a fairy story."
Meacham said he was impressed by last year's movie biography of Lincoln -- "Not the vampire one," he joked -- in which the Civil War leader, in order to pass the 13th Amendment, had to "sell" postmaster jobs.
"Politics is the art of the possible," he said. "Politics is not the place to go if you want philosophical consistency."
Meacham also took time to praise the Westport Public Library, as well as its supporters. "Your presence here is a clear sign of your support for, and respect for, the work that unfolds in this room day after day," he said. "And I can't thank you enough, as a historian."
"Institutions like this aren't going to become less important," he said. "They're only going to become more important."
"It seems that Jon Meacham has always been wise beyond his years," said Maxine Bleiweis, library director, in introducing the honoree, noting that he had turned 44 only two days earlier.
A short video from Meacham's longtime friend, commentator and television host Charlie Rose, lauded his "superior brain and a talent I am enormously jealous of. A man who can write. A man who can edit."
"Thank you all for coming to my funeral," Meacham joked when it was done.