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Jon Meacham’s best-selling biography, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, is at best a solid read, presenting the basic facts of Jefferson’s life competently but with little grace and an almost invisible point of view. Perhaps I have been spoiled by Robert Caro’s amazing series of books on Lyndon Johnson, four volumes so far that not only make Johnson come to life (his ruthless genius as well as his fascinating contradictions) but also illuminate a whole era in U.S. history, all the while enveloping readers in gloriously rhythmic paragraphs. It is not fair, perhaps, to compare any biographer to Caro. Meacham’s book, after all, is just a single volume, so it cannot explore Jefferson in the same depth that Caro portrays Johnson. Meacham also had the disadvantage of writing about a man who lived a couple hundred years ago, whereas Caro could interview people who knew the subject of his biography firsthand. In addition, Meacham is a busy man, running a publishing company and appearing on television shows, whereas Caro lives the life of an obsessive, dedicating the better part of his adult life to understanding the ins and outs of Johnson’s life.
Nevertheless, if you are going to write a book about an American president and subtitle it “The Art of Power,” you better expect some Caro comparisons.
As it turns out, however, being compared to Caro is the least of Meacham’s writerly problems. Because there is another great writer that readers won’t be able to ignore when making their way through Meacham’s book. That writer, of course, is Thomas Jefferson.
I’m going to give you a sprinkling of Jefferson’s prose in a bit, and follow-up later this week with several other great Jefferson quotes. But first, a little bit more on Meacham’s book. I was really disappointed, because in Meacham’s hands, Jefferson rarely comes alive on the page. Time passes by and suddenly the reader realizes: “Jefferson just became governor of Virginia? Was that something he was trying to accomplish? Which of the arts of power did he employ to reach that position?” Meacham never provides answers to these kinds of questions. Continue reading
John Adams, second president of the United States, believed that politicians should refrain from talking too much in political settings: “A public speaker who inserts himself, or was urged by others into the conduct of affairs, by daily exertions to … Continue reading
As Jim Newton pointed out several times in his book on the White House Years, Eisenhower valued balancing the budget. Sometimes that meant controlling social welfare spending. But it also meant trying to restrain military spending and foregoing tax cuts, even … Continue reading
Interesting take on the Bay of Pigs thinking in the Kennedy administration, as summarized in Jim Newton’s book on the Eisenhower Presidency: “The entire enterprise depended on an intelligence assumption that proved false, namely, that the Cuban people would greet … Continue reading
When I lived in Ann Arbor, my children attended a public school where upwards of 15% of kids were not vaccinated for mumps because their left-wing parents didn’t trust the vaccine industry. Meanwhile on the right end of the political … Continue reading