FORT WAYNE – Pulitzer Prize-winning author and historian Jon Meacham drew a crowd of about 1,200 during a lecture Wednesday that focused on how today's politicians can learn from past leaders.
"What can we learn from Thomas Jefferson and his generation's struggles with divisive government and transformational change? … What we learn from the past can take us into the future," he said.
Meacham was the third speaker in this year's Omnibus Lecture Series, which is held in the Rhinehart Music Center at IPFW.
Meacham won a Pulitzer for his 2009 work "American Lion," about President Andrew Jackson and his White House circle. He is also a former editor of Newsweek and executive vice president and executive editor at Random House Publishing.
Earlier in the day, Meacham visited a 30-student American history class at IPFW, where the discussion shifted based on student questions.
They covered Jefferson's politics, analysis of election results, and the future of legalizing marijuana for recreational use, based on Tuesday night's successful referendums in Washington and Colorado.
"Are you asking this out of hope?" Meacham asked the student who posed the question about the marijuana idea spreading to other states and the federal government.
Some of the discussion in the classroom session was echoed in Meacham's lecture Wednesday night
He began the lecture with remarks on Tuesday's election results, saying he was surprised that the difference in popular vote for the two presidential candidates wasn't smaller. He said that for elections in recent decades, a close popular vote is the norm.
Meacham said there are lessons to be learned from the partisanship of Jefferson's time.
"His era has an enormous amount to say to us," he said. "Jefferson understood partisanship is intrinsic to public life."
He warned that drawing exact parallels from the past can be tricky, but he said Jefferson and other leaders since have understood the "politics of personal touch."
He cited a more recent example of George H.W. Bush inviting members of Congress to the White House to take a photo of them in the Abraham Lincoln room.
Great leaders have succeeded when they master the partisan world, something he said President Obama hasn't done to the extent that he can bring the two opposing parties to compromise during his presidency.
Meacham offered interesting anecdotes about past presidents, comparing Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton in Cabinet meetings to two roosters fighting constantly, while also giving advice from past leaders, including encouragement for Obama to take more risks during his second term.
"Be daring regardless… because time is always short," he said.