Q&A with Jon Meacham, Author, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power

Jon Meacham’s newest book, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, was released Tuesday. The Random House executive and former Newsweek editor took approximately four years to complete the work.

In an interview with The Hill, Meacham said he hopes people who are interested in politics read the book because “this is about Jefferson the political operator, who, amid enormously epic times, was doing the perennial work of politics, of trying to govern a fractious country in a time of great partisanship.”

Meacham is scheduled for a book-signing 7 p.m. Thursday at Politics & Prose.

Q: Why did you decide to write a book on Thomas Jefferson?

I think he’s probably the most endlessly interesting American of all times, and my sense was that there was not enough appreciation of how he spent the lion’s share of his years, which was as a working politician who was trying to solve problems in real time by doing what politicians do, which is building contingent majorities and pressing ahead and cutting deals. And in a climate that is anti-politician, which is the world we live in, I thought showing one of our greatest politicians would show, in some sense, that we can redeem politics.

That and there’s lots of sex. 

Q: Why is there lots of sex in a book about Thomas Jefferson?

Jefferson was a man of many appetites: for food, for wine, for ideas, for books, for power — and for women. And a recurring theme in his life, particularly his early life, is the fact that his appetite included the fairer sex.

Q: What about Jefferson do you think is most applicable to today? 

His ability to be a master of the principled compromise. He was totally devoted to the survival and success of the American experiment, and he would do almost anything to serve that end. He was not at all handcuffed by ideology; if he believed it would serve the American cause, he would do just about anything … And I think that’s what great politicians do. They are committed to a philosophy but are willing to part from dogma to make great things happen.

Q: How do you make old information interesting?

I’ll let the reader judge whether I was successful or not. My view is that there are angles of vision, and every writer brings something new to whatever topic. And I really believe that Thomas Jefferson the politician, at least in recent years, has been less appreciated than he should be. 

Q: What’s the most surprising thing you learned about Jefferson while researching and writing?

I think his endless need to control the world around him surprised me. I think we think of him as sort of a radical democrat, lowercase “D” — sort of rocking along and believing that there’d be a revolution every 20 years and all of that — when in fact he was a hugely controlling man, down to writing down every cent he spent. He noted the temperature twice a day … He wanted to shape the world around him. One way was to break the world down to its elements; the other was to seek power.

Q: I hear the term “Jeffersonian” thrown around a lot in this city. What does it mean to you?

In the popular vernacular, to be Jeffersonian is to be for a more limited government, lower taxes, more individual state liberty and rights. The opposite is to be Hamiltonian — more broad government and projects.

My view is the notion that Hamilton got it right and Jefferson got it wrong oversimplifies things very radically, because it was Jefferson who helped make the presidency itself an agency of national greatness. He was a strong president; he believed in executive power. Presidents were able to serve a broader national cause [after him]. I think it’s not much to say he used Hamiltonian means to achieve Jeffersonian ends.

Q: In an era when people can’t or don’t read blurbs much longer than a couple of sentences, what makes you think they’ll read a 727-page book?

Well, that’s the test, isn’t it? I think the book world is strong and vibrant. I think that people who are interested in history and biography are book people. And if you can hold their attention, they’ll stay with you. If you can’t, they won’t … I think there’s a desire on the part of the present to find some inspiration, some sense that we can get through the problems we face now.

Q: How’d you write this book while doing your day job at Random House? 

It took four years. It was not a rapid process, and I love doing it. I found the research and the writing to be really delightful. I know that sounds dorky, but I embrace what I am, so I’m embracing my inner dork. I’m one of those people who feels incredibly lucky to be able to do the work I do. It’s fun; it’s not a burden. I write in the summers. I read for a year, write for two years and edit for one. That’s kind of the cycle.

Q: What’s your next project?

I am doing a biography of George H.W. Bush. It’ll be [out in] four or five years, sort of the same cycle. But I think he’s a fascinating and not-widely-understood figure.