tv Meet the Presss Press Pass NBC January 6, 2013 11:30am-11:45am EST
i'm david gregory. this is "press pass," your all extra pass. looking at american leadership during another turbulent political time. i'm joined by john meechah out with a new book and executive editor at random house and of course a frequent guest here and is on "meet the press." congratulations on the book. so what i highlighted initially just from the prologue -- and i will get through all of this even if i'm a slow reader, but this is what stood out to me about jefferson. broadly put, philosophers think
politicians maneuver. jefferson's genius was that he was both and he could do both often simultaneously such as the art of power. why did you want to look at thomas jefferson through the prism of how to wield power? >> because i think he sent us in the direction of his ideas and his intellectual achievements, his art, his architecture, with his tombstone. one of the great trivia questions in american history is what are the three things, author of the declaration of independence, founder of the university of virginia, that's what he wanted to be remembered for. and for 40 years, from 1769 when he was elected at age 25 to 1809 when he left right after james madison's inauguration right here as -- after being a two-term president of the united states, he had been in office or thinking about holding office. and so in a way jefferson's political career was hiding in plain sight. >> uh-huh.
>> and so if even thomas jefferson, this great genius, this great architect of america spent his life in politics and obviously found it fulfilling enough to do, then what can we learn about how he did it and what he did that might help us in a time when politics feels broken? >> and what do we learn? >> that the perfect cannot be the enemy of the good. thomas jefferson was fundamentally a pragmatist. he was a bargainer, a grand bargainer, if you will. and believed fundamentally in the survival and success of the american spirit. he risked his life for it. he called the american revolution a bold and doubtful election between submission and the sword. fully expected during the revolution that he could be executed for treason. because of the intensity of that experience, he watched over it for the next 50 years -- 30, 40, 50 years, like a parent over a
child in some ways. and felt so strongly about it at ensuring its survival, short of anything that would kill that experiment he would cut a deal. >> you know, the pursuit of liberty, the belief in the ideal of liberty at the core of who he is and yet his life is a contradiction the way he lived his life. >> true. >> you get at that in the book. >> yeah. it's the central contradiction of his life and the central contradiction of the american experience. thomas jefferson, who wrote the words in philadelphia in the summer of 1776 that we hold these truths to be self-evidence that we are endowed by our creator with certainin ailable rights, all men are created equal. owned slaves, protected slavery, perpetuated slavery, fathered children with slaves -- with a slave woman -- enslaved woman. and as a young man tried on a couple of occasions to reform
the institution. he lost publicly and decisively. and we all know politicians dislike two things above all, losing publicly and decisively. and so about 1785 he stopped. he gave up. it was a very unjeffersonian thing to do. and i think he gave up because he couldn't find a political way out of it. and his whole life was su fused and made possible by slavery. his first memory was being a child on a pillow being handed up on a slave to be taken on a horse on a family journey. one of his last memories was being uncomfortable in his bed in that alcove bed. he's trying to signal his white family what he wants done. they don't get it. the only person who understands what he wants done is an enslaved butler. so from the beginning to the end his life was intertwined with slavery. my point is, we can condemn him. we should. it's not an indictment.
it's a conviction. there's no jury to still be out on jefferson and slavery, but it did take us 600 years after he died to have a civil war to adjudicate slavery's future in the united states. and then it took another hundred years for us to get a voting rights act. so before we are too self-righteous about thomas jefferson, i think we need to watch what everybody -- what many, many americans have been guilty of and kpli sit in. >> talk about how you got to know jefferson. literally in montecello and what made him tick. >> going there is the closest we're ever going to get to having a conversation with jefferson. he always said he woke up as soon as the rays of light began to make out the hands of the clock over his bed. and i wanted to see if that were true. i wanted to hear the clocks.
and it was so important to him. so they were kind enough for me to go look at what historians call material culture. so i went, slept on the floor. and right before dawn what was so remarkable -- and i would not have known this if i hadn't done this, is as the sun comes up over the southwestern mountains, the first place a ray of light hits is jefferson's bed. and nothing was by accident in jefferson's life. so he was so energetic, he was so excited about living in a time of enlightenment and revolution that he wanted to draw every bit of life he could out of a day. >> and his incredible interest in natural life has to be as profound as his interest in liberty and revolution. if you think about his setting in motion the exploration of lewis and clark. he just really wanted to understand what was out there. >> he wanted to understand
everything. we forget sometimes i think that the american revolution in many ways was the political expression of the enlightenment. not guilty long before -- i mean, this was the era when priestly and princely authority was falling away. jefferson thought the three greatest men who ever lived were newton, bacon and lock. all men about unlocking discoveries, about innovating, ingenuity, thomas jefferson would have understood a growing agenda. he saw it almost as a duty that every individual, every man to try to learn as much as they could because that was the nature of the universe. and the more we knew, the more we would understand. and the more we understood, the better we could govern ourselves and the fuller we could live. >> the discomfort you would say he had with fundamentalism and always did with fundamentalism,
explain that in the context of modern day ideologs. >> one of the problems with writing more than 20,000 letters so eloquently over 80 years about the most contentious issues in human civilization is you can be quoted on a lot of different sides of a lot of different issues. winston churchill had this problem too. he was given to flights of rhetorical excess. sometimes james madison could sort of calm him down. madison was to jefferson what axelrod is to boeobama and grov was to bush saying, no, i don't think you need to send that letter. but sometimes he didn't get it. and jefferson hated extremism
because it presupposed you had all the answers. now, as we were just talking about, there's a passion for discove discovery, passion for knowledge, knowledge is power, jefferson said that running through jefferson's life. so extremism was actually a closed mind -- the expression of a closed mind which he could never, ever stand for. he did talk about revolution. he talked about every 20 years. he talked about how the blood of tyrants can be the manure of liberty. so rather of seeing a revolt against authority, then the aristocrats forming an army to keep that kind of thing down. and that's how i think you have to understand his comments on that. is that if there was some upsets, some dissent, you know what, in human life we're going to have these things. history's full of this. he was much more worried when there were plans to put together
a presidential militia in the 1790s that john adams and alexander hamilton might use to suppress people. he would rather ere on the interest of the many rather than the interest of the few. and that was the defining difference between himself and hamilton. >> we'll take a quick break here and be right back with more from author john meacham.
biography. people because of your book will be reflecting on his life, will learn about thomas jefferson, if they haven't. the role of a biography like this in modern day washington and modern day leadership could be what, do you think? as the president sets off into a second term in such a contentious political time. >> yeah. well, mark twain said history doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes. and i think history disease rhyme. i think jefferson looked back to greece and rome to understand partisanship in his own era. we look back to the founding to try to understand it. what you learn is that there are some perennial principles. to quote jefferson, sometimes it's better to give as well as to take in a system like ours. we should not ever try more than the nation can bear. whatever is practical should always control what is pure theory. and the degree of what is practical can be determined by the habits of governed.
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