Meacham: Empathy Among Traits Needed for Leaders

By Michael Reschke 812-331-4370 | mreschke@heraldt.com | April 28, 2017

BLOOMINGTON – Jon Meacham, one of America’s most prominent public intellectuals, headlined Ivy Tech Bloomington’s 14th annual O’Bannon Institute for Community Service fundraising dinner on Thursday, April 27. The fundraising dinner took place on Ivy Tech’s main campus with proceeds benefiting the Ivy Tech Center for Civic Engagement.

Despite deep divisions in this country, Jon Meacham is optimistic about the future. But his optimism comes with a caveat.

“That optimism requires that we practice and we insist on certain temperamental characteristics in those who lead us and in ourselves,” he said.

Meacham, a presidential historian who won a Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Andrew Jackson, was the keynote speaker for the 14th annual O’Bannon Institute for Community Service fundraising dinner Thursday night at Ivy Tech Community College’s Bloomington campus.

The O’Bannon Institute consists of three days of activities focused on community service and civic engagement. It’s named after the late Indiana Gov. Frank O’Bannon for his role in creating the state’s community college system and his commitment to community service. The dinner is Ivy Tech-Bloomington’s signature fundraiser.

Meacham drew on his knowledge of past presidents to illustrate the importance of curiosity, candor, humility and empathy.

He explained that the American Revolution was an experiment in self-governance at a time when the world was shifting from a vertical organization, with kings and princes lording it over others, to a horizontal one where people started to believe everyone is born with certain divine rights.

“The only reason we were able to begin that experiment, which continues unto this hour, is because of the curiosity, the hunger for knowledge, the addiction to books and book buying of the founding fathers,” Meacham said.

He explained that while Winston Churchill is highly regarded today, that wasn’t always the case. In 1942, Singapore fell, Adolf Hitler was on the march, the U.S. was still reeling from the attack on Pearl Harbor and the British House of Commons called for a vote of confidence in its prime minister. Churchill gave a 10,000-word response detailing what he had done up to that point, and then said the British people can face any misfortune with fortitude and buoyancy as long as they are convinced that those who are in charge of their affairs are not deceiving them or are not themselves dwelling in a fool’s paradise.

“In other words, if the people at the top give it to us straight, we’ll do what it takes,” Meacham said.

After botching the Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961, John F. Kennedy swallowed his pride and asked Dwight Eisenhower for advice. The 34th president asked his successor if he had a meeting where everyone involved in the decision sat in the same room, with the same evidence, and defended their positions in front of each other so he could hear what was sound and what was not. Kennedy had come into office thinking that kind of meeting was old-fashioned and too slow, but he didn’t forget the advice, Meacham said.

In October 1962, Kennedy received photographic evidence the Soviet Union had deployed nuclear weapons into Cuba. Remembering what Eisenhower said, Kennedy convened the executive committee of the National Security Council, which ultimately led to an agreement between the two superpowers instead of a nuclear conflict that would have killed millions.

“Eisenhower was only able to give that advice because Kennedy had had the humility and the courage to ask for it,” Meacham said. “If only that were a more common characteristic for all of us.”

Years before that pivotal moment, George H.W. Bush was the reigning obstacle course champion at his school. On his way through the course his eighth-grade year, he found a fellow student stuck in a barrel. Bush helped him out and the two finished the race together.

“There’s a direct line between that personal characteristic, that sense of empathy, and the shape of our world,” Meacham said.

In 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell, there were calls for Bush to fly to Berlin and declare a great victory against Communism. He wouldn’t do it.

“He was thinking about a guy stuck in a barrel, and that’s (then-Soviet Union leader) Mikhail Gorbachev,” Meacham said. “Mikhail Gorbachev had an enormous problem on his right wing.”

To have an American president spiking the ball in Berlin was going to radicalize Soviet hardliners. Bush knew he had to give Gorbachev room to breathe, so he took the criticism and ultimately saw the Cold War end in 1991.

Meacham told the crowd of 370 people at Thursday’s dinner that while the aforementioned characteristics are important for the leaders of a country, they’re just as important for its citizenry.

“We talk a lot about leadership in this country, but the nature of a republic is that we are only as good as all of us,” he said.

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