In “Lincoln,” the new Steven Spielberg movie about America’s 16th president, the point is made that Abraham Lincoln had to be more than a visionary to save the Union and defeat slavery. The times also required Lincoln to be a master politician — an occupation held in little esteem today, but which is always necessary in a free society.
If politics is the art of the possible, then Lincoln was a master of that art, knowing when to compromise to advance a larger good.
Biographer Jon Meacham says much the same thing about Thomas Jefferson in a new biography of the nation’s third president, titled “Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power.”
We know Jefferson as a political philosopher, but he wasn’t afraid to confront the practical possibilities and limitation of political negotiation, Meacham tells readers.
“Our greatest leaders are neither dreamers nor dictators: They are, like Jefferson, those who articulate national aspirations yet master the mechanics of influence and know when to depart from dogma,” Meacham writes. “Jefferson had a remarkable capacity to marshal ideas and to move men, to balance the inspirational and the pragmatic. To realize his vision, he compromised and improvised. The willingness to do what he needed to do in a given moment makes him an elusive historical figure. Yet in the real world, in real time, when he was charged with the safety of the country, his creative flexibility made him a transformative leader.”
This is why, Meacham adds, Jefferson remains so relevant today:
“America has always been torn between the ideal and the real, between noble goals and inevitable compromises. So was Jefferson. In his head and in his heart, as in the nation itself, the perfect warred with the good, the intellectual with the visceral. In him as in America, that conflict was, and is, a war without end. Jefferson’s story resonates not least because he embodies an eternal drama: the struggle of the leadership of the nation to achieve greatness in a difficult and confounding world.”
That sense of pragmatism is desperately needed today, as Democrats and Republicans work toward a federal budget agreement that must be approved by year’s end to avoid devastating cuts to the federal budget.
President Barack Obama and members of Congress might benefit from reading Meacham’s book and learning how successful compromises are made.