Empathy — the ability to see the world from someone else's perspective — is not often seen in politics, but it's one of the traits that set the late President George H.W. Bush apart from other leaders, said Jon Meacham, Bush's biographer, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Chattanooga native.
It's one of three qualities — the other two being curiosity and humility — the 49-year-old Meacham has seen in the presidents he's studied and written about over the years.
"We would do well to emulate [them]," he said Monday as he spoke at his alma mater, McCallie School.
Just days after eulogizing Bush, Meacham talked to students, educators and alumni about the office of the president, his own time at McCallie and the 41st president.
"Without the ability to put yourself in someone else's shoes and see the world from their perspective, then we foreclose on all kinds of both human and civic possibilities," he said.
A lauded presidential historian, Meacham was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for his biography of Andrew Jackson, "American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House." And over the course of 17 years, he became close with Bush while working on "Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush" and, most recently, "Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels."
During Jon Meacham’s visit to McCallie School, WTCI recorded an interview between Meacham and U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., which will be broadcast at 8 p.m. Thursday. Encore broadcasts will air Sunday, Dec. 16, at 7 p.m. and Tuesday, Dec. 18, at 9 p.m.
On Monday, Meacham, who graduated from McCallie in 1987, reflected on the school's impact on his life.
"The path I've been on, this journey and all its ups and downs, was set here," he said. "The ambient lessons you learn here are absolutely essential. It will propel you forward.
"The American soul, all of our souls I think, are shaped by a perennial battle between our better angels and our worse instincts. That's the struggle, just to get to 51 percent of the time when your better angels win out is a heck of an important struggle," he said.
Meacham encouraged current McCallie students to learn about history and its significance, such as Chattanooga and the school's history.
"You walk in the shadows of an ancient inheritance. This was the way that [General] Sherman got to Atlanta was over this ridge. Four miles that way was Chief John Ross' house, the head of the Cherokee nation," Meacham said. "So you have the physical embodiment of two of the most important motive dramas of the American story right here, and it reminds us of both what makes us great but also what, I think, what we always have to work on."
With nods to the presidents whose work with which he is most familiar — Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and George H.W. Bush — Meacham also shared his thoughts on the current state of the nation.
"We are at a remarkable moment of polarization," he said. "We are always divided. We've been divided since Patriot versus Tory, since North versus South, since Federalist versus Republican, since Jefferson versus Hamilton.
"The question becomes to what extent can you all help the country do what we do best — which is disagree but do so agreeably," he added.
Afterward, students questioned Meacham on topics ranging from how the role of the presidency is changing to how students could move forward as future leaders.
Duke Richey, a McCallie junior, asked: "In your opinion, who is the greatest U.S. president and why?"
Meacham praised Georgia Washington for inventing the office, Lincoln for saving the union and FDR and Ronald Reagan for bookmarking one of the greatest eras of the country's history in which America "cemented its role as a nation that's ultimately a force for good."
But he ended with another nod to the late Bush, reading a portion of a letter Bush had written his mother in the late 1950s. Meacham called it a "unique piece of presidential literature."
"I'm going to read this to you because if I ever got to 10 percent of the character of the man who wrote this letter, I would die a happy soul and I think it's worth all of us reaching for this level of sensitivity, of empathy, of curiosity, of humility."
The letter was about the loss of the Bushes' young daughter, Robin, who had died from leukemia.
"We need a girl. We had one once — she'd fight and cry and play and make her way just like the rest. But there was about her a certain softness. She was patient — her hugs were just a little less wiggly," the letter read. "'My Daddy' had a caress, a certain ownership which touched a slightly different spot than the 'Hi, Dad' I love so much."
Meacham said that, while writing Bush's biography, he asked the president to read him the letter aloud. He said the president broke down in tears, remembering his daughter.
Bush's chief of staff chided Meacham. "Why did you want President Bush to read that?"
"And I said, 'Well, if you want to know someone's heart' ... and before I could finish, the president jumped in and said, ' ... you have to know what breaks it.'"
Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at email@example.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.