John Geer, Jon Meacham to teach presidential leadership course in the spring


Steve Green

10-20-2017 – Photos of John G. Geer, PhD, Vice Provost for Academic & Strategic Affairs. (Vanderbilt University /Steve Green)

Gracie Pitman, Campus Editor

The Hustler sat down with Vice Provost John Geer last week to discuss PSCI 3893: Presidential Leadership, a new course he is teaching this spring semester with Professor Jon Meacham. He discussed the ideals of partisanship and the facts about being a true leader.

Vanderbilt Hustler: This class is on leadership, can you give an overview on what the class will cover?

Vice Provost John Geer: Professor Meacham and I have gone back and forth on what we might want to teach, but given the current political climate we thought it might be useful for a more engaged class on leadership itself. The idea will be to offer up some frameworks in the beginning about how to think about leadership, because often times people confuse leadership with good outcomes. For example, there’s a book that we’re almost surely going to use that was published a long time ago, around 1978, called Leadership by a guy named James McGregor Burns. In the course of the early part of it he shows there’s about 150 or so definitions of leadership. That right there gets us to start thinking. It’s difficult because Republicans for example might think that Bill Haslam’s a great leader and Democrats might think he’s not a great leader, but yet that’s a partisan judgement not an objective judgement. So then we’ll go through the history of mostly presidents about their acts and try to evaluate whether in fact it was leadership or not. Was Lincoln leading during the course of the Civil War or maybe was he following? I mean Professor Meacham’s expertise are widely known. He’s written highly respected and, in fact, Pulitzer Prize winning books on people like Jefferson and George H.W. Bush, Jackson, he’s written a book on Churchill and Roosevelt, as well. He’s done a lot of thinking about this. And I’ve written a book on leadership as well, from a very different perspective, so we want to get the people thinking framework and have a lot of case studies getting people to think about that. Then we’ll come back at the end and say what have we learned. So, that’s the hope.

The idea will be to offer up some frameworks in the beginning about how to think about leadership, because often times people confuse leadership with good outcomes.

We’re right now in the middle of working it out. He and I have been batting around a lot of different ideas, we also want to bring in a number of speakers. We’re going to try and get Megan Barry to come because what’re the demands of a leader who happens to be female versus male. The gendered aspect of it we know exists. We’ll probably bring in Bob Corker, especially given the conflicts he’s had lately with Trump. Some people think that he’s been an amazing leader in all of this and others think he has been not a leader, and again that probably depends on whether you love Trump or not, but the realities are that we should be able to get him to tell us a little bit about his thinking about it. Given that he’s not running for reelection, he’ll have a little bit more freedom to kind of say what he wants. We’ll try to get some journalists and some of the authors we may read to visit as well. So that’s really the idea. You know Trump has brought a different style, some people are very upset about it and other people think he is exactly the right thing, but we don’t want to get into that. Professor Meacham has made it pretty clear where he stands, he is not a fan and in fact he was just interviewed on NBC yesterday at some point, I just watched it. So that’s kind of the objective, but it’s not about partisanship, but it will inevitably probably touch on that.

VH: Why did you two choose to create this class?

Jon Meacham. photo by Gasper Triangle

Professor Jon Meacham: This is one of the most fascinating and consequential moments for presidential leadership in the whole of American history—truly. So it’s a particularly great time to explore the roots of the office, its evolution and its possibilities.

JG: Well, first of all, we’re fellow nerds, and we love history. When we first taught, it would have been the spring of 14, I believe the Republican party was going through serious turmoil, so we had a course called the future of the American party. It turns out that tapped into a lot of different things, we had a lot of different politicians come in, and of course the Republican party has gone through this and in some sense a civil war and the Democrats were in a civil war as well in a way. And then we did a course just on politicians, which has some overlap with leadership but the reading will definitely be different, you know, we might look at Roosevelt or Truman or other things like that, so there will be some material that will be in common, but the framework will be very different. And then we taught a course on the 2016 election together in fall of 16 and he joined Professor Oppenheimer and Professor Clinton, so the four of us taught that as that election unfolded. It had to be taught. And I’m sure the following year we’ll teach a class again together, whether it’ll be exactly on the same topic or not, I don’t know. He’s working on a book right now on Dolley and James Madison, so he’s kind of interested in that. He’s also writing a small book on the politics of fear. He wants to get it out quickly so I promised him a quick read, but I haven’t seen it. So we’re looking forward to teaching the class, needless to say.

VH: What do you want the student body to know about the class?

JG: I think the important thing is that it’s going to be a serious discussion of leadership. It’s not aimed to be partisan, but I think that in this day and age it’s probably impossible. The objective is not to be a partisan course, and it will inevitably be one, but I also think there are certain historical things, so for example this recent controversy that Trump’s engaged in, how you handle the families of these soldiers that have given the last full measure, to use Lincoln’s term, there’s facts about that. I mean you know that there’s a very famous video of Obama, this was not public, he actually flew to Dover Air Force Base and greeted the soldiers that were coming back, the remains, and just saluting the whole time as they were being taken off the plane. He did not want any immediate coverage of that, there wasn’t any coverage of it, but he did that. It’s not debatable. And yet Trump is trying to suggest that he is the only one who has ever done this, and that’s just not true. So there are going to be times where you’re going to be critical potentially of Trump, but that doesn’t mean it’s partisan, it’s just there are simply certain facts out there that you can’t deny.

It’s not aimed to be partisan, but I think that in this day and age it’s probably impossible.

That’s the thing that I think is most interesting about this whole era-there used to be a shared, agreed upon set of facts. You may not like them or whatever, the economy is doing x, y or z, well he doesn’t seem to acknowledge that. The students who are supportive of Trump are probably pretty quiet about it, which is pretty unfortunate. I don’t know either, but I also know there are probably more than you think because they feel like they can’t express their views. And that we don’t want, in the 2016 election, it was a large class, and there were two or three students who were very pro Trump, and one student in particular, I gave him high, high marks, he was consistent, and at first the students didn’t really value what he had to say, but they came around to realizing he has the right to have a voice. The last thing I want is for this to be a session on bashing Trump, that’s just not of interest. The irony is that both John and I are individuals who have voted for members of both parties. We have our partisan for stripes, but it’s not like we’re adamant right wing or left wing.

Quotes have been edited for length and clarity.