COEUR d’ALENE — Sometimes the phrase “sellout crowd” is actually an exaggeration.
That wasn’t the case on Thursday night, though, for the 14th annual North Idaho Distinguished Humanities Lecture.
The convention center ballroom at The Coeur d’Alene Resort was expanded to its ultimate capacity, and a record audience of 730 turned out to enjoy the combined humor and serious insights of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jon Meacham.
There was no question that Meacham lived up to the occasion, either.
Meacham is known as a historian — he won the Pulitzer for “American Lion,” a biography of President Andrew Jackson — but he has also built a reputation as a captivating storyteller, and he put that skill on display almost before master of ceremonies Mike Kennedy could sit down.
Kennedy had referred to him as one of “our greatest public intellectuals,” and Meacham replied immediately, getting the audience under his spell right from the start.
“Great public intellectual?” Meacham said, looking first at Kennedy and then at the audience with the sly grin that has made him so popular as a guest on various TV shows. “You know, that’s like being the best restaurant in a hospital. The bar isn’t too high.”
Meacham was an ideal guest speaker for the Idaho Humanities Council, because his work and values basically mirror those of organizations that promote the humanities.
“He’s just terrific, and he’s really one of us,” said Rick Ardinger, the executive director of the IHC who was presiding over his final lecture before retirement. “What a speaker to have for this last shot, and the crowd is just amazing. We actually had to stop selling tickets well before the event.
“It’s not only a great tribute to the humanities and to Mr. Meacham, but also to Coeur d’Alene and North Idaho. If there ever was any doubt that this city is hungry for excellence in the arts of all kinds, it has long since been dispelled.”
Ardinger certainly wasn’t overselling his speaker.
Meacham’s talk was titled: “Then and Now: What History Tells Us About the Future.”
Mixing in some hilarious anecdotes, Meacham took the crowd through the American experience in a rare and sometimes moving way.
The huge ballroom was dead silent when he observed: “We’ve always been our best when we’ve opened our arms the widest.”
Meacham also tossed in a moment of irreverence, right in the midst of discussing the Founding Fathers, and Thomas Jefferson writing what Meacham called “...perhaps the most famous sentence in world history.”
He was talking, of course, about the beginning of the Declaration of Independence, and the words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Meacham paused and then said, with just the right hint of awe: “Jefferson was only 33 years old. He and Jesus both got a lot done when they were 33.”
After sustained laughter almost rocked the room, Meacham added: “I thought about that when I was 34, and wondered, ‘What have I ever done?’”
As funny as Meacham could be, using almost every sort of subject and historical period to set up some terrific lines, his serious view of history and what it means to future generations had the audience in thrall.
On the issue of America’s populist movement and the surprise election of President Donald Trump, Meacham said: “Let me give you two numbers. The first is 19 percent, the number of people who think Washington will be able to solve their problems and improve their lives.
“Now that number is the gasoline all over the floor of the garage.
“The second number is $130,000, which is what the Department of Commerce says is the amount that a family of four has to earn to enjoy a typical, middle-class, post-World War II lifestyle.
“You probably know that the average income for a family of four in the country right now is about $57,500, so if you’re looking for the match that was dropped into that gasoline, that’s it.”
Books by Jon Meacham include:
Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship (2003); American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation (2006); American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House (2008); Beyond Bin Laden: America and the Future of Terror (2011); Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power (2012); Thomas Jefferson: President and Philosopher (2014); and Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush.