Tonight is the debut of Need to Know, Jon Meacham’s new show on PBS. Talk about bad timing. Two days ago, the Washington Post Company announced it was exploring the possibility of selling Newsweek, which Meacham has helmed since 2006. Almost immediately, offers to buy Newsweek came rolling in, prompting the lilting historian–who won a Pulitzer last year–to consider rounding up his own group of investors. And you thought you were having a busy week.
Back in January, I spoke with Mr. Meacham about everything from the joy of bad southern food to his love for Newsweek. Here’s what he had to say.
Me: How long have you lived in New York?
JM (Jon Meacham, not Jessica Mischner): I came here in January of 1995 after two years in DC. Before that I was in Sewanee.
Me: What brought you to the City?
JM: I think I’d always wanted to live here in theory but I probably would never have moved here on my own. I came here entirely for the magazine. I just wanted to work at Newsweek.
Me: Do you think New York has become more accepting of and hospitable to southerners in recent years? Or, is it simply as you say in a 2008 piece, “The South just ain’t that different anymore?”
JM: Southern-ness felt like more of a distinctive identity when I first arrived. Part of that is that regional identity means more when you first get to a place because you haven’t found ethos in the place to which you’ve just moved. There’s more of a tendency to identify with whence you came. [Yes, he really does use such awesomely old-fashioned literary terms.] Then, when you get settled, it becomes less important.
Me: What do you think draws southerners to the City?
JM: Southerners have always thrived here because we love people and telling stories and nowhere is more about people and stories than New York.
Me: One thing I hear repeatedly from southerners who move to New York in their early 20s is that they can’t imagine raising a family here. What has it been like for you, raising three young children in the City?
JM: Someone once said to me, “I hope y’all like it up there but you can’t put down roots in asphalt.” I disagree. We have a quintessentially small town world that just happens to encompass a 40-block radius from 97th Street–to our kids’ school, to church, to work. We have a life here that is more quintessentially, idealistically southern than our lives in the South ever would have been. We walk our kids to school and we probably never would have been able to do that before. About 4 or 5 years ago, we bought a house in Sewanee, on the campus, where we spend about 6 weeks each year. We wanted our kids to understand the place that’s so important to us. But the South is always very real and very present to me in New York.
Me: What are some of the places you seek out for southern comfort?
JM: The Sunday buffet at the University Club. The cuisine is reassuringly bad.