Hendrik Meijer | Courtesy


Hendrik Meijer hails from Grand Rapids, Mich. and grad­uated from the Uni­versity of Michigan in 1973. Meijer’s grand­father founded the super­market chain Meijer in 1934. Meijer is cur­rently the exec­utive chairman of the Meijer Cor­po­ration, which will open a store in the Hillsdale area soon. Meijer is also the author of a biog­raphy on Michigan Senator Arthur Van­denberg titled, “The Man in the Middle of the American Century.” Meijer was invited by the Dow Jour­nalism program at Hillsdale College to speak on campus about Vandenberg’s career on Feb. 27.


When did you first learn about Van­denberg and what char­ac­ter­istics attracted you to him? Why is he worth studying?


He was a name who had always been on the edges of my awareness, but he was so long for­gotten that I won­dered about him. After college as I was doing some reading in foreign policy and American diplo­matic history, and his name kept showing up. Here he was from my home town, and nobody knew who he was.


Can you talk a little bit about how you got inter­ested in writing Vandenberg’s biog­raphy?


There had never been a com­plete biog­raphy of him and that seemed like one of these little voids in history. It’s not often that you’re able to say to yourself as a would-be his­torian, “this is a story that has not been told and needs to be.”  That was irre­sistible.


How has your work on the life and legacy of Van­denberg influ­enced your own life?


It’s con­sumed a great deal of my life. Whenever you spend a long time living in the past, trying to imagine what life was like in another era, it puts time in per­spective for you and makes you con­scious that you are part of con­tinuing story. Maybe it’s a little hum­bling that way. Doing a biog­raphy is really good for the ego because you imbue yourself in somebody else’s life. It’s also hum­bling because you also know that you can spend years trying to under­stand someone and realize there is always more to learn and you never have all the answers. You realize how history is not a fixed-in-stone idea; our under­standing of history is always evolving. You hope you’re con­tributing to it, but you also rec­ognize how limited any of our per­spec­tives are.


How do you think Vandenberg’s back­ground as a reporter and jour­nalist influ­enced and affected his role in public office? Would you like to see more jour­nalists enter pol­itics?


I think jour­nalism helps equip people to ask ques­tions and to chal­lenge assump­tions and those are both good things for politi­cians to do. Politi­cians should have the ingre­dients that make a good jour­nalist. Somebody that has the open mind­edness that a jour­nalist has to bring to a story is going to be a politician who is better able to adapt to changes.


What do you think Van­denberg would say of the both the state of the Union today and the state of the Repub­lican party?


I don’t know if there is any Repub­lican who wouldn’t be dis­mayed by the state of the Repub­lican party. Almost regardless of what your ide­o­logical makeup is, you would say, “this is a party that really isn’t sure about itself.” The party was cer­tainly a much bigger tent when he was in it and it would worry him, as it worries a lot of Repub­licans who wish to see their majority main­tained or have an elec­toral future. Van­denberg would wonder if the party is broad enough and if its reach is viable. He was not a pop­ulist, he was deeply sus­pi­cious of pop­ulism. Pop­ulism tended to pop up more on the Demo­c­ratic side of the aisle than the Repub­lican in his career. Van­denberg didn’t trust that sort of playing to the crowds quality that he saw in pop­ulism.

To the extent that our current pres­ident is very much a pop­ulist, Van­denberg would have been the kind of estab­lishment figure who would have struggled with that. He was one of the people that was respon­sible for cre­ating the world order that has pre­vailed since World War II. With America’s dom­inant and engaged role in the world, American lead­ership in inter­na­tional orga­ni­za­tions, American mil­itary supe­ri­ority rein­forced by NATO as crucial to our security, he would see all those things in a unsettled state right now that worry him.


If you could boil it down in a short summary, what is it about Van­denberg that made him so special, how did he shape America and why does his legacy deserve to be cemented in American history?

He was in the right place at the right time. When he was the leading Repub­lican voice on foreign policy and the the Democrats were in the White House, and in foreign policy so much of what is done is done by treaty and you need two thirds of the Senate. So, even as Repub­lican ranks were dec­i­mated you gen­erally needed bipar­tisan support to approve a treaty. His voice was crucial to that. He was in the right place at the right time in terms of that power balance between Repub­licans and Democrats and then he was in the right place at the right time, chairing the Senate Foreign Rela­tions Com­mittee. Therefore pre­siding over leg­is­lation at a time after World War II when the United States was taking the lead in deciding what the world would look like. He was in a pivotal role and that gave him out­sized influence on how the world was going to come together after World War II.  


Would you be able to briefly comment on the new Meijer location that will be coming to Hillsdale in 2019?

First of all, at a purely prag­matic level, when Walmart is serving the com­munity, the damage is already done in a sense by the retailer coming in. There is no question that in com­pe­tition we are all vying for the same business, real­is­ti­cally we expect that more of our business is likely to come from the existing chain stores, from Kroger and Walmart, then from anyone else. Philo­soph­i­cally, we don’t set out to undercut everyone else’s prices. By our com­peting with Walmart, that’s going to be another lower priced alter­native that will put pressure on some busi­nesses. But it hasn’t been our expe­rience that if you are running a good shop and know your cus­tomers that you go out of business when we come in. The impact on local busi­nesses is likely to be less than when those guys first came to town.


  • Alexan­derYp­si­lantis

    I don’t agree with Hendrik Meijer that the GOP is a ‘much smaller tent’ today that it was. On the con­trary, the more pop­ulist message of Pres­ident Trump has brought in blue collar workers who his­tor­i­cally voted Democrat. It is the Democrat party who has moved away from the center and become more of a fringe party, aban­doning many of their his­torical con­stituents. As for Van­denberg, I under­stand those were dif­ferent times right after WW2 and America needed to be part of the lead­ership that rebuilt Germany and Japan and brought them back into the sphere of nations. But today, many of us question if we’re overex­tended and spending our children’s wealth on playing the worlds policeman. Trump’s message is the right one at the right time for the GOP.