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.