The shocking truth about gerrymandering from Jon Meacham in West Palm Beach

Presidential historian Jon Meacham at a Forum Club of the Palm Beaches lunch on Tuesday. (Allen Eyestone/The Palm Beach Post)

WEST PALM BEACH — In addition to weighing in on the meaning of the American revolution and the perils of political tribalism during a Tuesday Forum Club of the Palm Beaches lunch, Pulitzer Prize-winning presidential historian Jon Meacham made a surprising revelation about gerrymandering.

In case you’ve forgotten high school civics or the last decennial brawl over redistricting, gerrymandering is the centuries-old practice of drawing legislative boundaries, often in bizarrely contorted shapes, to maximize the influence of the political party in control.

During an audience question-and-answer session after his prepared remarks on Tuesday, Meacham was asked about the U.S. Supreme Court’s expected ruling on a gerrymandering case this year.

Meacham surprised many in the crowd of more than 600 at the Kravis Center by insisting the term be pronounced with a hard “G,” as in “Gary,” rather than the more widely used soft “G,” as in “George.”

“Will you all take a campaign of mine forward? Will you promise me this?” Meacham said. “With all respect, it’s (pronounced) ‘Gary-mandering.’ It drives me crazy. It’s OK — everyone does it. And it drives me insane.”

Original Boston Gazette political cartoon from 1812 ridiculing Massachusetts “Gerry-mander.” (image from Library of Congress)

Gerrymandering gets its name from Elbridge Gerry, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, proponent for the Bill of Rights and vice president under James Madison. Many historians, and the Library of Congress, note that Gerry pronounced his name with a hard “G” that has somehow softened over the ensuing centuries.

As governor of Massachusetts in 1812, Gerry signed a redistricting plan that benefited his Democratic-Republican party. The electoral map included a district with a shape that a Boston Gazette political cartoon compared to a salamander.

The term “Gerry-mander” was born.

“It was named after Elbridge Gerry from Massachusetts,” Meacham reminded the Forum Club audience, using the hard “G.”

Meacham acknowledged that those who use the soft “G” have plenty of company, including former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

Holder is leading a Democratic Party effort to fight Republican gerrymandering in key states when the next round of redistricting occurs after the 2020 census.

“Eric Holder does the same thing and he’s running that whole thing so I’ve asked him to do it,” Meacham said of his pronunciation plea. “He was uninterested.”

 

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