The Running Joke

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Each school year, by spring break, my history classes had completed their study of the Kennedy years, 1961-1963. We discussed the glamor, the space program, civil rights, his charisma and humor with the press, and most importantly, JFK’s intense struggle with Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev.

In a provocative challenge to America, Khrushchev ordered the building of the Berlin Wall, and construction of nuclear missile sites in Cuba. This second and more dangerous challenge prompted the 1962 Missile Crisis.

After tying up the loose ends of the administration, we further probed the delicate diplomacy that, after 13 days, settled the incident peacefully. For years I closed the unit joking, “aren’t you glad Andrew Jackson wasn’t president?” That line always drew a good laugh.

But really it isn’t funny. Not in today’s political climate.

America’s seventh president was a mercurial character. He loved blindly and hated passionately. If convinced his honor had been besmirched, the man dueled—sometimes with pistols, sometimes with knives. It all depended upon his mood.

The provocation behind most of these confrontations touched upon Jackson’s wife, Rachel, who had, years before, married Jackson before her divorce from her abusive first husband had completed.

In one deadly episode, Jackson challenged a man named Charles Dickinson, a celebrated marksman. Dickinson apparently uttered Rachel’s name in a tavern, a deliberate provocation. The future president donned an oversized cape for the dueling grounds to disguise the location of his heart. He knew that Dickinson would take deadly aim on his upper left chest, and needed to conceal the target. The ploy worked. Jackson did indeed take a slug in his left shoulder, but remained long enough on his feet to shoot and kill his adversary.

In another episode, Jackson determined that Kentucky Senator, Henry Clay, was his greatest enemy.

During the hotly contested election of 1828 a Cincinnati newspaper resurrected and published the old scandal of Rachel’s bigamy. As it happened, the newspaper editor was a friend of Senator Clay’s. Worse, Rachel read the article about her infamy—the resulting shock apparently killing her. For the rest of his life Jackson blocked Clay at every political turn, coolly remarking later that one of his regrets was not shooting the Senator.

Andrew Jackson went on to destroy the Second Bank of the United States, the central financial institution of the young country. Old Hickory then deposited the government’s money into pet banks, local private, unregulated concerns across the country. Mismanaged, these banks collapsed, propelling America into one the longest, deepest depressions in American history.

An astounded Senate formally censured President Jackson for this reckless deed, officially condemning Jackson’s conduct. Jackson later had the black mark removed from the Congressional Record.

In another, darker moment, Congress, a bastion of Jacksonians, passed the 1832 Indian Removal Act, aiding the State of Georgia in ridding themselves of the Cherokee.

When the Supreme Court ruled that the Natives could remain in the State, Jackson didn’t bat an eye. He ordered the US Army to force, not just the Cherokee, but other tribes onto the “Trail of Tears.” Moreover, as master of the “Hermitage,” near Nashville, Jackson held sway over some 500 black souls who tended his lands over the years.

The power King Andrew exercised rivaled the Almighty’s.

So the joke regarding the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 resonated with my high school juniors. JFK’s skillful restraint in that perilous moment would certainly have resolved differently in the hands of the hotheaded, autocratic, Andrew Jackson.

But today the joke isn’t so funny.

Again America is saddled with an impulsive autocrat who’s hunger for authority tests us all. Moreover, this Commander in Chief shows little understanding of America’s legal tradition–of basic high school civics. Much like Andrew Jackson, this current president carries himself as a wannabe monarch.

Most of us have been raised to avoid talking politics with friends and family as rude. But this is no ordinary moment in America.

The pertinent question this tale raises is this; what could this petulant president, with little impulse control do in the turmoil of a similar crisis?

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles are available on Kindle, or at http://www.river-of-january.com.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

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