The Running Joke

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Each 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 direct challenge led to the 1962 Missile Crisis. At the end of deconstructing Kennedy’s delicate decision-making and the negotiations that peacefully ended the 13 day crisis, I often joked, “aren’t you glad Andrew Jackson wasn’t president?” That line always earned a good laugh from the kids.

But really it isn’t funny. Not any more. Let me explain.

America’s seventh president was a mercurial character. He loved blindly and hated passionately. If convinced his honor had been challenged, the man dueled—sometimes with pistols, sometimes with knives. It all depended on how he felt. The provocation behind most of these confrontations concerned Jackson’s wife, Rachel, who had, unknowingly, years earlier, married Jackson before her divorce from her abusive, first husband had completed.

In one deadly episode, Jackson challenged Charles Dickinson, a noted marksman, to a duel for speaking Rachel’s name in a tavern. In preparation, the future president selected an oversized cape to wear to the dueling grounds. Jackson intended to disguise the precise location of his heart, knowing Dickinson would take deadly aim on his upper left chest. And the ploy worked. Though Jackson did take a slug in his left shoulder, he remained on his feet, successfully shooting and killing his adversary.

In another instance, Jackson determined that Kentucky Senator, Henry Clay, was his greatest enemy. A Cincinnati newspaper had published the old account of Rachel’s adulterous past, during the hotly contested election of 1828. As it happened, the Ohio newspaper editor who published the story was a good friend of Clay’s. Making matters worse, Rachel read the story of her checkered past—the shock apparently killing the woman who should have been First Lady. For the rest of his days, Jackson opposed Clay at every legislative turn, coolly remarking later that one of his regrets was not shooting Senator Clay.

Reelected in 1832, Andrew Jackson went on to destroy the Second Bank of the United States, the central financial institution of the young country. Clay had supported this bank, which was enough reason for Jackson to see to its destruction. The President promptly vetoed a renewal charter on the bank, removing Federal funds at once. Jackson then turned around and deposited the money into pet banks, local private, unregulated concerns across the country. Mismanaged by these small firms, the country fell into one the longest, deepest depressions in American history—the Panic of 1837. An astounded Senate formally censured President Jackson for this reckless deed, condemning Jackson’s conduct. Later, still enormously popular in the expanding west, and rural South, Jackson orchestrated a complete purge of this censure from the Congressional Record. His bitter enemies began referring to him as “King Andrew the First.”

In another, darker moment, Congress, a bastion of Jacksonians, passed the 1832 Indian Removal Act, aiding of the State of Georgia to rid themselves of the Cherokee nation. Gold had been found on Indian lands, and the acreage attracted white farmers. When the Supreme Court ruled that the Indians could remain on their lands, 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.” When asked about his bald defiance of the Court’s decision, Jackson remarked, “It’s (Chief Justice John) Marshall’s decision, let him enforce it.”

Inside Jackson’s world, people belonged in neat categories. As master of his plantation, the Hermitage, near Nashville, blacks were property. As a “gentleman” women were helpless ornaments, and in General Jackson’s eyes, natives were fair game, to be removed or exterminated. (See the Red Stick War.) And this president believed he represented the will of the American people, no judicial or governmental restritions concerned him.

So the joke regarding the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1963 resonated with my high school juniors. JFK’s skillful handling of that perilous moment would certainly have turned out far differently in the hands of hotheaded, autocratic, Andrew Jackson.

But today the joke isn’t so funny. Once again America is saddled with an impulsive strongman who’s hunger for power rails against legal limits. Moreover, this new Commander in Chief shows little understanding of America’s legal tradition–of basic high school civics. In fairness, some Americans like his brand of knee-jerk improvisation, same as in the day of Jackson. But the  facade doesn’t resonate with the rest of us–his antics aren’t leadership. 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. While we smile and chat about the weather Native Americans are once again harmed by an order signed by an indifferent President. His all-white, largely male cabinet has quickly dispensed with programs that aid women and African-Americans, marginalizing gender and race issues as unimportant. His administration’s malice toward American-Muslims and silence regarding violence toward Jewish-Americans is disturbing. The worst treatment, treatment Jackson would recognize, has been reserved for immigrants, especially those from south of the border, or escaping war zones in the Middle East.

This writer believes that in a reversal of chronology, Jackson may have launched those nuclear warheads in 1963. His behavior from an earlier time leaves little doubt. The pertinent question this morality 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

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