January 19, 2010
All the World's a Stage
F. Scott. Fitzgerald said that there are no second acts in American lives. He was wrong, of course- American lives, and especially American politician's lives, are all about second acts, and especially third acts. Arnold Schwarzenegger came to America as a sexually confused teenaged bodybuilder, became the greatest action star of all time, and wound up the steward of the world's tenth biggest economy. George W. Bush started as a rich fuck-up, owned a professional sports franchise, then became a busy President. Richard Nixon went from a powerless Vice-President, to an embarrassing failure of a gubernatorial candidate, to the Presidency. And so on.
JQA is also a man of three acts. The first we have already talked about- the tortured prodigy, the reluctant family man, the brilliant statesman. The third act is certainly his finest- the curmudgeonly congressman who dedicated his days to promoting abolitionism. He was the original lion in winter (the latest of whom is rolling over in his grave tonight).
Act Two was relatively uneventful and uninspiring, which is surprising as this constituted JQA's presidency. Nagel devotes only ten or twenty or thirty pages to the presidency, because not much really happened during it. History has long since forgotten whatever minor policy decisions JQA made during his four years as commander in chief. From a historical perspective, it is dust in the wind- a stopgap between the last founding father presidency and the first commoner presidency.
But we have been searching for JQA the man in these posts, and Act Two serves its purpose as a useful bridge between Act One's precocious neurosis and Act Three's heroic bluster. I suggest that JQA's presidency is when he finally stopped caring so much about the public opinion of him. When he decided to run for President (which in those days meant you decided not to protest too much when others decided to nominate you for President), JQA quickly realized that his top competitor would be the war hero, Andrew Jackson, from Tennessee. Jackson had captured the public's imagination with his battlefield exploits and aw-shucks charm, and stood in sharp contrast to the stuffy JQA. JQA thus did everything right in attempting to woo his rival and the public. He hosted Jackson with a fancy banquet at his own home, at the end of which Jackson gave a lengthy toast to JQA's wife, Louisa. Even when Jackson eventually entered the race and lost to JQA, Jackson congratulated his victorious rival with a hearty handshake.
However all of JQA's sucking up got him nowhere. From the time he took office, hateful rumors were floated from the Jackson camp accusing JQA of being a sexual deviant, adulterer, and cheat. His rivals in Congress used procedural delays and dishonest rhetoric to thwart his every attempt at governing. JQA retreated into a state of depression that briefly isolated his wife and friends.
After four years and a trouncing by the new President Jackson, JQA was relieved to move out of the White House. But he was not relieved because he now was able to leave politics- rather, he was now free from the restraints imposed on him by the presidency, which required him to compromise his powerful ideas and govern the whole country rather than throw partisan bombs. JQA was ready to fight, finally. Whereas he entered the White House a deliberate man with a deep concern for how he was perceived, he left it an angry man who needed the country to know that they were wrong for disagreeing with him. As Bob Dylan said, "there's no success like failure." For JQA, failure finally rid him of his fear of failure-unchained, he followed it with his greatest years, discussed next time on attimesdull.