March 30, 2010

i sure do miss the adamses

as some of you know, i recently had major abdominal surgery, which is why i have been absent from the blog (and society) for the last month or so. the most expedient way to catch up on how i felt about andrew jackson is to share two different online conversations david and i had when we were reading the meacham biography.

me: this jackson is so emo
David: right?
me: i cannot imagine jon meacham and ralph ketcham talking at parties
David: you should mock up a dialogue
me: he illustrates every point with a long list of things separated by commas
David: haha
me: lover, warrior, friend, father, d-bag, husband
David: he loves the contradictions
me: so original
i'm only on page 50 or so, but i'm still waiting for him to calm down and tell the story
David: i am at same place
me: i'm glad i already know most of the context from jqa
otherwise i wouldn't even know that him seizing florida was a big deal

[and a day or two later...]

David: i gotta get moving on old hickory
me: i'm about 100 pages in
it's so different
it feels like part of a different project
David: elaborate pls
me: he's all about atmosphere
like talking more about society and the invention of the train than about jackson's policy
David: jqa loved the train
me: he did, i want to write about it
David: dickens loved it too
i wish there was more time
me: based on how well i feel i know madison or jqa
i feel like i don't know jackson at all
i know him like i know tom hanks
David: do you think its because as a person he is a son of a bitch
(jackson not hanks)
me: i think it's meacham's philosophy of characterization
like what he thinks it's important for us to know
which is nothing
David: i notice that for some of the "lesser" presidents the book titles are like [President]---His Life and Times
but you wouldnt think that would be necessary for AJ, who actually was an interesting man

and i think that just about sums up how i felt about the jackson biography. (and yes, david and i spend a lot of time discussing the presidents online.) one of the most complex figures in our history was usually summed up by a string of painstakingly chosen adjectives, without a ton of explication behind them. the fact that he drastically changed the role of a president is covered, but given much less attention than the squabbling of the white house inner circle. but that's all old news.

as david has already very ably iterated, martin van buren was like a spin-off of the andrew jackson administration. and, as with all spin-offs, didn't recapture the magic of the original and didn't last as long. martin van buren was a consummate party man. i bet it would have been a fun party trick to think up the most convoluted political scenarios and see how long it took him to form the democratic party's response. within minutes he would list all the precedents, the party's position on all the relevant issues, and whose arm to twist to get it all done. he was nicknamed "the little magician" because of his talent for working politics. and he is always described as competent, efficient, and loyal. but as a president, this made him uninspiring. he entered office during an economic recession, and all he did was stay the course. he showed no creative initiative or leadership. only the 3rd president to lose re-election, he lost not because the american people had grown to dislike him, but because they had never really grown to like him.

he's the first guy who, while i was reading the biography, i thought, maybe wasn't cut out to be president.

March 16, 2010

Popping the Question

When we started reading John Quincy Adams, Janet said something like, "Folks, we are no longer on money." The Revolutionary Era was over. But our drop-off was not very severe--we took a step down but did not fall off a cliff. This is because Presidents Quincy Adams and Jackson, like their predecessors, possessed the heretofore ineffable qualities of Great Presidents. They governed boldly, they are remembered, and Jackson, yes, is on money.

Martin Van Buren is the first of our forgotten Presidents. Something of a Presidential history buff, all I knew of MVB before reading this book I had learned from a legendary book report by my friend Lisa's sister, whose overreliance on her electric dictionary and thesaurus led to exposition on Martian Van Buren's Trial of Lacerations. So our first order of business is to figure out the difference. Why are some borderline-evil Presidents like Jackson remembered, while others are forgotten? I think the answer has something to do with The Question.

As dramatized by the West Wing episode, "The Question," a threshold statement every presidential wannabe has to make is a cogent and persuasive answer to this question: "Why do you want to be President?" Ted Kennedy, for one, struggled to answer this in his nascent 1980 campaign, and never recovered. The Question separates those who seek the presidency as a means toward improving their country from those who seek it as an end in itself.

Say what you will (and we have) about the flaws of the first seven great man Presidents, but all of them could have answered that question. Washington hated the idea of occupying the office, but knew he was indispensable as a man who could govern above the partisan bickering. Jefferson was more ambitious, essentially seeking a real-world laboratory for his philosophical musings on democracy. Even poor old impotent JQA was a servant, his self always sublimated to his countrymen. Why did he want to be President? To lend America his talents.

My guess is that MVB could not have answered this question, and that this is what separates him from the earlier Presidents. From the time he was elected Governor of New York, Van Buren's every move seemed calculated only in terms of the next election, or the next step of his career. As Jackson's Secretary of State, MVB was known internally and internationally as a yes-man whose biggest diplomatic coup was befriending the ill-reputed wife of a cabinet member. As Jackson's veep, his biggest successes are unknown, at least from a reading of this book. The guy's biggest talent seemed to be not pissing anybody off.

When MVB ran for and won the Presidency, he was carried to the starting line and over the finish line by Jackson. Voters were voting for an extension of the Jackson presidency, with MVB acting as a seat-filler. Why did the voters want MVB to be president? Because they wanted more Jackson. Why did MVB want it? Because it was there.

I am not so far into his Presidency yet, and am interested to see how his political philosophy plays out now that he has attained the ultimate. I suspect that he will be kind of dull and uninspiring now that he has nothing left to run for.

presidential fact #17

As well as/despite being the first President not born an American, Van Buren is the only President whose first language was not English. It was Dutch.

March 11, 2010

presidential fact #16

martin van buren was the first president born after the founding of the country (1782).