American Idol

In publishing a book on U.S. president Andrew Jackson, was Newsweek editor Jon Meacham trying to present a role model for America's new commander in chief, or showing the outgoing one that history may yet deem him a great leader?

"American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House" by Jon Meacham, Random House, 512 pages, $30

This week George W. Bush left the White House, after eight years as president of the United States. And although Bush isn't mentioned in Jon Meacham's book about America's seventh president, Andrew Jackson, its readers will find themselves drawing the occasional comparison between the two. Meacham, the editor of Newsweek magazine, writes that Jackson's many condescending rivals used to poke fun at his lack of a formal education, his defective accent in English and the narrowness of his world - the world of a violent and aggressive man.

But even the critics of Jackson, whose image adorns the $20 bill, acknowledge that, more than any other president, it was he who laid the foundations of the American presidency. And while one can attribute the book's success - it has been on the U.S. best-seller lists for several weeks and generated a lot of debate - to the author's style or the juicy tales he injects about the lively general, his household and 1830s Washington, it is quite clear that the timing and circumstances of the publication afford the most convincing explanation for its popularity.

Unlike the six presidents who preceded him, Andrew Jackson, who served as chief executive from 1829 to 1837, was not related to one of the founding fathers. Both his parents died when he was young; he achieved glory on the battlefield. Even during his term in office, the Tennessee native was still called "General," and when a monument to Jackson was built a few years after his death in 1845, he was depicted riding a horse, his sword drawn. Jackson fought the British, Native Americans and anyone he considered to be an enemy of freedom in the United States. He considered himself a warrior, and used his military reputation to pave the way to the presidency.

Born in 1767, Jackson claimed to represent the American people, from whom he said he drew strength. Such talk sounded revolutionary and even subversive on March 4, 1829, when he swore allegiance to his country and its constitution as president. The veteran families and remaining founding fathers became increasingly concerned that the soldier-president was trying to bring mob rule to the White House. In spite of that, many of Jackson's successors - presidents now considered innovators, who wanted to base the institution of the presidency on solid foundations and often got caught up in power struggles with other government branches - praised him and considered him a mentor. Presidents who followed in his footsteps in the Democratic party, which Jackson helped found, include Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry Truman, but even staunch Republicans like Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt were also influenced by him.

One family, one father

Meacham asserts that he wasn't trying to write a full biography of Jackson, but only to cover the years of his presidency; he even describes in detail the way the White House's interior looked at the time. Forty years after the institution of the presidency had been first created, Washington, D.C. was still a small town where everyone knew everyone else. In those days, insulted cabinet members didn't hesitate to challenge their detractors to a pistol duel - a practice to which even the president was accustomed.

Jackson entered the White House a widower, as his beloved and much-admired wife died in the period between the election and his inauguration. During his campaign and throughout all the years that he fought for the position he so longed for, his enemies didn't hesitate to vilify his wife: They accused her of not waiting until her divorce from her first husband was final before marrying Jackson. The thought that American voters would be bringing a bigamist into the White House horrified many. The Jacksons had no children, though the president was considered a family man. All his life, he talked about the American people as one family and about the president as the concerned and benevolent father, tasked with improving the well-being of everyone under his authority.

Jackson was indeed the great father of the federal Union. He even tried to describe his relations with Native Americans in terms of a father-son relationship, although he was their merciless enemy. Even when he expelled them beyond the Mississippi River, in an effort to expand the territory of his white brethren, he explained that the cruel and unconstitutional act was rooted in his concern for his victims, because proximity to white people damaged their culture and heritage. He moved them westward along what became known as the Trail of Tears, because after all, that was a father's job. He adopted the same approach with his slaves and in his uncompromising war against anyone who cast doubts on his abilities or on the justness of slavery.

Meacham tells his readers that the president he so admires didn't hesitate to suppress freedom of speech when he thought that right would damage some of the principles more dear to his heart. When New York abolitionists wanted to send anti-slavery pamphlets to the South, Jackson ordered the post office to confiscate the materials. While many believe that American democracy must protect itself against those seeking to undermine its foundations, the author exhibits no outrage when relating this story, saying instead that such is the nature of the institution of the presidency as advocated by Jackson.

Ultimately, U.S. presidents are neither philosophers nor ethicists. Jackson has taught us that a president is, first and foremost, a politician, who must start working on his reelection campaign as soon as he enters the White House. To do that, he needs to organize groups of supporters and to fight opponents, removing them from his path. In short, Jackson needed to behave like a politician, and in politics there's no room for righteous people or moralists. In politics you sometimes need to hoodwink and lie, as long as the incumbent doesn't forget the most important thing: the concern a father feels for his many children.

Jackson never stopped being a father. He was concerned for the well-being of America and demanded, proudly and frequently, that its status be respected. When the French violated a treaty or didn't meet their commitments to the American republic, he threatened war. When the opportunity arose to conquer Texas from its legal "owner," Mexico, he encouraged the Texan freedom fighters, all the while adopting a neutral tone when addressing the outside world: Whatever the settlers in Texas were doing wasn't the business of the American government.

Meacham sticks to the "family" issues, and alongside historic political debates, he also devotes a lot of space to life at the White House, to the behavior of the old general living there and the relatives he brought along to serve as escorts and secretaries.

The author also offers a very detailed description of the "Petticoat Affair" - one of the strangest episodes in Washington society life, and a scandal during Jackson's first term of office that quickly spilled beyond the gossip columns and threatened to cause a cabinet crisis. It involved the secretary of defense, John Henry Eaton, and his marriage to a divorcee with a reputation in Washington as a sexually loose woman. The cabinet wives and most of the diplomatic corps - as well as the niece of Jackson's late wife, who played the role of White House hostess - refused to accept her in polite society, although Jackson personally liked Eaton and found nothing wrong with his wife, Margaret. Jackson's opponents took the president's decision to side with the Eatons as an indication that the uncultured masses were taking over the institution of the presidency. Jackson himself couldn't understand how people, even those closest to him, dared to disregard his wishes. Meacham provides previously unpublished material about this incident and others.

Shared qualities

One does not need a lot of creative imagination to compare Bush to Jackson. In addition to the fact that Jackson lacked a formal education and that Bush was not considered to be particularly strong intellectually, and that they both could be seen to have a narrow worldview - it seems that both were determined to use force against those who dared to attack the honor of the United States. The seventh president also made a lot of mistakes; for example, he was unable to comprehend the destructive power of slavery. And in fighting the Bank of the United States, Jackson, like Bush, acted to strengthen the presidency, concentrating power in that one institution in the spirit of the constitution and tradition, as he understood them.

Is Meacham trying to tell readers that ultimately, after years of reassessment, Bush, like Jackson, will be able to cleanse his reputation? Will his name join the list of the great presidents, who took great risks and sometimes acted cruelly, at a time of crisis, when faced with those seeking to do ill to their beloved country, which was like a family to them?

After Barack Obama was elected U.S. president, American newspapers were happy to report that the president-elect was reading a lot about FDR. Roosevelt is considered one of the Democratic party's greatest leaders, whose conduct is worth studying, especially since he also entered the White House at a time of serious financial crisis - one that threatened to topple the economy, along with the country's social and cultural life. Yet the widely acclaimed Roosevelt overcame not only the nation's difficulties, but also the suffering caused by his affliction with polio, to rescue his country from the Great Depression and lead it into the war against the evil empires of Germany and Japan, ultimately turning it into the leader of the free world.

Roosevelt said on numerous occasions that Jackson was his role model - someone who "taught" him how to behave as president. Meacham seems intent on telling Obama that it would be better for him to seek out the original, rather than attempt to study the imitator. Obama's first task is to strengthen America's position and its power. Ultimately, history won't judge him harshly if he acts like a politician, doesn't meet all of his campaign promises and ignores all kinds of liberal advisers. However, history will not forgive Obama if he is soft and forgiving toward those trying to damage his honor and the honor of the exalted position he now holds. Future historians won't go easy on him if he doesn't figure out how to maintain America's standing in the world.

Meacham doesn't ignore Jackson's tough decisions. He mentions his active role in the suppression and removal of Native Americans, but his moral condemnation is sparing. The author likes his hero - a coarse, rough, impetuous man, who is quick to anger and imposes order and discipline. The boundaries of the American family, in whose service the president acts, are very fluid, changing with each generation. That is why it is very difficult to say whom the new president should turn to for advice or spiritual strength while he tries to save his country from a serious and painful crisis.

Obama has already chosen FDR as a role model - perhaps because he knows that many presidents before him chose Andrew Jackson. Some historians, intimately familiar with the trash heap of history, think it's better for him not to turn to either one, instead adopting as a role model another former White House inhabitant who doesn't get a lot of credit: Lyndon Johnson, successor of John F. Kennedy. Either way, it looks like Obama is arriving at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue with the hope of ultimately being among those presidents whose successors turn to them for ideas or strength when they assume the most fascinating and important job in global politics.

Prof. Eli Shaltiel is editor-in-chief of the "Ofakim" series published by Am Oved.