Saturday, September 5, 2015

American Lion by Jon Meacham

I have read quite a few books about Andrew Jackson, our seventh president who is a contradictory historical leader, who really is the founder of the Democratic party, yet this 2008 history of  his White House years in the 1830's  by Jon Meacham appealed to me.  It too sat on my shelf awhile, another booksale find.  This hardback edition is 361 pages with an epilogue by the author, "He still lives" and 76 pages of interesting footnotes, most of which I  read through chapter by chapter.  It begins, "It looked like war.  In his rooms on the second floor of the White House, in the flickering light of candles and oil lams, President Andrew Jackson was furious and full of fight.  He had just been reelected to a second term as America's seventh president, and South Carolina was defying him.  He hated it, for he believed to his core that the state was about to destroy the nation.  For Jackson, the crisis was not only political.  It was personal." 

 I was familiar with his rough life, orphaned at 14, he never knew his father who died the year he was born,  prologue page xix, "I have been Tossed upon the waves of fortune." Jackson said and he spent his life seeking order amid chaos and authority among men.  I was familiar with his physical description, but Meacham reminds us on the first page, "gaunt but striking, formidable head of white hair, nearly constant cough, a bullet lodged in his chest, Jackson 65 years old that winter stood 6'1" and weighed 140 pounds."   A slight  man but huge in determination and temperament, Jackson expanded the presidential powers in ways that none of his predecessors would have considered.   The author says Jackson is in many ways the most like us.  Reading about Jackson one  sees the American character being formed and our country's competing impulses and struggles between grace, rage, generosity and justice.  Jackson is the epitome of the self made man and learned as a young orphan to adapt to shifting circumstances.  He spent his life seeking affection and deference and wanted to be both admired and in charge. (prologue XXII).  Jackson considered steadiness of faith and sophistication of thought  as essential leadership qualities.  

Life in his time was rough and tiring, yet he said"I was born for a storm and a calm does not suit me." (Prologue xxiv)  

Jackson survived tragedies including the death of his beloved wife, Rachel who was plagued by vicious scandals and rumors.  He was loyal to his friends and family and that would cause problems for him in the White House.  Still, he stuck with his friends no matter what, a trait I admire.  Often times this loyalty did not serve him well as with the Eaton's whom he upheld amidst all scandal and  despite being at odds with his own niece, Emily of whom he  was most fond, especially after Rachel's death.  Emily and her husband would be his key White House hostess and adviser and  at times his demands would separate husband and wife.

 Jackson  was an unrepentant slave owner.  He had rescued and raise an Indian orphan yet he was responsible for evicting and moving the Indian tribes across the Mississippi having convinced himself that the Indians could never exist alongside whites.  He absolutely abhorred the Eastern financial elites and the Bank of the US which he felt was corrupt beyond redemption.  Yet he swore to die if necessary to preserve the power of the central government.  He and his country at the time, achieved great things while committing grievous sins.  

This is packed with history of the time and filled with interactions among so many historical characters like John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren, Daniel Webster, John Coffee, John Calhoun and  all the historical figures of the times.  Meacham writes as an investigative journalist and his intense research results in a vivid readable portrayal of Jackson and his inner circle. 

I thoroughly enjoyed  American Lion and give it 5 *****

A Time to Heal Gerald R Ford

A book sale find which has been on my to be read shelf a year or so, Gerald Ford's autobiography of his time in the White House, published in 1979.  Back then, I was very annoyed that he pardoned Richard Nixon, but came to understand later  that it was the right thing to do in hopes that the country could move forward and he as the new president could begin to  set in place policies to improve the economy. There is a full detail of his controversial decision to pardon Nixon and the bizarre behind the scenes negotiations between Washington and San Clemente, between the new and the fallen President.

Reading this 442 page hardback is now like reading a history book of that trying time and as I have come to admire Gerald Ford over years, reading this in his own words, gave me a breadth of understanding that I never had before of the turmoil he faced.  He was a very decent man, honorable and  never dreamed of being president, in fact his aspiration was to become Speaker of the House.  He describes his political battles while in Congress, and his long hours as House Minority leader.    There is a small part about his very early years and how his natural father appears when he is 16 years old, the hard times the family went through, and his struggle to be accepted by the Yale Law school. Ford was never given the credit he deserved as a man who rose to guide a tattered country. Page 156 describing the growing entitlements and  how by 1974, the role of government was shifting from promoting domestic order and maintaining national security to redistribution of income on a massive scale. " More and more people who worked were transferring more and more money to people who didn't work. ...I couldn't abolish those entitlement programs but I could try to put the brakes on their rate of growth."

I had long forgotten that he tried early on to deal with rising crime (pgs. 269-270) adopting the theories of Harvard Professor James Q Wilson,  who advocated that crimes should be punished, that the purpose of prison is to punish not to rehab.  "The certainty of having to spend a specified time behind bars after being convicted of a serious offense, Wilson maintained, was more important as a deterrent than almost anything else.  Finally Wilson worried that the nation's opinion leaders were focusing their concerns on the criminal and not on the victims of criminal acts."

Back cover
Throughout the narrative he describes his amazement at the partisan  politics that had begun to fiercely dominate the country,  his disbelief because he thought he had friends on both sides. Yet inspite of defeats he never blames anyone nor becomes bbitter, how different from those today who do only blaming.   On pages 296-8,  he details his decision to run for president rather than retiring as he had intended to do before he became President and  the rise of the Reagan candidacy.  There is quite a bit of depth about the Reagan race and from reading I can easily see that Ford was not fond of Reagan, was not a fan and believed he was a one liner, with no accomplishments.  I wonder what he would think today.  This is the essence of a good book to me, read with the   background of history, a history I lived thru; I gained new insights and greater understanding of that time and how we got to where we are today.    The discussion about the problems with Solzhenitsyn brought a flash back to an era I had also forgotten. The Chinese, Chairman Mao himself warned Ford about the Russian threat in years to come, it has materialized.   On pages 338-341, the descriptions of the  nation's pending issues and the legislation that he sent to Congress and the political maneuvers that thwarted much of what he attempted is ponderous, he wrestles with vetoes and issues that could have been resolved way back then except for the  extremism that arose.

Page 346, "In many respects I had all the liabilities of an incumbent President and few advantages.  ..Occasionally in making up my mind whether to sign or veto a bill I had appeared to be indecisive.  The Common Situs Picketing bill was a perfect example."  This struggle with labor unions, congress, and members of his cabinet makes fascinating historical reading now.  Yet how far the country has traveled down the downward slope since Ford's presdency.  Reading this book shows how history becomes  predictable.  Page 346, " "A great nation cannot escape its responsibilities.  Responsibilities abandoned today will return as more acute crises tomorrow."  Flash forward today with the wreck Obama is continuing to make of this country, especially with the Iran nuclear deal, creating absolute crises and likely nuclear war in the future.

I rate this book 4 stars, some details are tedious but my depth of understanding of governmental operations, policy implications and legislation  handily contributed to my appreciation of the work.  Once again my 34 years career in state government is beneficial.  Still one could skim some of the detail and still appreciate the history conveyed, written then but enjoyable reading now.