Redefining “Presidential,” And Reconsidering Overreaction

In some way, Donald Trump is like the weather:  you’d like to ignore him, but you just can’t.  He’s like that blustering, loud summer thunderstorm that blows in on the day you’ve scheduled an outdoor party and requires everybody to change their plans whether they want to or not.

It’s pretty obvious, after only a few days in office, that the era of Trump is going to change how we look at our presidents, and what we consider to be “presidential” behavior.  In recent decades, we’ve become used to our presidents maintaining a certain public decorum and discretion.  Sure, there have been a few exceptions in the sexual dalliance department, but for the most part our modern presidents have tried to take the personal high road.  They leave the attacks to their minions and strive to stay above the fray.

Imacon Color ScannerNot President Trump.  He’s down there himself, throwing punches via Twitter.  His most recent activities in this regard involve lashing out at the federal district court judge that issued a temporary restraining order against Trump’s immigration executive order.  Trump referred to Judge James Robart as a “so-called judge” and said his ruling was ridiculous.  Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer immediately attacked Trump, saying his comment “shows a disdain for an independent judiciary that doesn’t always bend to his wishes and a continued lack of respect for the Constitution.”

I’ve got mixed feelings about all of this.  I personally prefer the more genteel, above-the-fray presidential model; I think it’s more fitting for a great nation that seeks to inspire others and lead by example.  I wish our President wouldn’t “tweet.”  But I also recognize that American presidents haven’t always been that way.  The behavior of presidents of the 1800s — think Andrew Jackson, for example — was a lot more bare-knuckled than what has come since.

I also think there’s danger for the Democrats in repeatedly overreacting to Trump.  If you argue that everything Trump does is the most outrageous travesty in the history of the republic (and that’s pretty much what you get from the Democrats these days) you ultimately are going to be viewed as the boy who cried wolf — which means the townspeople aren’t going to pay attention when you really want them to listen.  And in this case the reality is that, since the very early days of our country, elected politicians have been strongly criticizing judges.  Andrew Jackson famously declined to enforce a Supreme Court ruling, and Abraham Lincoln harshly lambasted the Supreme Court, and its Chief Justice, after the Dred Scott decision.  More recently, the rulings of the Warren Court became a political lightning rod during the ’60s, and President Obama saw fit to directly criticize the current Supreme Court, sitting right in front of him during a State of the Union speech, about their Citizens United ruling.

So Trump’s reference to a “so-called judge” really isn’t that big a deal when viewed in the historical context.  What’s weird about it is that it comes out in tweets — which makes it seem less presidential and, because it’s a tweet, less serious.  When Trump has these little outbursts I think if the Democrats simply shook their heads and said that what Trump is doing is “regrettable,” without acting like his every move threatens to bring down the Constitution, Trump’s Twitter act will wear thin on its own.

But they can’t help themselves right now, and neither can Trump.  So we’re going to have to ride out a few of those thunderstorms.

The Faces On Our Money

I’m glad that Harriet Tubman will become the new face on the front of the $20 bill.  When I read, in connection with the announcement that the twenty will be redesigned, that no woman has been featured on U.S. paper currency in more than 100 years and no black woman has appeared on American bills, ever, I thought those were ridiculous omissions that should be corrected as quickly as possible.  Tubman, who bravely led escaping slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad and then advocated for universal suffrage and women’s rights, is a great choice.

why-we-could-soon-see-harriet-tubman-on-the-20-billI’m not sorry that Andrew Jackson has been booted off the front of the $20 bill and moved to the back, either.  Sure, Old Hickory may have beaten the Brits at the Battle of New Orleans and been a strong proponent of the federal government at the time the southern states first started talking about secession, but he was a slaveholder who “owned” 150 human beings at the time of his death.  You can talk all you want about Andrew Jackson being a product of his era and his place, but given his slaveholding past, putting him on the face of one of the most used American bills in this day and age is just wrong.  I’d take him off the bill entirely.  We can learn about Jackson during history class, but we don’t need to see him every time we are paying for our lunch.

For that matter, I’d like to see the decision to put Harriet Tubman on the twenty start a process of moving away from politicians being the only faces on our currency.  I’m as big a fan of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln as anyone, but I’m heartily sick and tired of politicians being the default option for coins, currency, or the names of public buildings.  There’s a lot more to America than dead Presidents.  How about thinking outside the box, for once, focusing on the richness of American culture, American invention, and American accomplishment, and coming up with some non-political figures to feature on our paper money?  I’d rather have Louis Armstrong, Thomas Edison, Marie Curie, young Elvis, Dr. Martin Luther King, Lucille Ball, Dr. Jonas Salk, Diana Ross and the Supremes, and Neil Armstrong in my billfold any day.

Walking In The Troubling Footsteps Of Old Hickory

IMG_3571Yesterday Kish and I went to the Hermitage, the plantation home of Andrew Jackson.  It is conveniently located within the footprint of metropolitan Nashville, and it’s well worth a visit — both to learn a bit more about one of our Presidents, but also to spend some time pondering the imponderable question of why any American, much less a President, thought it was acceptable to own slaves.

IMG_3558

Andrew Jackson’s grave

The Hermitage consists of a large brick pillared and porticoed plantation home and its grounds, an adjoining garden in which Jackson and members of his family are buried, and a series of walking paths that take you to other places and buildings on the plantation grounds, some of which are still standing and some of which are visible only in the form of foundations traced on the ground.

The main building is beautiful and well-preserved, with original wallpaper, lighting fixtures, and furnishings.  You can see Jackson’s study, his bed and his chamber pot, the weekly newspapers he read and bound in large books and the room where he died.  You can hear from the friendly guides wearing period costume about the house and Jackson’s family and his love for his wife and their adoption of their son.  You can visit his grave in a beautiful garden, where Old Hickory lies beneath a small Greek dome.

IMG_3568

One of the slave cabins at the Hermitage

The real impact of the tour for us, however, didn’t occur until we walked away from the main building and its well-kept grounds and began touring the fields and outbuildngs, where Jackson’s slaves toiled.  Jackson eventually owned 150 slaves who did the real work on the plantation.  They planted and picked cotton and operated the cotton gin that Jackson built, churned butter, tended the horses, mucked out the stables, and cooked the meals.  Little is known about them, and when you walk back to the area where the slaves lived and see photos of their lost possessions that preservationists have uncovered, you cannot help but feel an immense sadness and anger.

I commend that Hermitage for making a significant effort to cast light on the fact that one of our most famous Presidents was a large slaveholder who bought and sold slaves as chattel and achieved wealth through their uncompensated labors.  He may not have been the cruelest master in the Old South, but he somehow rationalized the ownership of fellow human beings.  That simple fact, for me, makes the rest of the Jackson story a lot less relevant.

Years after Jackson’s death, during the midst of the Civil War, the Union Army captured Nashville and slaves were free to leave.  The vast majority of the slaves on the Hermitage plantation promptly left, choosing an uncertain future over continued interaction with their former masters.  That tells you all you need to know about slavery.

Old Hickory At Jackson Square

The French Quarter’s Jackson Square is named after Old Hickory — Major General (and later President) Andrew Jackson.  Jackson is forever linked to New Orleans because of the 1815 Battle of New Orleans, where American forces defeated the British — even though the War of 1812 had officially ended with the signing of treaty weeks beforehand.

The square is a beautiful piece of ground, close to the Mississippi River and adjacent to St. Louis Cathedral.  It features a suitably heroic statue of Old Hickory on horseback.