McCain's 'Old Hickory' impersonation

A famously bitter election 180 years ago illuminates much of the present race and the persistence of the mythology of the backwoods Westerner riding in to smite the elitists. Obama better watch how this narrative is playing out.
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A famously bitter election 180 years ago illuminates much of the present race and the persistence of the mythology of the backwoods Westerner riding in to smite the elitists. Obama better watch how this narrative is playing out.

Twenty thousand guests mobbed the White House. The President was roughed up and forced to flee from the adoring rowdies. "Ladies fainted, men were seen with bloody noses, and such a scene of confusion took place as is impossible to describe," according to eyewitness Margaret Smith, describing President Andrew Jackson's 1829 Inaugural reception in a letter to a friend.

This 180-year-old scene might well be relived this January, if Westerners John McCain and Sarah Palin gain the White House. Imagine newly-sworn-in VP Sarah Palin descending to the White House lawn in a helicopter mounted with a wolf-scope rifle. Picture Sen. McCain pulled through the front gates in a Clydesdale-driven cart, with wife Cindy tossing Bud Lites to celebratory GOP faithful. Conjure Barack Obama retreating for a private vacation to Hawaii in George Clooney's Gulfstream, trying to piece together why things went wrong.

The presidential campaign of 1828 — featuring a rematch between President John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson — bears such a strange resemblance to today's contest for the presidency that it might contain clues of the eventual outcome.

For starters, the previous presidential election was hotly disputed after the initial vote of the Electoral College failed to produce a winner. As with 2000, the candidate who won the popular vote, Jackson, ultimately lost the election, which he felt had been stolen from him. General Andrew Jackson was a famous war hero, distinguishing himself in the War of 1812 and the Seminole Wars. A Western senator, he had been a prisoner of war. Questions were raised about his age and fitness for the high office, as he never fully recovered from a duel that left a bullet lodged near his heart.

By contrast, Adams was the son of a president, although he was not labeled "Adams 6" by the press. He was raised overseas, as his father served as an envoy in Europe after his presidency. He was a Harvard graduate, class of 1788. His party had lost control of Congress two years before the 1828 election.

Generally, the campaign was framed as the newcomer Westerner against the polished aristocrat. Using the popular media of the time, incumbent Adams took the low road in the press, charging Jackson with both bigamy and adultery. Jackson retaliated with similar vitriol. Some historians speculate that the charges of adultery hastened the death of Jackson's beloved wife, Rachel, who died before the inauguration.

Perhaps we can take some tiny dose of comfort from the fact that today's tawdry campaign is not the most vulgar in American history. Yet the story line of the contest can be instructive, especially to the strategists running Barack Obama's campaign.

First, Jackson won because the mythology of a Westerner raised in the Territory of Tennessee with a prolific war record was vastly appealing to Americans who wanted change. Adams, educated abroad and fluent in three languages, was painted as the candidate of privilege and the educated class. The popular mob at Jackson's inauguration was viewed with horror by America's merchant and upper classes, who probably thought the end of the world as they knew it had begun with the election of Old Hickory. In fact, the world did not end, and President Jackson served two enormously consequential terms in office.

Second, the actual policy differences between Adams and Jackson were fairly narrow. Both favored western expansion and high tariffs to protected domestic industry. Yet Jackson managed to portray himself as the candidate of change and emphasized his personal history. When opponents insulted Old Hickory by calling him a "Jackass," Jackson deftly adopted the symbol of the stubborn mule, which later became the Democratic Party's mascot.

The lessons here are manifold. By picking a far-western governor for his running mate, Arizonan McCain has masterfully attempted to recast this election in the Andrew Jackson mold, with John and Sarah as the out-of-power mavericks riding into corrupt Washington to clean up the town, despite his 26-year tenure in Congress. Sen. Obama's own life story, his multicultural upbringing and progress as a self-made man — far more compelling and authentic in many respects — has faded to the background, as the swarms of reporters rush to Wasilla to investigate Gov. Palin's brief career and enthrall us with tales of her hunting wolves and celebrating the Alaskan "First Dude's" love of snowmobiling.

It's not too late for Obama to recapture the imagination of the American people and the network and cable TV story-tellers. He has strong advantages in unfiltered media such as direct Web marketing and viral video distribution of his message. In many ways, his "home court advantage" lies in untested modes of communication that aren't marked by pundits or measured by polling.

For Obama, the gnawing question must be whether the quality of his character can shine through in a hard-fought battle that is increasingly dominated by political mythology and slimy personal attacks. The rich pages of our history clearly have much to tell us about the idiosyncrasies of the American character and what we value most in the selection of a president.


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