- - Monday, November 5, 2018


By David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler

Basic Books, $32, 433 pages

As someone who served in the White House during the Watergate bombardment, then the shameless media ridiculing of Gerald Ford and, later, the media attempt to marginalize Ronald Reagan as an air-headed, failed actor with an extremist agenda, I’m pretty immune to the moans and groans about how much meaner today’s political climate is than ever before.

The only change really worth noting is that the kind of naked partisanship once confined to the editorial pages and opinion columns now seems to be driving the headlines and news stories. Just check out the front page of The Washington Post or The New York Times on an average news day.

But none of this compares to the sheer viciousness of American journalism in the early days of the republic. Thomas Jefferson, while serving in George Washington’s Cabinet, not only engaged in malicious leaking, but used departmental funds to bankroll gutter journalists badmouthing the Father of Our Country. He continued the practice as a presidential candidate and it finally came back to bite him when one of his journalistic hit men, denied a patronage payoff he considered his due, turned his fire on the Sage of Monticello.

While the name James Callendar means nothing to most present-day Americans, he was the man who broke the story of Jefferson’s longtime liaison, complete with offspring, with a slave mistress, Sally Hemings, which most modern historians concede to have existed on the basis of both overwhelming circumstantial evidence and DNA findings.

But worse was to follow. For all-time journalistic lows, it would be hard to beat the 1828 campaign that resulted in Andrew Jackson’s defeat of incumbent President John Quincy Adams. As David and Jeanne Heidler remind us in their soundly researched but occasionally polemical account of what could almost have been titled “The Making of the President 1828,” mud was the everyday political currency of the epoch. For sheer nastiness, consider the following example:

In the summer of 1828 Charles Hammond, an “investigative journalist” in the anti-Jackson camp, “claimed to have information from a respectable elderly man living in Ohio that Andrew Jackson was not the son of Andrew and Elizabeth Jackson but was actually the son of a prostitute named Fanny Jennings and a mulatto slave. The story was beyond fantastical. It was intended to sway those voters who would be repelled by a candidate with a racially mixed ancestry.”

As the Heidlers conclude, with masterful understatement, the “story understandably enraged Andrew Jackson by making him a bastard and his mother a whore.” And the suggestion of black blood running in his veins must have been particularly annoying to Jackson who, aside from having become a slave-owning plantation owner, had earned some of his early wealth from being a slave dealer, a far dirtier line of work.

But “The Rise of Andrew Jackson” is about much more than the dirty journalism — and dirty linen — of the period. It is a revealing, if occasionally exaggerated, account of what the authors see as the first “modern” presidential campaign, complete with national campaign operatives, damage control specialists, populist slogans and mass rallies.

Their major weakness is a tendency to treat Andrew Jackson as a one-dimensional, dubious war hero who earned a proverbial 15 minutes of fame at the one-sided Battle of New Orleans and was manipulated into the presidency by cunning political fixers. As Old Hickory proved again and again as president, he was a tough — sometimes spitefully tempestuous — leader with an unbending dedication to the extension and preservation of an unbreakable federal union. He had plenty of rough edges but also plenty of guts and conviction.

For today’s Americans, the authors’ description of the election eve atmosphere 190 years ago may seem eerily familiar: ” the sense that a large and irresistible force was on the verge of its moment was palpable. The country had done more than divide during the campaign. People confronted the consequences of losing this election with more gravity than they had felt in almost three decades … [One side] had promised to end corruption in Washington and dismantle its haughty aristocracy … [The other] had sounded alarms over a government headed by [an outsider] with a history of impulsive behavior. These differences bred fundamental disagreements about the culture and direction of the country.”

As the old saying goes, the more things change the more they remain the same.

• Aram Bakshian Jr., a former aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, has written widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.

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