Three Presidential Essays
they call him teedie as a boy, as the weak boy shut up in the family’s brownstone on twentieth street teedie Roosevelt, shut in the brownstone, the gilded cage, the volume of j p wood’s natural history his way out, words and pictures in the low light of a stormy manhattan afternoonwhat aggravates his lungs: excitement, exertion, strain, the things the industrialized and natural worlds outside his windows share in common, could provide to him if he could only catch his breath; if only his small lungs did not seizethey tell him he can never be out he can never be in the worldwhen he cannot breathe his father is the one who can best convince his lungs to unclench their fists to calm the fight to bring peace, his father the philanthropist, the good man, the man who taught his son that he would not tolerate selfishness or cruelty, idleness, cowardice, or untruthfulnessbut the father also the man who paid another man to take his place in the war the son’s shame at thisbut the father still the man against the doctors encourages him to exercise to break asthma’s grip on him, then boxing and wrestling and hiking and everything elseand from the father the idea takes root in him of power and kindness—that the weakness inside him can be overcome through work if he can work harder than everyone else then he cannot failand then the willingness to take up the fight in all the ways yes the rough riders yes san juan hill yes the great white fleet yes big stick diplomacy but also the fight in america so trust busting so a minimum guaranteed wage so a pure food and drug act so inviting booker t washington to dinner at the white house, the first black man to dine there as a guest, the southern democrats enraged but theodore will not be bullied will not stop the fighteven the safari to africa after office because the violence of hunting leads to the strength of education decades after reading j p wood on twentieth street he helps fill the smithsonian’s new natural history museumhe’s president because his enemies stick him in the least powerful position in america the vice presidency but then czolgosz and mckinley meet so then kindness: he inherits almost a full term elected again on his own so he will not seek a second elected term a third term really and instead his friend taft ascends to the officeand strength four years later because his friend means well but he means well feebly and this is not a place for the weak to leadwhen he loses he saves himself through work sending himself down a tributary of the amazon the river of doubt and survives what should have killed most other men, the illness the river the natives who debate nightly about killing the white men in the midst and decide not to kill, the mercy of strengthi do not mean to praise him or his strength or to suggest he is without flaw he is with flaw or to argue that combat is our first route to success because that has not been america’s story these days or my story or perhaps not your story but there is something in the striving that i admire something in the desire to gain power so that it might be used well for the less fortunate that seemslike the best impulses of this country because either a constitution written by white landowning males has malfunctioned because it has expanded its rights to people they did not or could not conceive of as humanor it has functioned exactly the way they meant it to function, unclenching the freedoms it took violently, letting them expand, letting them breatheteedie becomes teddy becomes Theodorehe dies at night asleep his lungs of course one son ahead of him in the darkness shot down over germany in the war to end war and another son telegraphing the remaining siblings the old lion is deadi don’t know if i believe the metaphor of president-as-father but what did they give to us when they walked the halls with us as our lungs seized and we gasped for breath?the fight? the peace?
Because he died at home, in bed. I have seen the bed.
Because “Trail of Tears” is the closest this country has to a shorthand for genocide, for national shame.
Because he set in motion the removal of native tribes in 1830. He played the role of “Great White Father” but in the most terrifying display of paternalism we can imagine.
Because he helped make this country great in so many senses of the word.
Because he dismantled the National Bank.
Because he fought the States’ Rights advocates.
Because he defied South Carolina’s claim to nullification.
Because he paid off the entire national debt.
Because he said “Our federal Union—it can and must be preserved,” and it shocked the room to hear a son of Tennessee say that.
Because he did these things, and made this country great, and because the reasons for this country’s greatness include the stolen labor of Africans and the stolen land of its natives, I sing this death song for Andrew Jackson.
Because we spent a week in grade school on the first Thanksgiving.
Because I learned about the Sand Creek Massacre from a placemat in a Colorado restaurant and not a history teacher.
Because I live in a state where people argue that a football team is a tribute, and never seem to understand that tributes are for the nearly dead or already vanished.
Because when we spend twenty dollars, we see a man who held the country together and who destroyed nations.
Because I cannot dismiss him outright, because his adopted son, Andrew Jackson Junior, was a native boy, I sing this death song.
Because I believe that an essay can sing, that it can take the ordinary clay of fact and breathe life into it.
Because I believe that Andrew Jackson is all the parts of America, a boy during the Revolution, a war wager, a campaigner, a grieving widower, he is Whitman with a tiny waist.
Because this death song is a form I have made up, an anaphora of deceit, a lie to get at the truth. I heard a death song once and decided to use it.
Because I am a white man writing about another white man, neither of us even the one-sixteenth that some claim, both of us failing the blood quantum.
Because I believe in the telling of the story, in finding the right arrangement of the facts, in the history of our federal Union—it can and must be told.
Because he died at home, in bed, after enforcing Indian Removal for 46,000. I have seen the bed. It is small, comfortable. He was a small man.
I sing this song in passing here. For Andrew Jackson, and for me, and perhaps you.
My song is done.
1. The football sidelines are a wonderful place to play the cheerleader while nursing your grudges, all the sis-boom-bah a cover-up for the steady accumulations of your enemies list, those SOBs who kept you off the field for so long.
2. You want platitudes, praise? Go find one of the apologists; they’re out there. They’ll make him seem human, not monster. But his monstrosity has a way of rising to the surface every time, like his five o’clock shadow, the one that doomed him in 1960 against Kennedy.
3. I remember the platitudes when he died, the praise for his foreign policy triumphs. It was the first time a president had died in my lifetime. In the papers, the photo of him on Air Force One in China, arriving after the ping pong team.
4. Foreign policy genius, because he went to China. Visible wars and secret wars. How many tons of explosives, how many Hiroshimas’ worth? As the bomber flies, it’s about 3,250 feet from the Watergate Complex to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
5. Always left out: the constant exclusion from the elites. The not-good-enough. Playing football at a Quaker school is about as funny as a Quaker invading Cambodia.
6. Other hilarities: his grave is made of black stone, too. Letters are bigger, of course, and he has it to himself, no sharing. The epitaph, too.
7. “The greatest honor History can bestow is the title of Peacemaker.”
8. He’s quoting himself. The first inaugural address in 1969.
9. That’s eight years later than he would have liked to deliver it. He would have preferred to have delivered it in 1961 instead of Kennedy. Tough to win when so many are against him. Tough to win when his boss, the general, gets asked about his accomplishments as vice-president and says, “if you give me a week, I might think of one.” Things like that make a man bitter. Things like that make a man paranoid.
10. The problem is that all his accomplishments are too secret to discuss. Bay of Pigs, he worked on that. Other things in other countries. Other things the American people don’t need to know, wouldn’t want to know he’s involved in. The problem is that he learns early on the power of the cover-up.
11. Even if the parking garage is gone (shopping center, apartment building), the plaque remains near where the FBI’s deputy director meet two reporters, told them to call him Deep Throat, told them how high the story went.
12. What came first? Did he believe they were out to get him and then they came after him? Did they decide to kick him around and then he decided to kick them back? Were they already listening to him when he turned the tape recorders back on?
13. An Edison wax cylinder caught Benjamin Harrison’s voice, scratchy in 1889, the first but almost unintelligible. Richard Nixon’s voice in 1972—too intelligible. Whatever it is he and his chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, have to say a few mornings after the Watergate burglars’ arrests—it has to go. Who even gives a [expletive deleted] what they said on the tape? Something wrong. Something sinister. Something illegal. Something they had to destroy.
14. Or destroy accidentally. Rose Mary Woods, the secretary transcribing the tape, said she accidentally taped over it when she stretched to answer the phone. If you like, find the photograph of her demonstrating the pose, and try to hold it long enough to erase eighteen and one half minutes of audio tape.
15. When the scandal surfaces, Haldeman resigns. New Chief of Staff Al Haig said a “sinister force” was responsible for the erasure.
16. Deep Throat told the journalists the White House tapes had been manipulated.
17. Have we recovered from this? The turning points of history happen so quickly. Is it possible that we have gone through too many—gates to remember the original? Has it been erased?
18. Title of Peacemaker. Foreign policy genius. You run in the game-winning touchdown and they forget how you cheated to get there. Mistakes were made. Of course they were.
[18 ½. Note to self: history as sinister force?]
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