Bloody Bloody U.S. History

Andrew Jackson was the Elvis of political figures in the early delays of the American republic, and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson makes it almost literal.

This raucous, ridiculous romp of a rock ‘n’ roll musical tells the story of our seventh president as if it occurred in an epoch of punk music and super tight jeans—not to mention smart phones and video games.  It opened and closed on Broadway in 2010, and is now playing, through November 17, on Boston’s SpeakEasy Stage, where I saw it on Halloween night.

The show’s narrative—which follows Old Hickory pretty much from cradle to grave—is deliriously ahistoric and anachronistic, but criticizing it for that is about as useful as lacerating Inglourious Basterds for re-writing World War II.  Cat and bag have long parted ways.

By design, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is the theatrical manifestation of “truthiness”—factually false, but emotionally true.  To wit:  Ol’ Andy might not literally have asked members of the White House tour group what he should do about nullification or the National Bank, but the scene does dramatize his insistence on being truly “the voice of the people.”

I must admit that my knowledge of Jackson is rudimentary, and what this silly production did was plant a very potent impression of him in my cranium from which to begin the proper historical digging.  It sparked my interest.

What it got me to thinking, by extension, is whether historians and educators might count such giddy exaggeration as an ally, rather than a hindrance, in the cause of teaching the young and the ignorant a thing or two about the history of the United States.

Christopher Hitchens defended his biography of Thomas Jefferson, Author of America, by explaining, “It’s a book about founding fathers as if they had penises.”  That is to say, he made sure to treat Jefferson as a man first and a national icon second.

A crucial insight about U.S. history, and the teaching thereof, is that details matter.

For better and worse, the United States was built by men—not machines, robots or by divine providence—and so it is entirely pertinent to know the character of those men in order to understand the country and culture their efforts have yielded.  This applies to the founders, as well as to every important figure who has continued the work all the way up to the present.

For instance, it is worth knowing about the “Johnson treatment”—the way Lyndon Johnson would physically intimidate members of Congress to pass certain legislation—to better appreciate how much the civil rights acts of 1964 and 1965 owe to Johnson’s own political savvy.

The fact of President George H.W. Bush’s adventures in the Persian Gulf in 1991, and his failure to depose Saddam Hussein in Iraq, helps to explain his son’s motivation to finish the job in 2003.

Even the cigar and blue dress of 1998 are important historical artifacts, for they illustrate how Bill Clinton’s personal animal cravings were instrumental in preventing his presidency from achieving any kind of grace or greatness, which his formidable political skills might otherwise have ensured.

Elections are about character—as pundits never tire of saying—but so is governing itself.  Good ideas are not enough to produce good government, for they must first weather the scrutiny of human beings who are not perfect and do not agree with each other.

The mechanics of our system—so meticulously dreamed up and hammered out by men who were, themselves, fantastically flawed—requires a clash of individuals who, try as they might, are incapable of checking their prejudices and personal histories at the door.

And so all the psychoanalyzing we do of our elected officials is not a waste of time.  Oftentimes, it is the heart of the case—more important, even, than the particulars of the legislation at hand.  One must never underestimate the power of self-confidence and fortitude in a strong national leader—Jackson and Johnson are but two examples—who can plow his agenda forward through sheer force of will.

As we vote on Tuesday, we ought to bear all of this in mind.  It is undoubtedly true, as Nancy Pelosi reminds us, that “issues are on the ballot,” as is control of the House and Senate (not to mention the White House) by one party or the other.

But so, too, are personalities, and personalities drive history as much as anything else.  Politicians are elected by people, and they are people.  We are them and they are us.  Just ask Andrew Jackson.

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