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KADNER: Trump, Nixon, Jackson and a history of American divisiveness

President Donald Trump earlier this year and President Richard Nixon in 1973. | Evan Vucci/AP file and Henry Burroughs/AP file

This country has never been so divided, people say. They’ve never seen a president with such a massive ego, so little concern for the truth, so bent on using the government to achieve his own ends.

The same things were said about Andrew Jackson nearly 200 years ago and Richard Nixon back in 1972.

Before that, Alexander Hamilton was convinced Thomas Jefferson was an egomaniac who would destroy the country.


I recently finished reading “Andrew Jackson in the White House: American Lion,” by Jon Meacham.

According to that biography, Jackson’s first four years in the White House were consumed by a sex scandal.

Jackson’s secretary of war, John Henry Eaton, married a notorious flirt, Margaret Eaton. Rumor had it that Eaton was actually sleeping with the woman while she was married to another man. Despondent over her unfaithfulness, Margaret’s first husband (a Navy purser) took his own life at sea.

Social media at the time was actually social media, meaning women gossiping, men spreading rumors in smoke-filled rooms and ministers ridiculing anyone who did not fit their perception of proper moral conduct.

Wives of Jackson’s Cabinet members said the virtue of every woman in America had been put at risk because Mrs. Eaton had engaged in premarital sex.

Jackson let it be known that anyone who refused to attend social gatherings with the Eatons or spoke ill of them was not welcome in the White House. That included members of his own Cabinet. And, in 1831, he demanded all of their resignations.

The President had personal reasons for his stubborn position. His late wife had been the victim of social bullying.

Jackson hated the news media, by the way, and believed they were out to destroy the country. So he brought in his own man, Francis Preston Blair, to edit the Washington Globe, a newspaper that was basically run out of the White House.

Jackson was so reviled by members of Congress that a political cartoon appeared of Sen. Henry Clay sewing Jackson’s mouth shut.

Before Jackson left office, South Carolina threatened to leave the union and was stopped only after the president prepared the Army for an invasion of the state. He also waged war against the national bank, believing it exerted too much influence on national policy. And his popularity increased with every move, which included relocating Native Americans “for their own good.”

As I mentioned in a previous column, I recently viewed the PBS series on the Vietnam War by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick.

At one point in the series, a statement is made that Richard Nixon, a candidate for president in 1968, sent an emissary from his campaign to South Vietnam to undermine the peace efforts of President Lyndon Johnson.

The announcement of peace talks had cut Nixon’s lead over Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey in half.

When the South Vietnamese president announced he would not attend the talks, Nixon’s popularity soared once more. Johnson, through CIA and FBI wiretaps, obtained information that Nixon’s campaign had promised the South Vietnamese better peace terms if he was elected.

In tape recordings of his own conversations, Johnson can be heard calling such behavior in time of war treasonous. Nixon denied the accusation.

Nixon went on to win the election. Protesting college students were shot by National Guardsmen and there were riots across the country. The nation was far more divided than it is today.

The PBS series goes on to make the case that the Watergate break occurred in 1972 because Nixon suspected the Democrats had proof he had interfered in the peace process and were going to reveal it.

History. You couldn’t make this stuff up.

Email: philkadner@gmail.com

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