The more one hears about the American presidential race, the less comprehensible it can seem. For one is presented with an excessively detailed account of what has happened in the last few hours, and nothing at all about what happened in the last few centuries.
It is easy in these circumstances to suppose that Donald Trump is an unprecedented figure.
The correspondents covering the race are for the most part too busy to read much history, let alone to make use of it if they do, condemned as they are to show, say, their mastery of Super Tuesday.
And when they do turn to history, they tend to fall in love with the works of Robert Caro, who in the fourth volume of his magisterial life of Lyndon B. Johnson, President from 1963-69, has reached 1964.
It was partly in an attempt to gain some faint sense of the whole sweep of the history of the United States that I wrote Gimson’s Presidents: Brief Lives from Washington to Trump, published this week.
It emerged from this exercise that most of the Presidents (there have been 44 so far, though Trump is described as the 45th, because Grover Cleveland, President from 1885-89 and 1893-97, is counted twice, as both the 22nd and the 24th President) are unknown even to most people versed in American history.
Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, the current President and perhaps half a dozen others, most of them within living memory, take almost all the light going, leaving at least 30 holders of the office, if not in darkness, at least in deep shadow.
The greatest Presidents are world-historical figures, who repay any amount of study.
But who can name the eight presidents before Lincoln, or – except for Grant, famous as a soldier rather than a politician – the eight presidents after him?
As Professor Richard White of Stanford University, author of the volume in The Oxford History of the United States covering the period 1865-1896, remarks in his introduction, this for a long time was “historical flyover country”, with writers, scholars and readers taking off at the end of the Civil War, after the assassination of Lincoln, and only touching down again at the start of the 20th century, when thanks to the assassination of President Andrew McKinley, the inspiring figure of Theodore Roosevelt enters the White House.
One result of this amnesia is that Trump came as a greater surprise to educated Americans than he should have done. Although he is the first reality TV star to have entered the White House, he has many of the characteristics of Andrew Jackson, President from 1829-37.
Jackson was touchy, quarrelsome, ignorant, vindictive and a born killer, though also a born leader of men, and much braver than Trump. He beat the British at New Orleans in 1815, and as a commander of Tennessee’s militia, in which capacity he massacred hundreds of Creek Indians whose lands were taken by white settlers, was nicknamed Old Hickory in tribute to his toughness.
Trump said he could not go to Vietnam because he had bone spurs in his heels. It would have taken a lot more than bone spurs to keep Jackson out of a fight.
In 1806, Charles Dickinson, a brilliant shot, referred while drunk to the Jackson “adultery” – a reference to the fact that when Jackson got married, his wife’s first husband had failed to complete the formalities needed to get divorced from her: an oversight unknown to her or to Jackson.
Jackson proceeded to pick a quarrel with Dickinson about the payment of a forfeit in a horse race. In the resulting duel, fought at eight paces, Jackson decided to let Dickinson fire first, hoping speed would be the enemy of accuracy, but was hit in the chest.
The bullet, though partially checked by his coat, broke two of his ribs and was so close to his heart that it could never be removed, and in years to come caused him much pain.
Jackson then took aim at Dickinson, but the hammer of his pistol stuck at half-cock. The seconds conferred and decided Jackson could have another go if he insisted. He did insist, and hit Dickinson, who bled to death.
In the presidential election of 1824, Jackson topped the poll with 41 per cent of the vote – not a winning margin, but clearly ahead of John Quincy Adams, on 31 per cent.
Henry Clay, who came third with 13 per cent, described Jackson as “ignorant, passionate, hypocritical, corrupt and easily swayed by the basest men who surround him”. This view was shared by many members of the political class, and when the election went to the House of Representatives for its decision, Clay ensured that Adams won on the first ballot.
Adams proceeded to give the office of Secretary of State to Clay, of whom Jackson wrote:
“So you see the Judas of the West has closed the contract and will receive the 30 pieces of silver. His end will be the same. Was there ever witnessed such bare-faced corruption?”
The return match, in 1828, was described in a piece of doggerel as “Between J. Q. Adams, who can write/ And Andy Jackson, who can fight.” It was the dirtiest in American history, though there is, admittedly, quite a bit of competition for that title.
Jackson’s opponents circulated a pamphlet accusing him of getting into 14 fights in which he “killed, slashed, and clawed various American citizens”.
Jackson’s supporters spread calumnies about Adams, including the absurd claim that while serving as American Minister in St Petersburg, he had procured a beautiful American girl for the Tsar and kept a harem of concubines for himself.
On the day of Jackson’s inauguration in 1829, the mob which came to Washington to celebrate his victory invaded the White House, smashed the furnishings and could only be induced to leave by the provision of free punch on the lawn.
Jackson had a genius for appealing to the resentment of frontiersmen who felt themselves looked down upon by the folks in Washington. He understood that resentment because he felt it himself. Like Trump, he was dismissed by educated Americans as a barbarian.
As President, Jackson instituted the spoils system, sacking more office holders, most of them perfectly competent, than had been sacked in the whole 40 years since Washington, and replacing them with his own supporters.
From then onwards, politics was made to pay by rewarding the hacks who ran the party machine, and the main incentive of each side was to find some mediocrity (not a term that could be applied to Jackson himself) who looked and sounded sufficiently presidential to win the election, and could then be relied on to distribute to his followers the spoils of office, however little idea he might have of how to govern the country.
Hence the high incidence of mediocrities in the White House. On the whole, unknown candidates did better than distinguished men who had made enemies by taking a stand on the great questions of the day.
One of the most mediocre of the mediocrities was Warren G. Harding, President from 1921-23, who had been chosen by the Republicans in a “smoke-filled room”, an expression dating from their convention in 1920. Here is a specimen of his oratory, when he was chosen in 1912 to propose President William Howard Taft for the Republican nomination:
“Progression is not proclamation nor palaver. It is not pretence nor play on prejudice. It is not of personal pronouns, nor of perennial pronouncement. It is not the perturbation of a people passion-wrought, nor a promise proposed.”
Harding found alliteration worked like a charm on his audiences, and also on himself. He said “I like to go out into the country and bloviate”, which he defined as “the art of speaking as long as the occasion demands and saying nothing”.
Politics today is full of bloviators, but I can think of no one who does it quite so preposterously well as Harding. Shortly before he was adopted as the presidential candidate, he set out his approach in a speech in Boston:
“America’s present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity; not the dramatic, but the dispassionate; not experiment, but equipoise; not submergence in internationality, but sustainment in triumphant nationality.”
The New York Times was appalled when Harding was adopted:
“The nomination of Harding, for whose counterpart we must go back to Franklin Pierce [in office 1853-57] if we would seek a President who measures down to his political stature, is the fine and perfect flower of the Senatorial cabal that charged itself with the management of the Republican convention.”
Denunciation by The New York Times is not always fatal. Harding won a landslide victory. The voters felt comfortable with him, as did the crooks he appointed to various key posts in Washington.
The Teapot Dome scandal, in which the navy’s oil reserves in Wyoming were transferred to the Interior Department and then sold off at knock-down prices, was only the most notorious example of the grotesque corruption which flourished under Harding, who died in office of a heart attack in 1923, though malicious people claimed his wife, Florence, had poisoned him.
After Harding’s death, his mistress, Nan Britton, a gormless young woman, 31 years his junior, from his home town of Marion, Ohio, applied to his family for support for her daughter by him.
When no funds were forthcoming, she wrote the first kiss-and-tell book about a President, entitled The President’s Daughter, which described her happiness “when I received my first forty-page love letter from Mr Harding”, and how in due course they found a closet in the White House, where “in the darkness of a space not more than five feet square the President of the United States and his adoring sweetheart made love”.
When I was in New York with my family, and we were taking photographs of Trump Tower, an elegant old lady implored us to desist.
Trump is a most dreadful embarrassment to elegant New Yorkers, and to many other Americans too.
But he is by no means the first President of whom that could be said.
Gimson’s Presidents: Brief lives from Washington to Trump is published by Penguin Books.