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How Old Hickory Haunts the Election

None of the 2008 candidates measure up to Andrew Jackson. But put them together…

10.25.08 11:26 AM ET

None of the 2008 candidates measure up to Andrew Jackson. But put them together...

Is Sarah Palin the new Andrew Jackson? Bill Kristol in The New York Times recently made the comparison. Jackson biographer Jon Meacham in The Daily Beast strongly disagrees.

Does the Palin-Jackson equation make sense? No, but another one does.

In my new book Waking Giant: America in the Age of Jackson, I discuss Andrew Jackson’s huge impact on American society. Little did I know while writing the book that a composite Jackson would reappear in the 2008 race. Individually, none of the candidates resembles Jackson. But the four of them together do.

Obama, the self-proclaimed champion of change, has Jackson’s freshness. Jackson, the greatest change candidate in American history, was the first presidential candidate from the West and the first born in a log cabin. He broke with the Virginia dynasty of Southern-gentlemen presidents, from Washington through Monroe, and the New England-Federalist dynasty, represented by his opponent in 1824 and 1828, John Quincy Adams. Obama, the first African American presidential candidate, challenges the Bush dynasty and assigns McCain to a more-of-the-same role, just as Jackson did with Adams.

Individually, none of the presidential candidates resembles Jackson. But the four of them together do.

But Obama is not Jackson. His Ivy League pedigree, cool rationality, and youth set him apart. The Democrats get certain Jackson-like qualities from Biden, who has experience, fire, and a common-man identity like Jackson’s.

But the equation still comes up short. What the Democratic neo-Jacksonians don’t have, the Republicans do. McCain, the plain-spoken veteran who feels the aftereffects of his POW wounds, recalls the war-hero Jackson, the rough-hewn ex-general who was scarred and bullet-riddled. McCain advertises himself and his running mate as the Original Mavericks and campaigns as a reformer ready to cleanse Washington, just as Jackson in 1828 ran on the slogan “Jackson and Reform.” Sarah Palin lacks Jackson’s national stature but has things in common with him. The first People’s Candidate, Jackson was prized by the masses as the feisty Old Hickory. To Republicans, Palin projects the image of everywoman as antiestablishment warrior.

Both sides want above all to win what Jackson had in spades: the love and trust of the American people. Rarely has a president been as popular as Old Hickory. “My opinion is that he may be President for life, if he chooses,” grumbled an opponent. We’ll soon know which team has managed to present itself as the most Jacksonian this year.

David S. Reynolds, a Distinguished Professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, is the author of the just-published Waking Giant: America in the Age of Jackson. His other books include John Brown, Abolitionist, Walt Whitman’s America, and Beneath the American Renaissance.