- Historic Sites
A Short And Scary Walk With Andrew Jackson
An extraordinary new historical novel begins with the great political scandal of the 1970s, then visits the great political scandal of the 1820s
October 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 6
Despite its title, Memories of the Ford Administration , John Updike’s forthcoming novel is equally about two administrations—Gerald Ford’s and James Buchanan’s. The link between their dissimilar epochs is Alfred L. Clayton, Ph.D., a professor of history at Wayward Junior College in southern New Hampshire and a member of the Northern New England Association of American Historians. The book opens with a memo he is writing—in fact, it’s the entire text of that memo—“Re: Requested Memories and Impressions of the Presidential Administration of Gerald R. Ford (1974-77), for Written Symposium on Same to be Published in NNEAAH’s Triquarterly Journal, Retrospect.”
The memo begins with Clayton telling of sitting alone with his children watching Nixon resign. His wife is out on a date; the family has been pulled apart by the historical tides of their particular era as surely as the nation was by those of the 1850s. Later, the children in bed, his wife comes in and chides him for not speaking with them about the impending divorce. The first of two excerpts that follow picks up here, with Clayton venting his deep fondness toward Buchanan. In the second, Clayton takes his man out for a daunting stroll with General Jackson, and his accompanying notes to the Retrospect editors succinctly limn the “bargain and sale” scandal that simmered throughout John Quincy Adams’s unhappy administration.
Having brought me to the point where I wanted to crawl up the stairs and awaken my children and beg their forgiveness, she glanced down at the cracked and oft-glued arm of the chair that I had vacated and idly asked, “What were you reading?”
T he old GENT WAS SO GALLANT , THERE IN THE SHADE OF THE CIVIL WAR.
I had left a book splayed on the arm. It was Slavery Defended: The Views of the Old South , edited by Eric L. McKitrick. “An anthology of pro-slavery views before the Civil War,” I explained. “Some of the arguments are quite ingenious, and compassionate. The slaveholders weren’t all bad.”
“Slaveholders never think so,” she said. I felt in this a feminist edge, newly sharpened by my bad and typically male behavior. She softened it with, “Is this still about Buchanan?”
For the last ten years of our life together I had been trying in my spare time and vacations to write some kind of biographical—historical/psychological, lyrical/elegiacal, the sort of thing Jonathan Spence does with the Chinese—opus on James Buchanan, the fifteenth President of the United States. New Hampshire’s own, Franklin Pierce, had been the fourteenth, but his ambassador to England and then his successor in the presidential hot seat, had caught the corner of my eye. The only bachelor President, the most elderly up to Eisenhower, the last President to wear a stock, and the last of the doughface accommodators, before the North-South war swept accommodation away. A big fellow, six feet tall, with mismatching eyes, a tilt to his head, and a stiffish courtliness that won my heart. He projected a certain vaporous largeness, the largeness of ambivalence, where Pierce had the narrowing New England mind, gloomy as an old flint arrowhead. Buchanan’s mind—people complained he couldn’t make it up, and I liked that. There is a civilized heroism to indecision—“the best lack all conviction,” et cetera. He and his niece Harriet Lane ran the spiffiest White House since Dolley Madison’s, and I liked that too. I felt lighter when I thought about him. The old gent was so gallant , there in the thundering shade of the Civil War. You know how it is, fellow historians—you look for a little patch not trod too hard by other footsteps, where maybe you can grow a few sweet peas. My efforts, never ending as research led to more research, and even more research led back to forgetfulness and definitive awareness that historical truth is forever elusive, had begun at about the time we had decided, after Daphne’s wide-eyed arrival on earth, that for their sake and ours we had had enough children. This was a wise decision, but also a pity, for Norma and I had a natural flair for producing children, our sperm and ova clicked even while our libidos slid right past one another, and the busy-work of pregnancy, birth, nursing, and training toddlers gave us the shared sensation of being an ongoing concern.
“Still,” I had to admit. My attempt at extending our family to the extent of a bouncing book had proved painfully slow and thus far futile. Perhaps Buchanan was the cause of our break-up: I hoped that a change of life might shake free the dilatory, feebly kicking old fetus I had been carrying within me for a decade.
“Maybe you should give up and try somebody else,” the Queen of Disorder wickedly, if diffidently, suggested. “He’s too dreary.”
“He’s not dreary,” I monogamously insisted. “I love him.”
Somehow—I knew it would—this stung her; her cheeks showed some pink in the room’s sickly, tasseled lamplight. Her blush made her eyes seem greener. In her hurt she sipped the glinting vermouth. I felt sorry for her, and minutely repentant.
“You missed Nixon’s resigning,” I told her.
“We heard some of it on the car radio.”