The first time I saw the painting of Andrew Jackson beside your desk in the White House, it felt like getting a punch in the stomach. I also assumed that it had been there before you took office. Now, I know it was your choice to have it put up in the Oval Office because Jackson is your favorite president. Now, I know who you have chosen to emulate.
Republicans have invoked his name to explain your own shocking rise, your mood swings, your “unorthodox” vitriol directed at anyone and everyone who stands in your way. Yes, you have upended the apple cart. Yes, you shocked a nation tired of the same old seemingly stagnant politics and business as usual.
You have mimicked his bigotry, his hatred and his disregard for justice.
You are about to meet, arguably, the ethical leader of the world. Pope Francis put up a picture of St. Francis of Assisi behind him and named himself after the saint. As was Francis, the Holy Father is a man of peace and reconciliation. The Pope meets prisoners, the homeless, refugees and world leaders - all the time with love.
Images count. Symbols count. Vision counts. St. Francis of Assisi is the Pope’s symbol. Yours is President Jackson.
When Jackson opposed Chief Justice Marshall and pushed ahead the forced removal of the so-called “five civilized tribes,” he showed his true colors. The tribes were called “civilized tribes” because, as a means of survival and self-preservation, many of them had taken to speaking English and wearing “white man” clothing. They were landowners and business people, had their own newspapers and had centuries’ long roots in the land of the southeastern United States. But, most of all, they were just human beings trying to care for their families and live and die where they were born.
I think of the Trail of Tears – the brutal and dehumanizing forced march of the Cherokee, Seminole, Choctaw and Creek peoples – and I cannot help but think of your dream of a border wall. I think of the bloody feet, the starvation and disease, the children who died as they walked their way from Florida and Alabama all the way to Oklahoma, and then I think of the people today being shipped back from this country to the countries where they may be killed. I think of their own journeys, the desperate risk to cross the border into Texas or California, and then the detention centers they are bound for if they are caught. The forced return of these people to somewhere they can no longer call home. The deaths along the way.
And I think of whom Jackson was as a man; his own wealth, built on the backs of a family of plantation owners and slave traders. From his gilded office, he claimed to represent the common man, to understand his struggles, to worry about their children. I look at you in your golden resorts, your fortune built on the debt of others, and I see you reach out to the common man. I see you lie to him, tell him you understand, that you care, even. That you not only have the power but the desire to fix his troubles.
I see you turn a blind eye to the descendants of those native people that Jackson slaughters, as you push ahead with the Keystone Pipeline despite the sacrifice of tribal leaders and the powerful protest of Americans standing with them. I doubt you know or care who Leonard Peltier is, convicted of shooting a police officer on tribal lands, who still rots in prison despite prosecutorial misconduct and two Democratic Presidents denying him clemency despite his failing health.
Regarding Leonard Peltier, you should know that the Holy Father joined the many voices that called for clemency as President Obama was leaving office – only to be denied.
I ask myself, does decency not demand the removal of Jackson’s portrait from the Oval Office? Do you know the harmful destruction to the American Indians the man in that portrait has done?
And then I realize, maybe you do. You seem desperate to repeat those atrocities, to emulate those betrayals of your own people, out of some sort of twisted desire to appear strong. Your administration, like his, is built on a foundation of bigotry and hatred. It is that which we have begun to remember him for, a legacy that does not stand the test of time. It is that which we recognize in you.
You may have met the three great religions of the world on this trip. We all pray that your travel will bring peace, hope for betterment in the lives of the refugees and the easing of tensions worldwide. These may or may not occur – we will see.
But there is one thing you can do, if you have absorbed the wisdom of the three great religions you visited. Take down that portrait of Jackson. My suggestion for a replacement is Abraham Lincoln.