What Jared Kushner Could Learn from a Man He’s Probably Never Heard of

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Dr. Bruce W. Dearstyne is a historian in Albany, NY. SUNY Press published his book The Spirit of New York: Defining Events in the Empire State's History, in 2015.


President Donald Trump's son-in-law and Senior Advisor Jared Kushner is exercising great influence in shaping White House policy. He has a broad portfolio including government reform and some aspects of foreign affairs. Trump reportedly trusts his judgment and his continual access to the president gives him immense power. But his position also has some downsides. Critics assert that his role and responsibilities need more clear definition and that his work should be more out in the open. He is under investigation in connection with Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

Kushner's complex son-in-law cum advisor role is unique but there is an interesting historical parallel. Andrew Jackson, who served 1829-1837, one of the presidents Trump cites as a model, actually brought his nephew, Andrew Jackson Donelson (1799-1871), to live in the White House with his family. Jackson, a widower with no children, had practically adopted Donelson as a child when his parents died. Donelson's wife Emily functioned as informal hostess at White House social events. Jackson trusted Donelson, who had served as his military aide when Jackson was a general and had managed Jackson's Tennessee estate and business affairs.

Donelson worked tirelessly for Jackson's election in 1828; Kushner did the same for Trump last year.

As president, Jackson, like Trump, relied heavily on a small group of trusted advisors. Donelson was at the center of the action. He served as secretary to the president, screened visitors and handled correspondence. He provided advice, drafted speeches and messages to Congress, and sometimes served as the president's informal spokesman and negotiator. Jackson probably confided in Donelson more than anyone else. Donelson probably understood Jackson's innermost feelings, occasional outbursts of temper and reversals of opinion, and his contempt for political opponents, better than any other person. Jackson trusted him to informally keep things going at the White House when the president was out of town.

Donelson was involved in all of Jackson's major decisions, including controversial initiatives like his veto of a bill to continue the Bank of the United States, his decision to force the removal of Indians from their lands in the Southeast, and his confrontations with Congress and the courts. Jackson was the founding president of the Democratic Party, a process aided by Donelson's behind-the-scenes political work.

On the other hand, while Jackson frequently consulted Donelson, he did not always take his recommendations and was more inclined to take advice on tough issues from more experienced advisors.

Jackson sometimes asked Donelson to serve as envoy for the president. When Secretary of the Treasury William Duane resisted Jackson's order to remove federal deposits from the Bank of the United States after Jackson vetoed an extension of the bank's charter, Jackson sent Donelson to demand action. Duane stalled, asking for more time, and sought Donelson's aid in appealing to the president. Donelson was caught in the middle, but not for long. Jackson quickly fired Duane and replaced him with a more pliant Treasury secretary.

Donelson was fiercely loyal, even lunging to protect his uncle from an assailant in 1833.

But there were downsides to his close identification with his uncle, too, which Jared Kushner might want to note

Kushner resigned from the businesses he headed when he became Trump's advisor but he reportedly still has financial interests to look after and his wife, Trump's daughter Ivanka, another advisor to the president, has her own business. Serving a demanding president can be exhausting, time-consuming work, leaving little time for other things. Donelson received a small government salary from an official position Jackson gave him signing land warrants in the General Land Office. But his plantation back in Tennessee often lost money because of lax long-distance management and Donelson slid into financial difficulty during his White House tenure.

Others in Jackson's inside circle were jealous of his nephew's access and influence and connived behind his back.

Like Donald Trump, Andrew Jackson was headstrong and demanded loyalty. That can put a family member/advisor in a difficult position. Donelson and his wife Emily split with Jackson when the president defended Peggy Eaton, wife of his Secretary of War, who was ostracized by Washington high society because of alleged sexual improprieties. Jackson grew so enraged over Peggy Eaton's treatment that he fired several cabinet members whose wives had shunned her and banished the Donelsons from the White House. But he soon recalled his nephew to his White House post with a letter, pleading, "I have great need of your aid."

Jackson occasionally told friends he was grooming his nephew for higher political office, perhaps even the presidency. But Donelson lacked the determination, steadfastness and political skills that characterized his illustrious uncle. He considered a run for Congress from his home district in Tennessee, then backed off. After Jackson left the presidency in 1837, his lukewarm endorsement of his nephew was a major reason that Donelson failed to get a cabinet post with Jackson's Democratic successors Martin Van Buren and James K. Polk. Jackson died in 1845, removing him as a factor in Donelson's career. Donelson never achieved major political office. He helped negotiate the annexation of Texas by the United States, served as Minister to Prussia, campaigned for Democratic House and Senate candidates, and edited the Washington Union, a Democratic-oriented newspaper.

Donelson faced a dilemma, perhaps somewhat similar to Jared Kushner's now and in the future. As Donelson's biographer Mark Cheathem puts it in his book Old Hickory's Nephew, "his attempts at cloaking himself in his uncle's mantle suggest a paradox that Donelson faced throughout his life: he needed to prove his value, to himself, to Jackson, and to others without relying on Jackson's name, yet his path to success had been, and would continue to be, reliant on his association with his uncle."

Bitter at the Democrats for not supporting his political advancement, he bolted and ran for Vice President on the ticket of the American Party, an anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant nativist political group, in 1856.

Like many people in Tennessee, as the Civil War approached he waffled, moving from support for the Union to sympathy for the Confederacy but not definitely supporting either side. He tried to stay on good terms with both Federal and Confederate officials during the war but neither side trusted him.

Donelson was never a good businessman or estate manager. He was constantly in debt, pressured by creditors, and often fell behind in his land taxes. He borrowed frequently, including from his uncle Andrew and even president Van Buren, who had to dun him to pay up. "Donelson's financial conduct was sometimes calloused, frequently questionable and usually ill-advised" says his biographer Mark Cheathem. When he died in 1871, his wife had to sell his Tennessee estate to pay his debts.

Jared Kushner can learn from Andrew Jackson Donelson.

Power flows from the president, but that necessitates keeping him satisfied with your work, a complicated challenge when you are both close family member and employee. Other advisors may resent your power and access, as Donelson found and Kushner is also learning, e.g., according to news reports, in competing for influence with Trump's Chief Strategist Steve Bannon. Much of the work is behind-the-scenes. You have to know how far to go in speaking for and representing the president.

Critics of the president may also criticize his advisor/son-in-law or nephew, and his confidential relationship with the president may make it difficult or impossible for him to respond.

When things go well, the president is likely to garner the credit. When things don't go well, some of the blame may devolve on the advisor/family member. After the president leaves office, the advisor/family member's power is likely to quickly evaporate.



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