The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump has Sean Hannity and Lou Dobbs. Andrew Jackson had his ‘kitchen cabinet.’

A portrait of President Andrew Jackson hangs on the wall behind President Trump, accompanied by Vice President Pence, in the Oval Office in 2017. (/Andrew Harnik/AP File)
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At a time of turmoil, the president turned to several outside advisers, including two highly partisan media men. The president was hot-tempered Andrew Jackson who, according to biographer Mark R. Cheatham, “was at times vain and demanding and expected obedience to his will.”

President Trump is following the tradition begun by Jackson, his favorite president, by consulting with outside advisers, including Fox cable-TV commentators Lou Dobbs and Sean Hannity. Both conservatives shower the president with advice and flattery.

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That, too, is in keeping with the tradition of what Jackson’s critics called his “kitchen cabinet” of advisers. According to one anti-Jackson newspaper, “The ‘Kitchen’ junto have persuaded him that ‘he is born to command’ — that ‘his popularity can stand anything’ — that he is …’the savior of the country’ and ‘the greatest and the best.’“ Jackson, “intoxicated with their praises,” the paper said, “is induced to believe that he has a ‘divine right’ to do what he pleases.”

Jackson, a 62-year-old Democrat, turned to the counsel of friends soon after he took office in 1829 in part because of what was known as “The Petticoat Affair.” The president appointed fellow Tennessean James Eaton as Secretary of War. The 38-year-old Eaton had just married a pretty young woman named Margaret “Peggy” O’Neal Timberlake, who was a waitress at a Washington tavern Eaton patronized. The 29-year-old Timberlake had a reputation as a loose woman; indeed, it was rumored that her sailor husband had committed suicide after discovering she was having an affair with Eaton.

The wives of other cabinet members and especially the spouse of Vice President John C. Calhoun of South Carolina snubbed Mrs. Eaton. Calhoun and Jackson also clashed on states’ rights issues. The snubs outraged Jackson, whose late wife, Rachel, had faced scorn because she had neglected to divorce her first husband before marrying Jackson in 1791. The president took the side of Mrs. Eaton, declaring, “She is as chaste as a virgin.”

Jackson’s ambitious Secretary of State Martin Van Buren, a 46-year-old widower, curried favor with his boss by knocking on the door of the Eaton home and personally offering his support to Mrs. Eaton. Historian James Parton would later write that Van Buren’s rise to the presidency “dates from the moment when the soft hand of Mr. Van Buren touched Mrs. Eaton’s knocker.”

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Jackson began bypassing his cabinet, known as the “parlor cabinet,” and meeting instead with outsider friends, plus Eaton and Van Buren. The outsiders would slip in the back door of the White House and go past the kitchen to Jackson’s office.

“Jackson preferred his kitchen cabinet over his parlor cabinet. He could consult his kitchen cabinet or not as his mood dictated, dismiss the members or keep them depending on their usefulness and loyalty,” wrote Robert Remini in his book, “Andrew Jackson. The Course of American Freedom.”

Some members of the informal group changed from time to time, but the most influential were two Democratic newspapermen. One was 39-year-old Amos Kendall, who as editor of the Argus of Western America newspaper in Kentucky had backed Jackson in the 1828 presidential election. The president appointed Kendall to the low-level post of fourth auditor of the Treasury. But as part of the kitchen cabinet, Kendall wielded huge clout and wrote many of Jackson’s official statements.

The other newspaperman was 38-year Francis Preston Blair, editor of the Washington Globe newspaper. Just as Fox News is now sometimes referred to as the state TV network for the Trump administration, the Globe was “the government newspaper” of the Jackson administration. Democrats at the time believed in small government. The Globe’s motto was “The World Is Governed Too Much.” Blair became so well known that a popular drawing of him was labeled only as “The Globe Man.”

Van Buren finally came up with a way to cure what he called the “Eaton malaria.” Both he and Eaton voluntarily resigned. That opened the way for Jackson to force almost all of his other cabinet members to quit in the spring of 1831. The president appointed Eaton governor of Florida and then ambassador to Spain, where he went with his wife, Peggy. Then in the 1832 election against Kentucky Sen. Henry Clay, the president made Van Buren his running mate and dumped Calhoun.

The kitchen cabinet was a contentious issue in the 1832 election. Jackson’s opponents accused the advisers of fomenting Jackson’s spurious attacks on his political foes. “The President’s press, edited under his own eye” by those “familiarly known by the appellation of the Kitchen Cabinet is made the common reservoir of all the petty slanders which find a place in the most degraded prints of the Union,” charged Mississippi Sen. George Poindexter.

Jackson won the election. In his second term, he returned to meeting with his official cabinet, though he still sometimes relied on friends for advice. Blair even bought a house across the street from the White House to be near the president. (The Blair House is now used to house foreign dignitaries when they visit the White House.) He also helped start the Congressional Globe, the forerunner of the Congressional Record.

In 1840 Blair built a large summer home in nearby Maryland. He called his home “Silver Spring,” and the area around it became known as Silver Spring, Md. Blair also served as an outside adviser to Presidents Van Buren and Abraham Lincoln. His son Montgomery Blair was a member of Lincoln’s cabinet as postmaster general.

Jackson’s concept of a kitchen cabinet has lived on. Theodore Roosevelt had a “tennis cabinet” of young tennis-playing staffers. Warren Harding had a “poker cabinet” of card-playing cronies. Now President Trump has a “cable cabinet” of Fox commentators.

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