By Chris West
Picador. 336 pp. $28
During the Civil War, Andrew Jackson became the fourth person to be featured on a U.S. postage stamp, and in fact he scored a daily double. Both the Union and the Confederacy issued a Jackson stamp for two cents: The Northern one was known as the Black Jack, the Southern one the Red Jack. With this wonderful factoid, Chris West, who has already given the same treatment to his homeland in “A History of Britain in Thirty-Six Postage Stamps,” launches into a brief treatment of the war and of Jackson himself.
The chapter ends with a summary of where Jackson stands as a symbol today: He “has featured on twenty-nine issues — most recently in 1994 — making him the fifth-most-represented individual on U.S. postage. Now he is best known for his appearance on the $20 bill — a role that is currently controversial. Liberals object to his part in driving Native Americans off of their lands, and conservatives to his battle with the national bank and distrust of paper money generally.”
You can hardly write a book like this without talking about the Elvis stamp, and West doesn’t disappoint. His interest here lies not in Elvis himself but in a man who blew Elvis a saxophonic tribute on TV in 1992, the year before Presley’s stamp came out: Bill Clinton, soon to be the Democratic presidential nominee. For West, Clinton’s celebration of Elvis marked the arrival of baby boomers as a political force. And the Elvis stamp — “the most collected U.S. stamp ever” — was only the first in a post office series called “Legends of American Music,” which eventually ran to 80 artists.
At the end of the Elvis-Clinton chapter, Andrew Jackson makes a surprising return. The connection is Clinton’s failure to pass the office of president on to his vice president, Al Gore, who lost the 2000 election to George W. Bush, son of a former president, George H.W. Bush. West writes: “The ghost of Andrew Jackson, a Democrat deprived of the highest office by the Electoral College back in 1824 and replaced by a president’s son [John Quincy Adams], must have howled in protest.”