WASHINGTON — Donald Trump boastfully likens himself to Andrew Jackson in the American pantheon of presidents, but he's swaggering, scowling Andrew Johnson all over again.
They are historical doppelgangers, or twins.
Jackson, a victorious general and populist president, was made of sterner stuff than Trump. Johnson was nobody's hero.
Johnson was president for three years in the ashes of the Civil War, and he only made the wounds worse. In three years, Trump has brought the nation to the brink of a bitter civil war, without arms, but just as divided along much the same lines.
I see it now clearly, as the Senate impeachment trial of Trump opens. My seat in the press gallery overlooks the solemn spectacle, bringing me straight back to 1868. Johnson was on trial then, in the same chamber. The Senate spared him removal by a single vote. As a senator, John F. Kennedy made that vote famous in his "Profiles in Courage."
In the present tense — and tense it is in there — the lead House manager, Adam Schiff, D-Calif., declared in front of 100 senators that Trump tried to "blackmail a foreign leader to help him win an election." Further, he said, the House articles of impeachment are "the most serious ever charged against a president."
The battle lines are drawn in the Senate. The divide between Republicans and Democrats is etched on the floor, like a jagged canyon, and only a brave few dare to cross over.
History rhymes. Trump's the living image of the irascible tailor from Tennessee. Johnson was Abraham Lincoln's vice president, and so became president in the spring of 1865, when Lincoln was murdered and the Civil War came to a close.
The choice of Johnson, a Southern senator, was Lincoln's most tragic mistake. The Tennessean showed up roaring drunk to the Lincoln's second inaugural in 1865, but that was the least of his sins. It was a harbinger of what was to come.
Obviously, Lincoln did not live to see Johnson try to undo his magnificent legacy, but that's just what happened. As awful as it seems for Lincoln's successor, Johnson was a white supremacist. He aimed to restore the Old South's social order by granting Confederate officers and political leaders old powers of place.
Johnson did not share a speck of Lincoln's humanity for the ages, forever writ in freeing 4 million enslaved people. Far from it. He stood in the door of gains for racial justice and political redress in the Southern states. The Union Army's Reconstruction program was designed to give freed people of color a fair chance at citizenship.
The so-called Radical Republicans in Congress were enraged at Johnson's attempts to thwart Reconstruction. They charged him with unlawfully firing one of their allies, Edwin Stanton, from the Cabinet. Stanton's was Lincoln's fierce master of war.
Like the charges against Trump — abuse of power and obstruction of Congress — the counts against Johnson don't capture the full extent of the damage done to our democracy.
The rhyme and resemblance go further. Trump is the archopposite of Obama, tearing down his achievements. Johnson was the archopposite of Lincoln in temperament and all else. Like Trump, he projected anger as his brand.
Johnson was the only Southern lawmaker who refused to secede from the Union when war broke out, true to his contrarian nature. In the end, few liked him on either side of the sectional divide.
"There are moments in the lives of most men when the doors of their souls are open and ... their true characters may be read," as the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass observed at Lincoln's second inaugural party.
Reading Johnson's face there full of contempt, Douglass told a friend, Johnson is "certainly no friend of our race."
Johnson was the first president ever to be impeached by the House for high crimes and misdemeanors. Like Trump, his trial fell the same year his term ended. He will always be remembered for that disgrace.
Then, as now, an election hovered in the air. The trial hurt Johnson in the politics of the moment as well as in posterity.
History lovers, take note. Johnson never made it to a second term.
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