• Trump's COVID-19 Strategy, Part II: Find a Scapegoat
• A Tale of Two Recovery Plans, Part I: The States vs. the White House
• A Tale of Two Recovery Plans, Part II: Red vs. Blue
• Obama Endorses Biden
• Elizabeth Warren: Batter Up!
• The Times That Try Men's (and Women's) Souls, Part VII: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln (1865)
To Donald Trump, COVID-19 is a political problem above all else. To the extent that he's concerned about American lives, or about the economy, it is in service of saving his own political bacon. At very least, he cannot abide the thought of losing his reelection bid. At worst, he's terrified that if he loses, he'll be indicted by New York (and possibly other states or entities) on Jan. 21, 2021. This interpretation is the only way to explain the choices the administration has made, and continues to make, on a daily basis, whether it's press briefings full of disinformation, or punishing a navy captain who just wanted to move his sailors to safety, or pushing for the country to re-open by Easter, or the President attacking his top infectious diseases expert on Twitter.
The full dimensions of this political problem are not yet known, and will not be known for months (or maybe years). The death toll keeps growing, with Tuesday the worst day so far (2,300-plus dead). The economy is still trending downward, while unemployment is way up. There's every chance that this will be unsurvivable for any president, much less one with approval ratings in the mid-40s. However, Trump never thinks weeks or months ahead, so he's not concerned at present with what this situation will look like in, say, June. What he's concerned with is the political exposure he has here and now, in particular his handling of the early days of the pandemic. And the President and his team are very clearly implementing a two-pronged strategy to try to deal with that exposure.
The first prong, which is not exactly a secret, is to cast the president as the hero of this whole thing. This weekend, The New York Times had a story about all the warning signs of impending doom that Trump ignored in January and February (our writeup of that story is here). For a fellow who says the Times is just "fake news," Trump was badly bothered by the piece, so much so that his staff cut together a video response:
It's worth taking a look at, since it's only 4 minutes long, and it also shows Trump gesturing toward the screen to draw the press' attention to points he thought were important (like, say, at 0:50).
As you can imagine, even if you don't look at the video, it plays so fast and loose with the truth that its dangerously close to being a work of fiction. Most of the footage comes from Hannity, which pretty much tells you what you need to know. In any event, the point of the whole thing is to make Trump look Solomon-like: a leader who confronted many tough decisions, and responded perfectly to each one.
In the end, the video wasn't especially effective, for two reasons. The first is that many media outlets refused to show it, since they (quite rightly) did not appreciate being back-doored into broadcasting a propaganda piece/commercial. This caused some right-wing outlets to make a stink about censorship and/or media bias, but in the end, if the only viewers who see the video are the ones watching OANN and Fox News, then it's not going to have much impact. The second reason that the video was not effective was this:
This is part of the timeline of "presidential action" that the video is built around. This is not actually visible in the version we linked to (it's at 0:48, one of the occasions where the camera operator zoomed out to capture Trump's reaction). However, it's definitely there, and it makes clear that the only thing the administration can claim to have done in February—sent out the first testing kits—was the work of the CDC, and had nothing to do with the President. CBS News correspondent Paula Reid pointed out, after the video was over, that the gap in the timeline actually appears to prove that the Times's reporting was on the mark. Trump sputtered, called Reid "disgraceful," and went back to praising himself.
So, mission not exactly accomplished on Monday. That leads us to Tuesday, when the White House made official the latest initiative in the SuperTrump campaign: the President's name will be printed on each of the stimulus checks that is mailed to voters. There was talk of this last week, with the idea being that the checks would bear Trump's signature. However, someone pointed out to him that he is not legally entitled to sign government checks (that power is deliberately vested only in non-partisan officials). So, now his name will just be printed on the checks themselves, serving no particular purpose other than to imply that Trump is somehow responsible for the money.
This has an unpleasant odor to it, and has no precedent in U.S. history. Never before have government-issued checks like this borne the president's name, and if you doubt that it's a bad look, just spend 10 seconds pondering what Fox News would have done if Barack Obama had tried something like this. But will it work? With the base, it surely will, but they are already giving Trump credit for all that is good and right with the world. As to anyone else, it's hard to see how. To begin with, having Trump's name there is as likely to remind people of whom they should be blaming, as opposed to whom they should be thanking. Further, since most people are getting their stimulus via auto-deposit, only a minority of recipients will even see the messaging.
Since Trump doesn't think any further ahead than the day's news cycle, he doesn't realize how this stunt could backfire on him. The government printing plant is capable of printing only 5 million checks a week, so it could take up to 20 weeks for the last ones to arrive. Imagine a struggling person who gets a check in late May or June and is wondering why it took so bloody long. Then he sees "Donald Trump" emblazoned on the check. Will he immediately think: "Damn that Steven Mnuchin!"? Maybe not.
In short, Monday's attempt to prop up Trump fell flat, and Tuesday's is not likely to do much better. Maybe the White House will come up with something better on Wednesday. (Z)
Maybe Donald Trump will be able to persuade some percentage of the voting public that he's handled COVID-19 like a pro, and maybe he won't. What he and his team know for sure is that while the people might be in search of a hero, they are definitely going to pick a villain. And if Trump is to avoid that politically devastating role, he's got to find someone or something else to take his place. That is the second, and arguably more significant, prong of his COVID-19 strategy, and he and his team have been trial ballooning various possibilities. Here they are in rough chronological order (based on the day that Trump and his allies made them into a clear talking point), along with an assessment of each:
- Blame Barack Obama (Mar. 13): As the COVID-19 crisis was really heating up, Trump
to an old favorite, and pointed the finger squarely at his predecessor, using Twitter to blame Obama for
allowing the United States to be caught unprepared for a pandemic.
Assessment: There's nothing the base loves more than an anti-Obama screed (unless it's an anti-Hillary screed). However, when it comes to persuading anyone else, there are three big problems here: (1) Obama hasn't been president in more than three years, (2) he's considerably more popular than Trump is, and (3) the small factual matter that #44 established a pandemic office as part of the NSA and always supported full funding for the CDC, while #45 shut down that pandemic office and tried to cut funding for the CDC.
- Blame China (Mar. 31): This is pretty clearly one of those things that found its
way into the Republican talking points memos, because Republicans across the country, including Trump, all
saying nasty things about the Chinese at the same time.
Assessment: It's generally pretty easy to drum up hostility to a foreign government. And China has definitely earned some finger-pointing, as they too prioritized public relations over public health. That said, there are two small flies in the ointment with this one. The countries who are not America's friends sometimes do bad or careless things; part of the job of the president is to deal with that. The second is that there are at least a dozen well-documented instances of Trump praising China's response to the crisis, like when he tweeted "China has been working very hard to contain the Coronavirus" on Jan. 24, or when he said " I think President Xi is working very, very hard. I spoke to him. He's working very hard. I think he's doing a very good job," on Feb. 23. Some video of Trump praising Chinese President Xi Jinping might just find its way into Democratic ads in the fall.
- Blame the Democrats (Mar. 31): This is another one that must have been on the list of talking points,
because several high-profile Republicans, including Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY),
first made this argument
on the exact same day. The general idea is that the Democrats pursued the impeachment witch hunt/hoax, and
that left the President unable to focus on COVID-19. So, the Democrats are to blame.
Assessment: You can never know what will resonate with people, we suppose, but this line of reasoning seems like a stinker among stinkers. To start, Trump had no role in the impeachment trial, and thus no need to spend any time or energy on it at all. What if, say, North Korea had lobbed a nuke at Honolulu in the midst of the trial? Would the president have said: "Sorry, no time to respond; I'm too busy crafting nasty tweets about Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA)!"? Beyond that, Trump was acquitted on Feb. 5. The "donut hole" in his COVID-19 response is the last three weeks of February (see above). There was no impeachment trial during that time frame.
- Blame the states (Apr. 2): Maybe it was Barack Obama's (and George W. Bush's)
job to stockpile supplies. Or maybe it was actually the job of the states. That was the notion that Trump
at his press briefing on Apr. 2: "By the way, the states should have been building their stockpiles. We [the
federal government] are a back-up, not an ordering clerk," he said.
Assessment: Another option that does not seem to have legs. Most obviously, Trump would very much like to find a way to scapegoat blue states while leaving red states unscathed. However, that's going to be tough, since it is mostly blue-state governors (Andrew Cuomo of New York, Jay Inslee of Washington, Gavin Newsom of California) who have impressed with their leadership, while it is mostly red-state governors who have underwhelmed (most obviously Ron DeSantis of Florida, who has made screw-up after screw-up). Another problem is that the President is very bad at staying on message, and tends to shoot himself in the foot. And blaming states two weeks ago does not exactly square with Trump's assertion on Monday that he has "total authority" over the states.
- Blame Joe Biden (Apr. 9): Last week, the Trump campaign released an
that, like the video at the President's Monday press briefing (see above), is so willfully dishonest that it is more fiction
For those who don't care to watch (can't blame you), or who watched but struggled to make sense of the various leaps of logic, the general idea is that because Hunter and Joe Biden have "made millions" in China, Biden is a China apologist, and so downplayed the COVID-19 crisis in its early days.
Assessment: This checks a lot of boxes. The base loves a good conspiracy theory, and this one gets foreigners in there, plus Trump's election opponent, and even a dash of Obama. That said, there's no actual evidence for 95% of the "facts" in the video, in particular that Biden made money in China, much less that his position on that nation was influenced. Indeed, if Trump talks too loudly about people who have made money in China, and who downplayed COVID-19 in its early days, that may actually bring some other presidential candidate to mind. Say, the candidate who got over half a billion dollars in Chinese funding for a golf course in Dubai and a real estate development in Indonesia, among other deals.
- Blame WHO (Apr. 14): No, not "who" as in a mystery scapegoat, and definitely not
The Who, as in the 1960s rock band. It's the World Health Organization that has become the President's latest
target. He's already grumbled about them a fair bit, and even sent this tweet out on Apr. 7:
The W.H.O. really blew it. For some reason, funded largely by the United States, yet very China centric. We will be giving that a good look. Fortunately I rejected their advice on keeping our borders open to China early on. Why did they give us such a faulty recommendation?— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 7, 2020
However, it was yesterday that he actually took aggressive action, and declared that he was cutting off funding for the organization until a review is completed.
Assessment: Yet another case where the President's assertions simply don't line up with reality. Stewart M. Patrick, writing for the World Politics Review, has a thorough breakdown. The executive summary is that WHO did get caught with its pants down a bit, in part because they were getting poor information from China. However, the bottom line is that WHO issued a bulletin on Jan. 30 describing COVID-19 as a "public health emergency" and followed that with several other dire warnings over the next week or so. Recall, once again, that the gap in Trump's response was the last few weeks of February. So if he was truly taking his cues from WHO, he should have known by the start of February that action was needed. On top of that, how can someone who has consistently pooh-poohed the value of the U.N., and has declared "America First!" say with a straight face that he really would have done something, if only he didn't feel the need to defer to WHO?
In short, it certainly does not appear that Trump has, as yet, found a winner in the scapegoat sweepstakes. That is indicated, in part, by the holes that exist in each of the possibilities above (holes that Democrats will certainly exploit in commercials, on Twitter, in speeches, etc.). It's also indicated by the fact that Trump keeps trying new lines of attack out. If he'd found a good one, like Hillary Clinton's e-mail server, he would have stuck with it. Maybe he'll blame Canada next. After all, it seems that everything's gone wrong since Canada came along. (Z)
As we note above, there are several governors who are earning rave reviews for their COVID-19 response. Among those is Gavin Newsom, who has been working with the governors of Oregon (Kate Brown) and Washington (Jay Inslee) on a plan for "what's next" whenever COVID-19 begins to recede. On Tuesday, Newsom gave some general details about their thinking. He said, first and foremost, that there's no projected date for when things can get back to normal, and that very important decision would be made based on "science and public health, not politics," and would involve heavy input from local leadership.
Newsom also listed six things that will be necessary before the states can "re-open":
- Expanded testing to identify and isolate patients
- Vigilance to protect seniors and high risk people
- An ability to meet future surges in hospitals with a "myriad of protective gear"
- Continued collaboration with academia on therapies and treatments
- New regulations to ensure continued physical distancing at private businesses and schools
- New enforcement mechanisms to allow the state to pull back and reinstate stay-at-home orders
The Governor also made clear that the process will be like a "dimmer" instead of a light switch, and that things won't go from "lockdown" to "everything is normal" overnight. He said to expect things like restaurants with half as many tables, wait staff in masks, and disposable menus. There was also talk that face-to-face instruction, particularly at universities (which have large classes and people coming from all over the world), might not resume until...2022. In short, Newsom appears to be a man who is living in the real world, and not in Oz, or Narnia, or Westeros.
Standing in contrast to Newsom's display of competence was the Trump administration, which was supposed to give details on Tuesday about the new commission it's forming to strategize about "what's next." Based on what the President said during his press briefing, it's not really going to be a commission at all, it's more a list of 200 or so people he's going to call during his "executive time." Among the names on the list are the commissioners of the major sports leagues, billionaire and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, billionaire and Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, Apple CEO Tim Cook, and even...Jeff Bezos. Needless to say, this contact-list commission has yet to produce anything concrete in terms of plans or ideas.
Put another way, there are some chief executives in this country who are taking the bull by the horns, but the one who claimed "total authority" on Monday is not among them (unless you count defunding WHO in the middle of a pandemic as taking the bull by the horns). Trump, with his black belt in blinking, has already backed off that claim, and explained that what he meant was that he was "authorizing" states to begin developing the plans. Riiiiight.
Although Trump effectively admitted defeat on this matter, he still fired off a passive-aggressive tweet Tuesday afternoon:
Tell the Democrat Governors that “Mutiny On The Bounty” was one of my all time favorite movies. A good old fashioned mutiny every now and then is an exciting and invigorating thing to watch, especially when the mutineers need so much from the Captain. Too easy!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 14, 2020
This produced many commentaries on Tuesday, as you might imagine, since Captain Bligh is the bad guy in the movie, exercising his authority so arrogantly and capriciously that it justifies the titular mutiny. Given this, many folks guessed either that Trump didn't write the tweet, or that he did write it but he's lying about having seen the movie.
This isn't all that important, but since (Z) teaches a class on historical film, we thought we might put this under the microscope. First of all, we believe that he wrote the tweet; the grammar errors are characteristic of him, as is the clumsy diction. Further, this would be a very presumptuous lie for social media guru Dan Scavino (or any other White House staffer) to tweet on Trump's behalf. The website didtrumptweetit.com agrees with us, judging the chances that it's Trump-authored to be above 98%.
We also believe Trump has seen and enjoyed the film. In fact, back in 2012, he listed his five favorite films of all time. Here they are:
- The Godfather
- Gone with the Wind
- The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
- Citizen Kane
This is a very interesting list, and all five of these films, along with Mutiny on the Bounty share some key characteristics. They are all, first of all, historical films, set anywhere from 20 years to 160 years before they were created. That's not so rare, but even more distinctive is this: they all feature entrepreneurial types who earn their money in illegal or unethical ways: Vito Corleone (criminal enterprises), Henry Hill (theft and drug running), Scarlett O'Hara (slave-produced cotton), the Man with No Name (complicated, but basically murder-for-hire and ill-gotten Confederate gold), Charles Foster Kane (muckraking, warmongering), and Captain Bligh (plundering native resources). Consistent with this, they all feature antihero protagonists. That is to say, the main character may be the focus of the movie, and may be driving the action, but they're not a "good guy."
With a list of favorite films like that, it's easy to believe that Trump saw and liked Mutiny, since it's another pea in that particular pod. That does still leave us with the head-scratcher of how the President might identify with the villain of the film (and we'd bet good money he also identifies with the other antiheroes, particularly Don Corleone). There are two theses that we might suggest:
- Trump is self-aware enough that he knows many people view him as a villain, and he admires characters who
overcome the disapproval of others, and achieve success on their own terms. After all, Vito survives to die of
old age, Henry lives the life of Riley for two decades and then skips out on the consequences by going into
the Witness Protection Program, Scarlett figures out that tomorrow is another day, the Man with No Name gets
the Confederate gold, Kane builds a vast fortune before dying in the palace he constructed for himself, and
Bligh lives to see the mutineers executed.
- Either because he does not or cannot pay attention for two hours, or because he is lacking in mental acuity, Trump does not really understand the films and, in particular, does not grasp that sometimes the protagonist is not the good guy.
Either one could be correct; Trump has commented at length about favorite film Citizen Kane, and he showed some awareness that it's not a happy story, and that Kane's obsession about wealth ruined his interpersonal relationships. On the other hand, the future president also concluded that Kane has only a "modest fall" (which is like saying the Death Star had a minor malfunction, or that E.T. was visiting from out of town, or that the jury in To Kill a Mockingbird was a little unfair). Trump also decided that the lesson of Kane was: "Get yourself a different woman," which would surely make him the only person ever to take that message from the film. (Z)
Let's start with a trivia question, just to keep things interesting. In advance of a possible invasion of Japan in 1945, the Pentagon ordered the production of a large supply of purple hearts, so that they would be able to recognize the hundreds of thousands of deaths and injuries they anticipated. Obviously, this became a moot point when the war was ended without an invasion, giving the Dept. of Defense a substantial supply of medals for use in future wars. The trivia question is: In what year was the last of those medals finally given out? Answer to follow.
Now, on to the actual news item. Rep. Trey Hollingsworth (R-IN) sat for an interview with a radio station in his home state on Tuesday. And he said that, as far as he is concerned, America should re-open again sooner rather than later. He described people dying as "the lesser of two evils" when compared to allowing the economy to collapse. He also said that when choosing between protecting American lives and protecting the American way of life, the latter should win out, as it always has won out.
As a sidebar, this is a staggeringly ignorant statement from a historical perspective. One can scarcely think of a country where it is less true that "our lives" are less important than "our way of life." Given that the United States is an individualistic (rather than a collectivistic) culture, and given the strong undercurrent of suspicion of government authority in the culture, Americans are considerably less willing than their counterparts in other nations to give their lives for their country. That's not to say Americans are cowards or are selfish, merely that death is not a price they are particularly interested in paying.
Think, for example, of World War II. During that conflict, 407,000 American soldiers gave their lives. That's a lot, but for China, Japan, Germany, and the U.S.S.R., the total was well into the millions. In fact, there were individual battles (most obviously Stalingrad) where the Russians lost more soliders than the U.S. did in the entire war. Part of the reason that nuclear bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was that Harry S Truman knew that the casualty figures that an invasion of Japan would produce were unacceptable to the American public. And it was the World War II general, and consummate American, George S. Patton, who said: "No dumb bastard ever won a war by going out and dying for his country. He won it by making some other dumb bastard die for his country." (This was rendered slightly differently in the 1970 biopic of the General). Oh, and the answer to the trivia question is: There is no answer, because the supply has not been exhausted yet (and is not expected to be exhausted in this century). Put another way, every single purple heart the U.S. military has awarded in the last 75 years was originally struck for an invasion of Japan that never happened.
Anyhow, Hollingsworth has no idea what he's talking about. It's also very "brave" of him to be willing to take such gambles, inasmuch as he's a young man (36) in good health with excellent insurance. However, our purpose here is not really to pick on the representative, which is kind of like shooting fish in a barrel. It's to point out that a clear philosophical divide is emerging between (some) red states and the rest of the country. There are still seven states, all of them red, that do not have stay-at-home orders in place. It is also in red states, like Indiana and Texas, where we are seeing the argument that a fully healthy economy is more important than a fully healthy populace, and that if a few thousand (or a few hundred thousand?) people have to die to get things back on track, then so be it.
It is plain where this is all headed: One of these days, maybe in a week, maybe in a month, maybe in three months, Donald Trump and his administration are going to reach the conclusion that things are ready to return to normal. They are going to reach this conclusion long before the governors of most large states (see above) do. And, at that point, the President will have a very interesting choice. If he says "all clear," there are undoubtedly some states that will follow his lead. So, maybe he will do it, and compel them to bend to his will.
On the other hand, Trump's opinion carries no weight with the Gavin Newsoms and Andrew Cuomos and Jay Inslees of the world, and we also doubt it will matter much to Gov. Mike DeWine (R-OH), Gov. Larry Hogan (R-MD), and Gov. Charlie Baker (R-MA). These states have a tad bit more economic clout than Alabama or Idaho. So, if Trump tries to get out ahead of the blue states (and the red states that are not in lockstep with him), he will end up with egg on his face as he is openly defied, he may end up killing a number of red-state voters, and all of this so that he can...not really restart the economy. California, New York, Illinois, and Washington, all blue states with blue trifectas, have a greater annual GDP ($5.803 trillion) than the bottom 35 states combined ($5.783 trillion). Until those four blue states get going again, this economy isn't going anywhere. (Z)
Now that the Democratic presidential race is a one-man affair, Barack Obama made it official on Tuesday and endorsed his former VP:
The Washington Post has an annotated transcript of the endorsement, for those who are interested. The three main themes of the 12-minute video, which has already been viewed nearly 8 million times, are: (1) COVID-19 empathy and well wishes, (2) praise for Joe Biden, and (3) praise for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT).
Obviously, the endorsement did not tell us anything we did not already know. Nobody was waiting on pins and needles to learn whether Obama is voting for Biden or for Donald Trump. However, the video does mark the public debut of Barack Obama, Biden campaign surrogate. The former president is going to be an enormous asset in 2020, one with no real parallel in modern U.S. history. He is, first of all, the most popular Democrat in the country, and still commands enormous respect from the Party's base, as well as from many independents and NeverTrump Republicans. He may also have the ability to heal many of the rifts that exist between the wings of the Party, something he was more constrained in doing while still in the White House back in 2016. Already, we have learned that he played an important role in persuading Sanders to throw in the towel. Presumably, #44 will have a few more tricks up his sleeve. (Z)
Now that Joe Biden has the endorsements of Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders in his hip pocket, he says that his next target is Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). Actually, the word on the street is that it's already a done deal, and the Senator is just waiting on the Biden campaign to tell her what the best time to announce would be. This makes sense, since Warren tends to be pragmatic, and she's considerably more likely to have a voice in a hypothetical Biden administration if she gets on board the S.S. Uncle Joe than if she is a high-profile holdout.
It is doubtful that Warren's endorsement will have a direct effect on the Democratic base. Put another way, we don't think there are too many "Liz or Bust" voters out there. However, getting her on board will be another high-visibility signal that Biden is trying to reach out to all parts of the Democratic Party. If the former Veep can also get Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), which seems likely, since she's shown a strong pragmatic streak as well, then he will have landed the nation's three most prominent progressives. That may even get the attention of some of the folks whose current position is "Bernie or Bust." (Z)
In this weekend's mailbag, a reader observed that the Nullification Crisis—an 1832 dispute about the federal government's right to impose tariffs on Southern states—seems to fit our criteria for a crisis. That is basically true, and it would have given us a chance to talk about Andrew Jackson's threat to execute his own vice president by hanging. However, covering all great crises in America's history could be a little much, and most of what would be said in a writeup of Nullification is covered by the writeups of Missouri and California statehood. On top of that, to avoid the temptation of focusing overly much on the Civil War (his specialty), (Z) set a limit of no more than three Civil War-related crises, a quota fulfilled by Missouri, California, and Harpers Ferry.
However, as alluded to this weekend, that cap may have been just a little too aggressive. On further thought, there's one more Civil War-related item that simply has to be on the list. As a reminder, our criteria:
- The crisis in question had to unfold over one year or less.
- The crisis had to divide the nation in a truly substantive manner at the time it happened.
- The effects had to be substantial and long-lasting.
If you care to read (or re-read) previous entries:
- The Intolerable Acts (1774)
- The Alien and Sedition Acts (1798)
- The Chesapeake Affair (1807)
- Missouri Statehood (1819-20)
- California Statehood (1850)
- The Raid on Harpers Ferry (1859)
And now on to the late addition, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln:
Background: As we observed in the very last sentence of the previous entry, one of the witnesses to the execution of John Brown was actor John Wilkes Booth. Although the two men were at way opposite ends of the spectrum, politically—Booth was a staunch conservative and white supremacist—the young actor was deeply impressed by the response to Brown's dramatic act.
Not that it took much for Booth to learn this lesson, mind you. He was a member of the most famous acting family in America at that time; his father (Junius) was a huge star, and so was his brother (Edwin). In other words, drama was in John Wilkes' blood. Further, the actors of that era tended to be scenery-chewers who grossly over-acted (think William Shatner in Star Trek or Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest or Jim Carrey in everything). Even by that standard, Booth was noted for his...enthusiasm. And Southern audiences ate it up (while Northern audiences were less impressed). This further cemented the native Marylander's affinity for the Confederate cause.
When the Civil War broke out, Booth might well have volunteered for the Confederate Army, but unfortunately, he suffered from bone spurs in his foot. Oh, wait, that was someone else. No, the problem is that Booth thought he was too important to be a mere grunt in the trenches. And given that his home state, though a slave state, remained with the Union, he was not subject to the South's (very broad) military draft. Anyhow, his early contributions to the cause involved smuggling much-needed quinine across the lines to the Confederate Army (something that his profession made somewhat easy, since most actors toured back then rather than remaining in one city). By the middle of the war, though, Booth had gathered a group of co-conspirators whose plan was to kidnap President Lincoln and then trade him for all Confederate soldiers being held as prisoners of war. This would certainly have been dramatic, but Booth and his friends were not what you would call...highly competent. And while Lincoln was somewhat careless with his own safety, he did have some security. So, the kidnapping plots never came to fruition.
Meanwhile, the very first Confederate state to be completely re-conquered by the Union was actually Louisiana, something that happened in late 1863, well before the war ended. For that state, and for the states of Tennessee and Arkansas (conquered in 1864), Lincoln offered fairly liberal re-entry terms (known as the ten percent plan, as he would only have required 10% of the adult male population to swear oaths of loyalty to the United States). It is important to understand that this plan was the plan of a wartime president, one who desperately wanted these conquered states to bow to the federal government's authority, and who was hoping to convince other Southern states to return to the United States voluntarily.
The Confederacy remained viable, and the outcome of the Civil War remained in doubt, until the summer of 1864. In September of that year, Atlanta fell. That was followed, in fairly close order, by Sherman's march through Georgia (and then through the Carolinas), Lincoln's reelection, the fall of Savannah, the fall of Mobile, the fall of Charleston, the fall of Petersburg, and the capture of the Confederate capitol of Richmond on Apr. 4, 1865. Lincoln visited the latter city in person, sitting in Confederate President Jefferson Davis' office chair less than a day after the rebel leader had vacated it. On Apr. 9, 1865, Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia. Although there were still Confederate forces left on both land and sea (the very last surrender took place on Nov. 6), the twin losses of its greatest army and its capitol were the end of the road for the Confederacy. And so, the day that Lee surrendered is regarded as the day on which the Civil War came to an end.
As the war neared and then reached its conclusion, Lincoln became far less tolerant of white, Southern needs than he had been in 1863 and 1864. First, because such tolerance was no longer needed or useful. Second, because 180,000 black soliders had answered the call of duty, and had fought bravely. The President could not, in good conscience, allow them to be returned to second-class citizenship. And so it is that in his last public address, on Apr. 11, 1865, Lincoln—who spent most of the speech advocating for keeping the reconstructed government of Louisiana intact, rather than starting all over—casually slipped this in: "It is also unsatisfactory to some that the elective franchise is not given to the colored man. I would myself prefer that it were now conferred on the very intelligent, and on those who serve our cause as soldiers."
The Incident: Booth, who really got around, was in the audience for Lincoln's speech (which was delivered to a large crowd from the second floor of the White House). The actor was despondent over the collapse of the Confederacy, and he was absolutely outraged by the proposal that black folks should be allowed to vote. "That means ni**er citizenship," he declared. "Now, by God, I'll put him through. That is the last speech he will ever make."
And so, Booth re-activated his network of co-conspirators (as best he could), this time with murder as their object. They met several times at the boarding house of Mary Surrat and plotted and planned and schemed as they waited for their opportunity. It didn't take long before Lincoln unwittingly provided it to them, as he made plans to see the play "Our American Cousin" at Ford's Theater on Friday, Apr. 14. The plans were somewhat last minute, but were announced early enough in the day for Booth & Co. to put the wheels in motion.
On paper, the scheme was simple enough. Booth was to kill the president. Inasmuch as he knew both the play and the theater very well, he was in an ideal position to take care of business. He visited the theater and set things up, stashing a wooden bar that could be used to block the outer door of the presidential box, drilling a hole in the inner door so he could monitor the play, and arranging for one of the stagehands to hold his horse. Co-conspirator George Atzerodt was given the job of killing vice-president Andrew Johnson at his residence, while co-conspirator Lewis Payne was ordered to kill Secretary of State Wiliam Seward at his residence. The idea was that the Northern government would be thrown into turmoil, the Confederacy's rebellion would be re-ignited, and Booth and his accomplices would find their way South and be greeted as heroes.
In reality, well, we all know about the best laid plans of mice and men. Lincoln, for his part, decided he did not want to go to the theater, having already seen the play, but he did not want to disappoint the public. Cognizant of the danger to him, he did have security that evening. However, Lincoln's usual bodyguard (Ward Hill Lamon) was out of town on a presidential errand, and the off-duty police officer (John Parker) that Mary Todd Lincoln hired to pinch hit was lazy and a drunk and so abandoned his post in order to watch the play.
Meanwhile, the first part of Booth's plan did work out. He waited until the biggest laugh line in the play, which was: "Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal, you sockdologizing old man-trap." Yeah, we don't get it either; guess you had to be there. With the sound of his movements drowned out by the audience's response, Booth entered the presidential box, drew a single-shot derringer, and shot the president in the back of the head.
From that point forward, nearly everything went wrong for the assassin. He had a brief and bloody tangle with the President's guest, Major Henry Reed Rathbone. Then, Booth jumped the 12 feet from the presidential box to the stage, landed awkwardly and broke his leg, shouted "Sic semper tyrannis!" ("Thus always to tyrants!"), and staggered off to claim his horse and escape. Most of the audience thought Booth—who most of them recognized—was part of the play, and it took a few moments for everyone to come to the understanding that the president had been shot. It may be a bit of a cliché, but there was a doctor in the audience (several of them, in fact). After an examination, it was clear that Lincoln's wound was mortal. He was carried across the street, to a boarding house, so he would be comfortable until the end came.
Booth, for his part, managed to escape Washington and to get his leg patched up by Dr. Samuel Mudd. However, his co-conspirators failed miserably at their tasks and both were captured. Atzerodt, for his part, lost his nerve and got drunk instead of trying to kill Johnson. And Payne definitely tried to dispatch Seward, but the Secretary had suffered a recent carriage accident, and was held in traction by a system of metal frames and pulleys. Since Payne made his attempt with a knife, Seward was slashed, but was protected from being struck with a fatal blow.
It did not take long for the news of the President's condition to make its way across Washington. A crowd gathered outside the boarding house where the president lay dying, and Lincoln's cabinet (sans Seward), Vice President Johnson (who had no idea that he was also to have been killed), and the President's son, among others, gathered to bid farewell. He breathed his last at 7:22 a.m., and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton declared: "Now he belongs to the ages." As chance would have it (this was not planned), today is the 155th anniversary of his passing.
Aftermath: In the immediate aftermath of Lincoln's death, there was much grief across the country. Having won the Civil War, Lincoln was beloved to many (though not all) Northerners, and his loss was keenly felt. The same is true for black Americans, free and soon-to-be-free, North and South. Some white Southerners also felt a great man had passed, others feared whatever harm might be visited upon the former Confederacy as a result of Lincoln's assassination. The President was given a huge funeral in Washington, and then put on a train that retraced the route he had taken to Washington to begin his presidency (in reverse, naturally). He was honored in each city and town along the route before finally being laid to rest in his hometown of Springfield.
While the now-former President was en route to his final destination, Stanton launched the largest manhunt in U.S. history to that point, with an eye toward bringing the perpetrators to justice. The Secretary's...zeal was quite substantial. Dozens of people were arrested, and eight of those were put on trial and convicted of various crimes. Payne, Atzerodt, David Herold (who helped Booth escape), and Surrat were sentenced to death and hanged on Jul. 7, 1865. This made Mary Surrat the first woman in American history to receive the death penalty. Mudd and three others were given prison sentences.
Booth, for his part, failed to make his way South as he had hoped. He was trapped in a barn by Union soldiers who had orders to take the assassin alive. However, in the ranks that day was a sergeant named Boston Corbett, a man so fanatically religious that he used a pair of scissors to remove a rather significant part of his anatomy in order to avoid the temptation to commit adultery. He decided that God wanted Booth dead, and that God outranks the Secretary of War. Maybe he was right; Corbett made a miracle shot through the gap in the slats of the barn. Those who were there said it was a hundred to one, maybe a thousand to one. Booth lingered for several hours, and then joined Lincoln in the Great Beyond.
Of greatest consequence—when it comes to the question of dividing Americans—is that the assassination ended Lincoln's term and elevated Johnson to the presidency. Lincoln was one of the most gifted politicians history has ever known, and he had, in his pocket, the enormous political capital that came from bringing the Civil War to a successful conclusion. Nobody can know exactly how the reconstruction of the South would have proceeded if Old Abe had lived, but it there's a very good chance it would have gone more smoothly than it did.
Johnson, by contrast, wasn't actually a Republican, had little use for "book larnin'" or advice from more seasoned politicians, could not get along with Congress, and was prone to extreme stubbornness and outbursts of temper. Hard to imagine someone like that could become president, but it happened! In the end, Johnson was basically a Southern populist, though before that term existed. He favored white, blue-collar folks like himself (he was a tailor by trade), and he had little regard for Southern elites (until they kissed up to him) and even less regard for the former slaves. Johnson's management of the Reconstruction—and it was entirely his ball game for half a year, as Congress was not in session until Dec. 1865—was so tone-deaf and so badly handled that Congress eventually took a pair of scissors, and... Ok, maybe they didn't literally go Boston Corbett on him. However, they did impeach him and seize control of Reconstruction.
The good news is that with Reconstruction under the control of moderate and radical Republicans in Congress, some very important changes were made, most obviously the adoption of the Fourteenth (citizenship, due process, and equal protection) and Fifteenth (universal male suffrage) Amendments to the Constitution. However, they may have gone too far, too fast, with too little solid foundation. The harsh treatment of the South set the stage for an eventual backlash by white conservatives against the North and against black Southerners that rendered those two amendments effectively irrelevant from the 1890s to the 1960s, and that still echoes in many ways today.
We say again that there is no way to know how things would have turned out had Lincoln lived. Maybe the challenges of Reconstruction were intractable, and even he would have come up short. If so, then it means his death was not especially consequential, long-term. That said, this is a man who managed to set the 250-years-old institution of American slavery on the path to extinction within 18 months of taking office. So, there's an excellent chance he could have done much better, possibly setting the stage for greater harmony between the races. If so, then it would make his untimely passing one of the most divisive events in U.S. history.
Up Next : The Homestead Steel Strike (1892). (Z)
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