As the music reaches its climax, the spotlight shifts to stage left and there emerges his very self, the commonest of common men--Andrew Johnson, 17th President of the United States. You remember Andrew: self-taught, apprenticed to a tailor, didn't learn to write until he was in his teens. But then: senator, governor, vice-president and by a great stroke of misfortune the man who ascended to the presidency after Abraham Lincoln. Also: the only president to be impeached (well--the only other president to be impeached). Also a vituperative nest of resentments, the man who did so much to put post-Civil War reconstruction on a wrong track.
With all this in mind it was fun to hear Annette Gordon-Reed as she discussed her biography of his accidency. A great man? No, not at all, but an interesting man in an interesting time, and so worthy of our attention whatever his shortcomings. A tragic figure? Not really. Johnson had his redeeming virtues, but as narrow, limited, vengeful man who never showed the slightest impulse to surmount his shortcomings. That's the scandal of poverty--not just that it leaves people vulnerable to the elements, but that it cripples their soul. It's entertaining and ironic to compare Johnson to Harry Truman--another accidental postwar president, from a past not quite so modest as Johnson's, but one who did rise to the occasion. Who could have foreseen that the one and not the other would grow into the job, rather than trying to shrink it to fit himself?
Entertaining and ironic also to reflect on the one man who more than any other is responsible for putting Johnson in the presidency. No, not by getting shot--but it was, after all, Abraham Lincoln who decided he needed Johnson on the ticket. And who--himself, after all, the commonest of commoners--didn't fear Johnson's modest beginnings or his constrained opportunities. Seeing them each on the brink of adulthood, you might have been forgiven for confusing one with another--both the commonest of common men. Music, maestro please.