A portrait of Abraham Lincoln’s vice president and successor over six crucial weeks that preserved a nation but brought an administration to ruin.
Means, a senior editor at Washingtonian magazine, zeroes in on the aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination in April 1865 to track Andrew Johnson as he completed a seemingly fated transition from promising patriot to bull in his own china shop. So ultimately eclipsed was his promise, in fact, that most readers may have little awareness of the once-acclaimed virtues that propelled the former congressman, senator and governor into his leadership role. The author questions whether any person other than Lincoln himself could have sealed the victory and healed the wounds of our Civil War, then amply shows how Johnson, determined as he was to faithfully implement Lincoln’s legacy as he saw it, was far less than the man for the job. Not that the deck wasn’t stacked against him: A Tennessee Democrat, he was never accepted by key Republicans in the administration—some, including Lincoln’s widow, Mary, actually suspected the 17th president to be a conspirator in the assassination plot—and he was vehemently hated by the Southern plantocracy. To make matters worse, Johnson had delivered an embarrassingly rambling vice-presidential inaugural address stone drunk—an ironic misstep for someone with a reputation as a mesmerizing “stump” speaker built over countless campaigns. His persistent stubbornness and inability to find common ground with Congress on an effective Reconstruction policy left the South in an economic shambles with four million refugees (a hundred times the number created by Katrina, Means points out). And with full enfranchisement of freed slaves ultimately left to the states that had originally enslaved them, a civil-rights gap emerged and dragged tragically on for a century.
Vividly recounts the price of inflexibility and political failure in times of crisis.