OP-ED: Nixon, Johnson and Trump: America’s angry presidents

David O. Stewart
The Baltimore Sun
FILE - In this March 15, 1973 file photo, President Nixon tells a White House news conference that he will not allow his legal counsel, John Dean to testify on Capitol Hill in the Watergate investigation and challenged the Senate to test him in the Supreme Court. (AP Photo/Charles Tasnadi, File)

Lost amid the current fuss over presidential impeachment is one strong resemblance Donald Trump bears to two predecessors who landed in impeachment proceedings, Andrew Johnson and Richard Nixon. Anger and grievance fueled the politics of all three.

Other presidents have lost their tempers, but most have kept their anger offstage, presenting to the public a sunny face and upbeat message. Most sought to appear calm (Calvin Coolidge, “No-Drama” Obama), or even affable (Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan).

Not, however, Johnson, Nixon, and now Mr. Trump. Ill humor, routinely displayed, framed their public images. For the first two, at least, that approach ended badly.

Andrew Johnson’s sour disposition grew from an impoverished boyhood that did not include a day of school. He radiated resentment. “If Andy Johnson was a snake,” a contemporary remarked, “he would hide in the grass and bite the heels of rich men’s children.”

A fellow Tennesseean, President James K. Polk, described Johnson as “vindictive and perverse,” while his bodyguard called him “the best hater I ever knew.”

Succeeding the assassinated Abraham Lincoln, Johnson blocked protections for freed slaves. He denounced opponents as traitors and accused them of inciting his murder: “When I am beheaded,” he railed, “I want the American people to be the witness,” with his blood “poured out as a fit libation to the Union.”

President Donald Trump crosses his arms after speaking with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto on the phone about a trade agreement between the United States and Mexico, in the Oval Office of the White House, Monday, Aug. 27, 2018, in Washington. Trump has bowed to widespread pressure from veterans groups and others to do more to honor John McCain's death. Trump on Monday ordered flags at the White House and elsewhere lowered to half-staff until the six-term senator is buried Sunday. He also proclaimed "respect" for McCain, with whom he feuded bitterly for years. It was a marked reversal from Trump's refusal to comment on McCain. Earlier Monday, the White House flag had been raised. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

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His sense of grievance was overpowering. “I have been traduced,” he proclaimed. “I have been slandered. I have been maligned.” He vowed not “to be bullied by enemies.”

Those enemies struck back. A one-term president, Johnson holds the record for vetoes overridden by Congress (15). The House overwhelmingly impeached him in 1868, then the Senate came within one vote of removing him from office.

Nixon, another poor boy, also made anger central to his politics. “People react to fear,” he told an adviser, “not love.”

Nixon used coded appeals to white racial fears. He applauded “hard hat” rioters who beat up antiwar protestors. He promised vengeance on those he resented, often the press and Kennedy family members.

Nixon’s scowl became his trademark. He needed no sympathy; his own self-pity overflowed. Conceding the California governor’s race in 1962, he pronounced, “You don’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.”

Finally, Nixon’s wrath drove him to launch the “third-rate burglary” at the Watergate Hotel that led to his 1974 resignation under threat of impeachment.

Mr. Trump’s stormy disposition turns his rallies into festivals of spleen, mockery and insults. He has boasted, “When someone attacks me, I always attack back … except 100x more.” That vindictiveness, he explained, is “a way of life.”

As president, he deploys demeaning nicknames – Crooked Hillary, of course, plus Lying James Comey, Head Clown Chuck Schumer and Low-IQ Maxine Waters.

His tweets spray ill will. He called his secretary of state “dumb as a rock” and “lazy as hell.” He dismissed his attorney general as “scared stiff and Missing in Action.” Four-star General Stanley McChrystal was “known for big, dumb mouth.”

Foreign adversaries receive similar treatment. Mr. Trump’s rage at Iran’s president promised, in all caps on Twitter: “YOU WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE.” Kim Jong Un of North Korea was “obviously a madman.” When French President Emmanuel Macron urged higher defense spending, Mr. Trump hearkened back to the two world wars: “How did that work out for France? They were starting to learn German in Paris before the U.S. came along.”

Mr. Trump’s 2019 Christmas message was a haiku to rancor: “It’s a disgrace what’s happening in this country, but other than that, I wish everybody a Merry Christmas.”

The presidential disposition matters, seeping into the national mood. Good cheer is infectious. An observer famously dismissed Franklin Roosevelt’s “second-class intellect,” but praised the jaunty New Yorker’s “first-class temperament.”

History does not always repeat itself. Today’s angry presidency need not land in the ditch. Yet a public persona steeped in malice implies a paranoia that may misinterpret events, plus instability and even caprice – all dangerous qualities for someone with great power.

— David O. Stewart is the author of “Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson” and other works of history.