Why you should care
Because history doesn’t repeat, but it rhymes.
The most overused word of the Donald Trump presidency is “unprecedented.” (Or, as he once tweeted in error, “unpresidented.”) Trump, of course, prides himself on being unique — “Nobody’s ever done a better job than I’m doing as president,” he told journalist Bob Woodward in late summer — and America certainly has never had a character quite like him in the Oval Office. But his press coverage and political foes often resort to hyperbole to denounce him.
Keep in mind that this has all happened before, and in many cases was worse. And we’re not just talking about the well-trod territory of Watergate and Monica Lewinsky.
The news cycle can get overwhelming … But a little perspective is nice.
In this OZY original series, take a trip with us through the rhyming history of the United States of Scandal. Do you think Brett Kavanaugh’s installation means the Supreme Court has become too political? Read up about the time James Buchanan meddled behind the scenes with justices ahead of the infamous 1857 Dred Scott decision, in which the Supreme Court ruled that Congress could not deprive slave owners in U.S. territories of their property.
The current president is known for demanding loyalty from high-profile figures such as his attorney general and the FBI director, and railing against the “deep state.” But Trump has nothing on Harry Truman. In 1947, Truman signed an executive order to start weeding out federal employees deemed “disloyal” to the U.S. government, and over the next decade, more than 5 million federal workers were screened for communist ties.
Robert Mueller’s team is still digging into who on Team Trump knew what about the 2016 hack of Democratic National Committee emails. But we do know for sure that Ronald Reagan’s aides wound up with Jimmy Carter’s stolen debate briefing books in 1980 — and wielded them to help Reagan get off some pithy one-liners in a pivotal debate just days before the election.
Abraham Lincoln battled a hostile and partisan press — sound familiar? — to the point where he shut down several newspapers during the Civil War. Lincoln also had to deal with some very real “fake news” threats, from The New York World’s claim that the president planned to encourage interracial marriage to the famous “Civil War gold hoax” in 1864, in which two New York reporters, in the hopes of profiting in the gold market, propagated the false story that Lincoln was drafting another 400,000 men into the Union Army. Lincoln imprisoned those responsible for publishing the hoax.
White House occupants have demonstrated overt White supremacy (Thomas Jefferson), abruptly fired a top aide in a manner that sparked his impeachment (Andrew Johnson) and cavorted with women half their age (Grover Cleveland, among others).
Sure, the news cycle can get overwhelming, and our precious “institutions” appear under siege with each new scandal. But a little perspective is nice. In many cases, we have been there before. And we made it through.