A small-town clothier in thrall to political ideas but minus any ability
to generate same parlays a talent
for stump speaking
into election results: alderman, mayor, state legislator, U.S. House of
Reps, governor of Tennessee. "Forcible
and powerful", notes
an opponent, "without being eloquent." In the Senate Dixie aristocrats
cold shoulder the Tennessee commoner. When their states secede, he's the
only Southerner to remain. Treason,
he declaims is odious and traitors must be
punished. Four years later, Lincoln's VP, his sozzled 19-min. extempore
throws a bewildered, black silk chill
over the chamber:
I’m a goin’ for to tell you all, here today, yes, I’m a goin’ for to tell you all that
I’m a plebian! I glory in it. Black eyes in outsized head. Raven hair. The squint
declaring every face it sees a place
ransacked for traces
of malign intent. Humble and unworthy as I am, he thunders, speaking to freed
slaves (Nashville, 1864), if no other better shall be found,
I will indeed be your Moses.
And lead you through the Red Sea of war and bondage. To land, schools, & the vote.
When Booth's derringer bears the "Tennessee Tailor" to the White House, his
position shifts. Civil Rights Act of 1866,
Freedman's Bureau, "Negro Suffrage"
he meets, agrees, then spits in the Radicals' hat. 29 vetoes, a record. Followed by
15 overrides. Also a record. He issues
a blanket amnesty for those
who rose in arms on slavery's behalf. Enemies coalesce. In response he launches
a speaking tour to shore up political support. DC, Baltimore, Wilmington, Philly, NYC
& on to Albany. But it's Grant
the crowds come to see.
In Cleveland hecklers get the best of him. "TRAITOR!" "HANG JEFF DAVIS!"
Compelled to retort, Johnson defaults to irritation:
Why don’t you hang him?
The Cleveland Leader calls his speech "the most disgraceful ever delivered…" by
a prez. St. Louis greets his arrival w/a banner: "A. Johnson, the Apostate". I have been
traduced, he proclaims, to catcall & jeer.
I have been slandered. I have been
maligned. I have been called Judas…Judas Iscariot and all that. Judas!
Reminded that the dignity of his office
is at stake, he tells reporters:
I don’t care about my dignity. Unable to concede even the possibility of error,
he scoffs at the prospect of impeachment, & evades by 1 vote conviction on 11 charges.
Expecting to be elected Johnson fails to
secure even a nomination.
Succeeded by Grant, he refuses to attend the inaugural & retreats to Tennessee
where, twice denied national office,
he calls in all favours
to get back his Senate seat. If I could be returned…it would be appreciated by me
as the greatest compliment of my life…a deserved rebuke to … ingratitude.
Months inside his term, back-to-back
strokes take him out.
Of his successor, he tells the New York Herald: The little fellow has nothing
in him. He has no
policy, no conception
of what the country requires. He is mendacious, cunning and treacherous.
Jim Cory’s most recent publications are Birds & Buildings (2019, Moonstone Press, Philadelphia), Wipers Float In The Neck Of The Reservoir (2018, The Moron Channel, New Orleans) and 25 Short Poems ( 2016, Moonstone Press, Philadelphia). His poems have appeared recently in Apiary, unarmed journal, Bedfellows, Cape Cod Poetry Journal, Capsule, Clementine Unbound, Fell Swoop, Painted Bride Quarterly, No Placebos (Australia), Skidrow Penthouse, Trinity Review and Whirlwind. He has been the recipient of fellowships from the Pennsylvania Arts Council, Yaddo and The MacDowell Colony.