Impeached and disgraced, the ex-President of the United States snubbed his successor’s inauguration ceremony, slinking home to nurse his electoral wounds.
In 1875, Andrew Johnson — so despised by both Democrats and Republicans that he survived his Senate impeachment trial by a single vote — made a triumphant return to Washington as the newly elected senator from Tennessee.
“It’s a nice American tradition: we give a honeymoon to our presidents once they’re out of the White House,” presidential historian Douglas Brinkley told The Post. “When you’re not in the political hurricane every day, people start to remember what they once liked about you.”
But whether twice-impeached President Donald Trump, loathed by the nation’s elites and facing charges of insurrection, could ever receive that post-term image overhaul is an open question.
“I think it’s highly unlikely,” said Jimmy Carter biographer Jonathan Alter. “Trump basically has clinched the title of the worst president in American history. For him, it’s a very, very steep climb.”
“Trump was such a danger to the republic that I can’t imagine him being rehabilitated in any way, shape, or form,” said George Washington University historian Matthew Dallek.
Yet the urge to grant redemption to our once-maligned ex-presidents is a powerful one.
“Nearly all presidents, especially those defeated for re-election, eventually enjoy some revisionist second looks,” said Steven Hayward of the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. “It will likely happen for Trump, too, as the intense passions surrounding him recede.”
Historian Harold Holzer, director of Roosevelt House at Hunter College, traces the post-presidential rebound to John Quincy Adams. In 1829, Adams lost his bid for a second term in the White House, but bounced back to serve 18 years in Congress.
“It depends largely on what Trump makes of his post-presidency,” Holzer said. “Even Herbert Hoover made a PR comeback of sorts by working in later years on world hunger. If Trump devotes himself to good works, who knows?”
Among modern departing presidents, Trump is hardly the least popular, according to Gallup’s Presidential Job Approval Center.
Trump notched an approval rating of 34 percent in Gallup’s final poll of his presidency — just like George W. Bush in 2009 and Jimmy Carter in 1981, and two points better than the 32 percent scored by Harry Truman as he left office in 1953.
But Trump never came close to Richard Nixon’s dismal 24 percent approval rating in the final week of his presidency, just before he resigned in 1974 to dodge impeachment over the Watergate scandal.
After his downfall, Nixon made a concerted effort to refurbish his reputation. He lived in near-seclusion for four years, then launched a highly scripted comeback campaign that began with a state dinner at Carter’s White House and segued into off-the-record evenings with influential newspaper columnists and publishers to get back in the media’s good graces.
“Behind the scenes, Nixon cultivated relationships with Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton,” Alter said. “That’s just not going to happen with Trump” — who has burned too many political bridges to repair.
The political calendar may also have favored Nixon’s rehab program.
In 1981, less than a decade after his resignation, the Washington Post — Nixon’s onetime nemesis — began praising his “redemption” and lauding him as a “peacemaker.”
That was nine months into the first term of a new, more right-wing Republican president, Ronald Reagan.
By the end of Reagan’s presidency, Nixon’s transformation in the public mind was complete, sociologist Sherri Cavan declared in 1989.
“Gradually, people came to forget why he was infamous,” Cavan wrote in a research paper that year. “And he became famous again.”
The pattern recurred for George W. Bush, denounced by the left as a war criminal and worse during his presidency — then flattered with “Miss Me Yet?” memes and showers of press affection once Trump took the White House.
Since 1940, said conservative columnist Ed Driscoll, each GOP presidential candidate has been vilified in extreme terms before being “magically rehabilitated as thoughtful elder statesmen to contrast against the next Hitlerian Republican.”
“I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see former President Trump given strange new respect four years from now,” Driscoll said — “to bash whoever is the front-runner in the GOP.”
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