For the past 96 hours, Rep. John Lewis's decision to not attend Donald Trump's inauguration Friday has been cast as the beating heart of a large-scale protest movement against the businessman-turned-politician. Lewis's status as a civil rights icon and Trump's baffling attempts to suggest that the Georgia Democrat is more talk than action have only fueled the idea of Lewis as the last principled man in Washington.
Turns out that story line might have been a wee bit overstated. Why? Because Lewis also boycotted — again, on principle — the inauguration of George W. Bush back in 2001. This, from a Washington Post story dated Jan. 21, 2001:
Some members of the Black Caucus decided to boycott Inauguration Day; John Lewis, for instance, spent the day in his Atlanta district. He thought it would be hypocritical to attend Bush's swearing-in because he doesn't believe Bush is the true elected president.
If that sounds familiar, it should. Here's what Lewis told NBC's Chuck Todd on Friday about his decision not to attend Trump's inauguration:
CHUCK TODD: You have forged relationships with many presidents. Do you plan on trying to forge a relationship with Donald Trump?
REP. JOHN LEWIS: You know, I believe in forgiveness. I believe in trying to work with people. It will be hard. It's going to be very difficult. I don't see this president-elect as a legitimate president.
So here's what we now know:
* John Lewis has said the last two Republican presidents were illegitimate.
* John Lewis has attended just one inauguration of a Republican president since he was first elected to Congress in 1986: that of George H.W. Bush in 1988.
Trump, he of the often-erroneous tweets, actually had this one right.
Now. None of that takes away from Lewis's well-earned reputation as a man of principle. And nothing Lewis could say or do would erase his heroic efforts — often risking his own personal well-being — in the civil rights movement.
But what the revelation does do is make it more difficult to paint his opposition to Trump in anything but a partisan way. Democrats — Lewis included — have spent lots of time (and rhetoric) insisting that their objections to Trump are not rooted in simple disagreements over policy or the fact that he is not of their party. Their opposition to Trump, they insist, is centered on a nonpartisan belief/worry that he is far outside of the mainstream of political thought that governs the two parties and, as such, represents a clear and present danger to the nation and its citizens.
That could still be true! But Lewis's forgetfulness about not attending the inauguration of the 43rd president for the same stated reasons as his taking a pass on the inauguration of the 45th president — and the fact that both presidents are Republicans! — undercuts not only the “principled opposition” argument but also the “Trump is fundamentally different/worse than everyone who has come before” argument.
The more Democrats look like pure partisans blocking Trump solely because he is a Republican, the less success they will have in opposing him in a way that reaches beyond their party base. That's why Lewis's memory glitch is damaging.