What Do Paul Manafort and Jefferson Davis Have in Common?

Davis used pity to accomplish a political goal. Can Manafort do the same?

Jefferson Davis in his Fort Monroe cell. Source: Wikimedia

There was an unexpected development last week in the ongoing saga of Paul Manafort and the Russia investigation. After nearly two years of terrible news, Manafort received a shocking reprieve: he was sentenced to only four years in prison in his fraud case in the Eastern District of Virginia. The judge in that case, Judge T.S. Ellis, handed down the 47-month decision while stating that Manafort had lived an otherwise “blameless” life before the case. Several observers, most notably Franklin Foer of the Atlantic, subsequently noted the many, many potential crimes and underhanded dealings that Manafort has engaged in over the past four decades, most notably representing some of the 20th century’s most brutal dictators.

Immediately after the decision, rumors flurried as to why the judge gave a light sentence. Was it his political background? His perception of the Manafort case as a way to progress the Mueller investigation? Or maybe Ellis simply did not see anything wrong with Manafort’s actions, given the general views of white collar crime in the United States justice system? Yet another theory centered around a more basic aspect of the sentencing hearing: Manafort’s appearance. Manafort arrived to court in a wheelchair, and his lawyers detailed many of his medical maladies before the sentence was handed down. As an observer on Twitter quipped, “In a final bid for sympathy, Paul Manafort has been wheeled into his sentencing hearing in a wheelchair. Apparently a hospital gurney was unavailable.”

Manafort would certainly not have been the first to use pity as part of a public relations defense. A long list of prominent defendants have appeared in court in a disheveled or sickly manner to win sympathy from a judge. One of the most famous of these defendants, the former president of the Confederacy, used pity so well before his trial that many still see him as a martyr even to this day.

At the end of the Civil War, former Confederate president Jefferson Davis was arrested and handed over to federal officials at Fort Monroe near the Virginia city of Hampton. Davis was held for two years in a casemate at the fort. He was tended to by Army physician John J. Craven, who grew close to Davis and took detailed notes of his confinement. Davis was eventually released on bail in 1867 and never faced trial.

But in 1866, Dr. Craven published a book on Davis’s confinement that caught the attention of the nation. Craven described Davis as in ill health and receiving poor treatment compared with others near his rank. The doctor reported that Davis was held in iron shackles, a dramatic restraint for a man Craven described as frail and elderly.

At first, Davis disputed the details of the book and marked up all of its mistakes and exaggerations in private. But as the months went on, the story of Davis’s supposedly poor treatment became well known and enormously influential throughout the country. It became a basis for the myth of the Lost Cause, with Davis serving as a martyr and suffering so that the South could eventually be redeemed. As Southern historian Frank E. Vandiver wrote, “[Jefferson Davis] gathered all [the South’s] wartime sins to himself and became the one great symbol of treason and waste, a symbol accepted by the North and the world.” Instead of being the leader who lost the war, pity turned Davis into a monumental, well-respected figure once again. As a result, Davis never publicized his criticisms of Craven.

Manafort is attempting to use his public appearances to create the same sort of firestorm that surrounded Craven and Davis. He wants to appear as a sickly, sympathetic figure, both to appease judges and to angle for a pardon. But the differences between Manafort and Davis are stark. Jefferson Davis had been the president of the Confederacy and had actually been confined to the casemate at Fort Monroe. He could become a martyr because his story could be connected to the experience of millions of Southerners in the four years of the war. Paul Manafort is a grifter with no natural constituency, one who is reviled by the left and has been abandoned by conservatives trying to distance him from Trump. He may have possibly convinced one judge of his frailty, but he won’t convince the nation.

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