ADAM COHENIf there had been a TV show Andrew Johnson: Presidency in Crisis,New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley would have been the star.Greeley, king of the pro-impeachment sound bite, called Johnsonan aching tooth in the national jaw, a screeching infant in acrowded lecture room, and said, There can be no peace orcomfort till he is out. And plenty of Congressmen would happilyhave offered up the 19th century version of talk-show rant. OneRepublican Representative denounced Johnson as an ungrateful,despicable, besotted traitorous man--an incubus. Be grateful,Bill Clinton.Political character assassination was alive and well long beforecable TV and the Internet. Forget Vince Foster conspiracytheories--1860s Republicans charged that Johnson, when he was VicePresident, aided in Abraham Lincoln's assassination so he couldmove up to the top job. Monica Lewinsky pales beside JenniePerry, who blackmailed Johnson with charges that he fathered anillegitimate son. And Johnson's critics claimed he was conspiringto help the defeated Confederacy rise again. If Clinton were tochannel Johnson, the two men--each born in poverty in the South,raised by a widow, elected Governor before he became Presidentand tormented by Republican foes--would have a lot to talk about.The drive to impeach Johnson, the only President to be impeachedand tried in the Senate, was really about the politics ofpost-Civil War Reconstruction. The Radical Republicans whocontrolled Congress took a hard line toward Dixie. Johnson was noConfederate; he was the only Southern Congressman not to secedewhen his state did. But he vetoed bills that he viewed as toopunitive against former slave owners, and he resisted militaryrule over the Southern states. Republicans were so irate, saidSecretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, that they would haveimpeached Johnson had he been accused of stepping on a dog'stail.Technically, Johnson was impeached for firing his Secretary ofWar, Edwin Stanton, who was a Radical Republican sympathizer.Johnson's enemies said the dismissal violated the Tenure ofOffice Act, a law that was later judged to be unconstitutional.The legislators threw in a few other charges, includingconspiracy and bringing Congress into disrepute. A shaggymountain of malice had panted, heaved and labored, an earlyJohnson biographer fulminated, and this small and very scalymouse was the result!If the charges against Johnson were weak, his defense was attimes Clintonian. His lawyers argued he could not haveconspired with Stanton's successor because a Commander in Chiefgives orders, which his subordinate has no choice but to accept.And they argued that the federal conspiracy law did not apply,because it covered only states and territories, and Washingtonwas neither. Johnson tried to build popular support by launchinga speaking tour--dubbed his Swing Around the Circle--but he washeckled in St. Louis, Mo., and told by an Indianapolis, Ind., mobto shut up. Like some of Clinton's televised explaining andfinger wagging, Johnson's p.r. offensive hurt his cause.The debate in the House was boisterous and nasty. A Congressmansaid Johnson had dragged the robes of his office through thepurlieus and filth of treason. Another called his advisers theworst men that ever crawled like filthy reptiles at the footstoolof power. The outcome was never in doubt. On Feb. 24, 1868,Johnson was impeached by a party-line vote of 126 to 47, and 11articles of impeachment were sent to the Senate.Johnson was tried there, with the proceedings presided over byChief Justice Salmon P. Chase. The House sent a board ofmanagers, heavy with Radical Republicans, to argue forimpeachment. Johnson, defended by a bipartisan team of lawyers,did not attend. The trial was a great spectacle--the gallerieswere packed--but few new facts came to light.To get the two-thirds needed to convict, the Republicans couldafford only six defections from their ranks. It all came down toSenator Edmund Ross, a Kansas Republican and the onlyfence-sitter. Ross was hunted like a fox by both sides, the NewYork Tribune wrote. In the end, he backed Johnson, who was keptin office by a single vote.Defecting to Johnson came at a cost. None of the seven RepublicanSenators who crossed party lines was re-elected. Ross was shunnedby friends--one wire from home declared that Kansas repudiatesyou as she does all perjurers and skunks--and he ended his lifein near poverty. But history has sided with Ross and his fellowdefectors. Nearly a century later, John F. Kennedy put Ross inhis book Profiles in Courage. By rising above partisanship andthe passions of the day, Kennedy wrote, Ross may well havepreserved for ourselves and posterity constitutional governmentin the United States.
As the full House prepares to consider Bill Clinton's impeachment, the sordid saga that most Americans wish would go away is instead heading for a dramatic climax