THIS COLUMN goes on vacation on the birthday of the only president ever impeached and returns on the birthday of the only one who resigned to avoid being impeached. What a parlay!
Andrew Johnson was born in Jesse Helms' hometown of Raleigh, N.C., on Dec. 29, 1808. Of course Jesse wasn't alive yet, and Strom Thurmond was just a tyke (just kidding). Johnson grew up in poverty in Tennessee. He was an indentured servant. (A white slave.) He became a tailor and educated himself by reading collections of great oratory.
His tailor shop prospered. He entered politics, rising from alderman to mayor to state legislator to U.S. representative to governor to U.S. senator, always as a Democrat.
In the troubled and contentious years before the Civil War, he was for secession -- but of his East Tennessee region from the state. He opposed secession from the Union.
He was the only Southern senator to do so, and President Lincoln appointed him military governor of his state (while he remained a senator). Then in 1864, the Republican Abe picked the Democrat Johnson to be his running mate. They won.
Ailing on inauguration day, Johnson had a few too many Tennessee pick-me-ups. His acceptance speech was a disaster and led to this popular poem: "O, was it not a glorious sight,/To see the crowd of black and white,/As well as Andy Johnson tight/At the inauguration."
A month later Lincoln was slain and Johnson became president. He tried to carry out Lincoln's peace plans. Most of his old pals in the Senate, especially the Republicans, would have none of that. Too lenient on the traitors.
Tough civil rights bills were passed and vetoed. Soon the vetoes were being over-ridden.
In 1867, a Congress-president clash led to Johnson's impeachment. It seems Johnson fired a member of his own Cabinet without Senate approval. (A new law required such approval.) (Wouldn't Bob Dole love that today?!) The House of Representatives voted 126-47 to impeach President Johnson for that and similar "high crimes and misdemeanors."
The Senate tried Johnson on the charges -- and by innuendo on just about everything else, including complicity in the murder of Lincoln. The trial was conducted with politicians' usual sense of dignity and high purpose. That is to say it was, to quote historian James Schouler, "a solemn theatrical fiasco."
Thanks to seven courageous Republican senators, the Senate fell one vote short of the two-thirds needed to convict and remove the president from office.
Johnson served out the term till 1869, vainly vetoing bills dealing with Reconstructing the South. Then he went home to Tennessee and did something no other president has ever done. He got elected to the Senate. After losing his first bid, he won and took his seat in 1875. He had only served four months when he died.
Jan. 9: Richard M. Nixon.