The courage of Ross

December 15, 1998|By Bill Thompson

THE PRO-impeachment crowd is urging members of the House of Representatives to "vote their conscience."

Who could argue with that? All of us hope and expect that members of Congress will vote their conscience on every issue that comes before them.

But when people who favor impeachment expound on the requirements of conscience, they are obviously suggesting that the only vote a righteous conscience could produce would be "yes."

The idea is to intimidate congressional fence-sitters -- mostly moderate Republicans -- into voting for impeachment by defining a "yes" vote as a vote of conscience and a "no" vote as something less than that.

But is it? In this rare business of impeaching the president of the United States, how can anyone know for sure who is guided by conscience and who is following some lesser instinct?

Wild-eyed partisanship is nothing new in American politics. But in times of crisis, this country has often transcended political concerns because of politicians who truly followed the dictates of conscience.

One such individual was Sen. Edmund G. Ross, who cast the deciding vote in the 1868 impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson. Ross voted to acquit Johnson of the charges against him, denying the president's opponents the two-thirds majority that the Constitution requires for conviction and removal from office.

The vote effectively ended Ross' political career and wrecked his life, according to "Profiles in Courage," John F. Kennedy's book about political figures who followed their conscience at great cost to themselves. The charges against Johnson were mostly unfounded and politically motivated, Kennedy wrote, but public sentiment at the time favored removal of the president; Ross' vote allowing Johnson to remain in office made the Kansas senator a target of widespread indignation, relentless ridicule and even "physical attacks."

If most Americans don't want Mr. Clinton impeached -- as the opinion polls suggest -- but the GOP-controlled Congress impeaches him anyway, is our country facing the prospect of a partisan congressional autocracy"?

And if it all comes down to one vote, will that vote be cast by someone whose conscience is ruled by political partisanship -- or

by someone with the courage of Edmund G. Ross?

QC

Bill Thompson is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Pub Date: 12/15/98

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