Precedent Johnson A look at often-humorous similarities and differences in the times and tactics of those for and against impeachment.

December 19, 1998|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,SUN STAFF

A crystal ball it's not.

Even so, the impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson, as reported in 1868 in The Baltimore Sun, reveals two things that are useful to know in the near certainty that Bill Clinton will follow him into history.

First, much has changed in American political life: the quality of oratory, the things members of Congress regard as important.

Much has not changed: Folly still has a hand in the proceedings.

President Johnson's opponents at least could refer to major historic events in their recent past to lend gravity to their bombast, if not legitimacy to their charges.

As Johnson popped in and out of the Senate chamber, infuriating his enemies by his mere presence, one of his prosecutors, Rep. Thomas Williams, likened the public response to the president's alleged crime to that evoked throughout the land by the Confederacy's attack on Fort Sumter seven years earlier.

So what did Johnson do to earn his impeachment? He had the temerity to fire one of his own Cabinet members in defiance of a law passed by the Radical Republican majority over his veto that forbade him to do that.

In this day and age, of course, firing Cabinet members is an accepted prerequisite of a president. But in those days, people in politics had different priorities. Sex, for instance, was not high on their list as a political issue. Sex was dirty, surreptitious and not spoken about much, except during smoky poker games. And unlike today's chief executive, President Johnson was having no illicit affairs that anybody could find out about.

Not one of President Johnson's persecutors had been outed as an adulterer, not the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, not the speaker of the House, or any of his henchmen. Unlike today.

But as those who attempted to throw Johnson out of office saw it, the firing of his disloyal secretary of war "smote on the sense of the nation and stirred the loyal heart of the people with the same electric thrill as when the reverberation of the guns which attacked our flag at Sumter were borne to the ear."

"Electric thrill?"

Foaming on, Rep. Williams said in his orotund way: "The great crime of Andrew Johnson, as now set forth, was his removal without color of law of Edwin M. Stanton, his conspiracy to keep possession of the War Department, to seduce officers of the army to ignore the laws of Congress, to set that body in contempt."

To which a presidential defender replied that while the attack on Fort Sumter was indeed "an attack upon the integrity of the Union; the impeachment of the President and his removal from office upon political grounds is an attack upon the constitution."

There are similarities shared by the two besieged presidents -- and, of course, some differences. Both were born poor, and struggled mightily against immense odds to win their high office. Both were Southerners: Johnson was born in Raleigh, N.C., Clinton in Hope, Ark. Both were populists, advanced legislation to benefit large numbers of people. Both men married women who helped their careers.

As with a lot of intense, self-educated men, Andrew Johnson never achieved the silky polish that is so characteristic of Clinton.

Also, Johnson was known as a man of principle. In fact, so strong was he in his devotion to the preservation of the Union that he was the only Southern member of Congress to remain in Washington in 1861 while all the rest went home at the outbreak of war. President Clinton is not exactly known for his principles.

Johnson was a tailor. Clinton, as far as can be discerned, has no other legitimate trade but politics. He is a lawyer, of course.

There were more dissimilarities between the president's opponents in 1867 than those pursuing the man in the White House today, or so it appears. During the Johnson trial, which endured from March 30, 1868, to May 16, much was said for and against him. He was accused of trying "to assume to himself royal prerogatives." He was referred to as "the high delinquent," the "high criminal," yet respect was never lost for the stature of his office.

"Whatever may be thought of his character or condition," said Rep. Stevens, "he has been made respectable and his condition has been dignified by the election of his fellow citizens."

No one in the House 130 years ago ever called the president a "sleazebag."

Nor, the reporting indicates, did anybody among the Republicans who indicted Johnson declare that he was voting ** "his conscience" with the sort of vehemence that suggested it was an exception to normal practice.

Attempts were made throughout Johnson's long trial to preserve decorum, sometimes unsuccessfully, and occasionally with vaudevillian consequences.

After a speech by Rep. John A. Bingham expressing his shock that Johnson would defy a law because he thought it an unconstitutional restraint, great applause erupted from the galleries.

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