History shows we can right the ship of state again

December 27, 1998|By William Pfaff

PARIS -- Washington cannot be a happy city this Christmas. Impeachment of the president coincided with a long-sought but ill-considered intervention in Iraq that only alienated allies, humiliated the United Nations and its American-nominated secretary general, and strengthened a despot's hold over his country.

The Washington political climate is harsh, and the moral and intellectual level of debate in the Congress, the White House, and much of the press, is generally acknowledged as at its modern nadir. The functioning of American democracy disquiets patriots -- to employ a word whose very unfashionableness is revealing.

However, all this is not unprecedented. There was Richard Nixon's resignation under the threat of impeachment, 24 years ago, bitterly controversial, while the war in Vietnam still went on. There was Andrew Johnson, 17th president of the United States, who was impeached but not convicted in circumstances of furious ideological and partisan vituperation.

A Lincoln supporter

A tailor without formal education, taught to write by his wife, Johnson was a leader of Tennessee smallholders and artisans who became governor of his state and eventually U.S. senator. Before the Civil War, he voted with other Southerners on the issues of slaveholding, but when Tennessee seceded from the Union in 1861, he remained in Washington, the only Southerner in the Senate, and although a Democrat, he supported Abraham Lincoln. For the 1864 election, he was made Lincoln's vice-presidential candidate.

As president, after Lincoln's assassination, his conflict with the radical wing ("Jacobin," as the southern historian Shelby Foote says) of the Republican congressional majority resulted from his attempt to apply Lincoln's lenient policy of reconciling the defeated southern states to bring them back "to their proper practical relation with the Union."

The radicals wanted humiliation of the South, but they also grasped that a white majority was not ready to accept the implications of the emancipation of the slaves. (And after Reconstruction ended, the South did impose a form of peonage on former slaves, together with the legal and social discrimination which became known as "Jim Crow").

Johnson tried to veto the first Republican bill extending civil rights to former slaves, and resisted legislation disenfranchising and disqualifying from public office former Confederate leaders. That launched the struggle which led to impeachment.

The House voted the president's impeachment in February 1868, after two days of furious debate. Some 3,000 people crowded into the Capitol to watch and listen, while thousands of others milled about outside.

Charged with "usurpation of power," among other high crimes, Johnson was subsequently acquitted by one vote in the Senate. His administration nonetheless was fatally weakened, and the next year the Republican Ulysses S. Grant took his place -- a great general and a disastrous president.

The passion, partisanship, vulgarity and ignorance of Washington today is no worse than it was then. There is, however, a difference. The Johnson and Nixon cases concerned events of great moment to the nation. The effects of the radical Republicans' vindictive Reconstruction policy were felt in the South until the 1930s. The rights of black American citizens were not fully assured, even in law, until the 1960s.

Today's partisan war is trivial in cause -- the Monica Lewinsky episode and the president's pathetic lies about it -- but it is in a way more dangerous than either the Nixon and Johnson impeachments.

Today's is a war not of politics but cultures, social values, and to an extent even of religion, provoked by the generational value shift that took place in the 1960s. The battle issues are named feminism, abortion, homosexuality, multiculturalism, fundamentalism. The battlefields are the schools, the universities, the media, and, of course, the national parties, each of which currently is under control of the more extreme forces on each side.

The race question

The great issues of past impeachments -- except for race -- were political or legal issues open to eventual resolution. Even the race question could eventually be turned into a set of political issues and solved in principle (if far from so in practice).

Cultural wars are unnegotiable and therefore unresolvable except through conquest and suppression of the enemy's ideas. This is what the Clinton impeachment is all about. Time will eventually allow the country to move beyond the present struggle, but there will be permanent damage.

However, the congressional and gubernatorial elections in November saw a movement to marginalize the extremists who previously dominated the scene. Moderate Republicanism (in the senior George Bush's time, known as liberal Republicanism) made an unexpected reappearance. The American voter apparently tried to right the ship of state, despite the politicians.

It seems worth recalling that when Andrew Johnson took the oath of presidential office, three hours after Lincoln died, and kissed the Bible held by the chief justice, it was open to the Book of Ezekiel, to the passage saying: "I will put a new spirit within you; and I will take away from your breasts those hearts that are hard as stone, and give you human hearts instead. . . . Well, may you think with loathing of what you were, as your minds go back to false paths and crooked aims you once followed. Be assured of it, the Lord God says. . . ."

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 12/27/98

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