Wait - I know your first instinct is to run at the very mention
of that word! Bear with me, though - I promise no personal partisan
politicking pertaining to my own personal persuasions shall pass
It's a dicey subject, at best, as we all have our own thoughts
and beliefs, and there is nothing outside of religion so guaranteed
to ruin a conversation as a political discussion.
And partisanship has absolutely no place in a column such
That having been said, the world of Politics is nevertheless
ideal fodder for the folklorist, especially after a suitable
amount of time has passed.
It was the dawn of 1999, and Impeachment proceedings were
underway (does anyone even remember that?). I decided to use
the contemporary scenario as a jumping off point to examine the
only other Impeachment trial in American History.
what choice did I have? Compared to the other relatively trivial
problems facing the world today (little things like North Korea
threatening to go nuclear, the possiblity of a new Great Depression
on the horizon, the probability that in less than a year a whole
lot of computer systems are going to play goldfish and go belly
up, etc.), there is obviously no story of more life-shattering
import than the current Senate Presidential Trial.
I can hear Mom screaming already - what the heck is Joe thinking
of, doing a political column for a Book Store newsletter? I therefore
hasten to reassure both the staff of Book Again and you wonderful
readers out there that I officially have absolutely no opinion
whatsoever about the current proceedings. None. Zero. Why, I
am arguably as unopinionated as my brother Michael (Book Again
Manager and website contributor)!
Seriously, the fact that what is ostensibly a moral and legal
question is being argued completely on party lines shows pretty
clearly that Congress is simply behaving in its usual historic
fashion - to hammer away tooth and nail at the other side with
every weapon they can get their hands on. This should not cause
anyone to lose faith in any of our institutions, however - it
is seriously remarkable that the brilliant checks and balances
inherent in the two party system have allowed this nation to
survive so long, while being able to accomodate more nuts than
one is likely to find in the average Skippy factory.
The system works, and it will (or maybe has, as you read this)
survive the current state of affairs.
And, if you think about it, they really are being more civilized
these days - certainly more so than around 1800, for instance,
when one party actually placed members of the other under house
arrest during the campaign. And there are certainly less duels
being fought between political foes these days.
Politics is, of course, all about power, the getting and keeping
of it. It's the way of the world, and should at times be taken
with about as much due respect as one would give to wrestling
or roller derby.
For it can be darned entertaining at times!
(Mike's gonna edit so much of this out - I see it now . . . )
Anyway, I've said as much as I plan to on current events. My
original idea was to look through my dusty books and see if any
other esteemed United States Presidents had any similar skeletons
in their closets. After about an hour I had to give up, since
I realized I would end up writing a book.
It then occured to me that we might as well look back to the
only other President to be impeached and tried: Andrew Johnson.
Johnson was rather unique: he was a Southerner, and governor
of Tennessee shortly before Lincoln was elected and the South
began to secede. Johnson was, however, adamantly opposed to secession.
This, as you might imagine, made him not the most popular fellow
in the pre-Civil War South.
As a matter of fact, he was pursued and grabbed by a mob in Virginia,
and they were actually placing a noose around his neck when an
old gentleman observed that there was a mob waiting to hang Johnson
back home in Tennessee, and it didn't seem sporting to rob them
of their rightful due. This seemed reasonable to the mob, and
Johnson escaped (presumably hightailing it North as fast as he
At any rate, Lincoln was already thinking about the inevitable
need to bring the country together post-war when he began to
run for his second term. The idea of having as his running mate
a Southerner must have proved irresistable, and so Johnson found
himself sworn in as Vice President in the Spring of 1865.
Now, he was sick with fever that day, and hadn't actually wanted
to attend the ceremonies, but Lincoln insisted, cryptically suggesting
that it might not be "safe" for him to be anywhere
else that day.
So, Andrew Johnson, feverish, showed up, and decided to have
a quick drink to bolster his spirits. From all accounts, his
spirits must have required quite a bit of bolstering, for when
he rose to give his speech later that day in the Senate he was
staggering drunk, waving his arms about and generally mortifying
The next day, the Senate voted to ban liquor from the Senate
Now, Congress didn't care for Johnson anyway, for obvious reasons:
he was a Southerner, and, since the South was still at war with
the North, Johnson was one of the only Southerners holding office
All of which would have counted for little, if not for the assassination
of Lincoln a month later. Johnson was now President, and not
only was he from the South, he (rather naturally) favored a relatively
civil patching up of things, and a speedy, conciliatory reintroduction
of the Southern states into the fold.
Congress would have none of that, of course. Anti-Southern feelings
were common anyway, and Lincoln's murder was the final blow.
The South must pay, and therefore Johnson had to go.
The first thing they did was to actually accuse him of being
a part of the conspiracy to kill Lincoln. This plan pretty much
fell flat when the main accuser went on to rant about his belief
that previous Presidents had been poisoned by their Vice-Presidents.
Congress coughed politely, turned the other way, and changed
They then passed a law prohibiting the President from firing
any member of his cabinet. This was not necessarily within their
jurisdiction to do - at any rate Johnson was sure it wasn't.
He fired a member of the cabinet, and was promptly impeached.
Amazingly, although the Senate tried him, they came one vote
short of removing him from office.
Needless to say, however, Johnson was not renominated come the
No parallels should be drawn from this tale - I merely wished
to point out that our current elected officials are behaving
far more civilly than their distinguished predecessors, as the
fact that I consider this First Impeachment quaint and alien
enough to deem it folkloric should attest to. It doesn't matter
which side you're on, or indeed if you even have one. We've been
through worse crises, and at the very least some of them are
darned entertaining . . .
See you on Groundhog Day!
TO FOLKLORE ARCHIVE INDEX