by William H. Benson
May 10, 2001
Just weeks after gaining the Vice-Presidency, Andrew Johnson moved into the White House and the Oval Office after John Wilkes Booth had done his damage in Ford’s Theatre. The new President sought to carry out Lincoln’s generous policy toward the Southern states but without Lincoln’s political skill. The Radical Republicans in Congress wanted revenge and treated the Southern states as conquered territories, rather than as fellow states in the Union.
A hopeless conflict ensued. Congress would pass vindictive legislation. President Johnson would then veto it, and Congress would then try to override his vetoes.
John F. Kennedy told the story of the showdown in his book, Profiles in Courage. Johnson fired Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War and a fierce Radical Republican bent on punishing the defeated South. In firing Stanton, Johnson openly defied and, in fact, broke the Tenure of Office Act. The House refused to accept Stanton’s firing and voted for impeachment.
Out of the total 54 votes in the Senate, 36 were needed for the 2/3’s vote to remove Johnson from the Oval Office. On May 16, 1868 the final vote came in at 35 for impeachment, one vote short of the necessary. Seven Republicans, including Edmund G. Ross from Kansas, voted their conscience and refused to allow partisan politics to determine their vote. Ross later said that he voted as he did because he feared a Congressional autocracy.
He later wrote, “I almost literally looked down into my open grave.” As it turned out, he did commit political suicide. His career in Washington ended, and back in Kansas he and his family suffered social ostracism, physical attack, and poverty.
Of Congress’s 35 attempts at impeachment, only 16 have actually happened, and of those, only 9 have gone to trial. Two of those were for Presidents–Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton. Another President, Richard Nixon, chose to resign on August 9, 1974 after the House Judiciary Committee issued 3 Articles of Impeachment. Nixon well understood that the Senate had the necessary 2/3’s votes to give him the boot.
Two years have passed since the last impeachment trial–that for Bill Clinton, indicted on two charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. When pressed for a resignation, Clinton responded curtly, “Never.” Because the Senate did not have the 2/3’s vote, the acquittal came on February 12, 1999.
Recently, I read Bill O’Reilly’s book, The O’Reilly factor. Outspoken, abrasive, opinionated, and blunt, he wrote of Clinton, “What a ridiculous waste! Full of promise, intelligence, and charisma, this man will go down in history alongside Warren Harding and Richard Nixon as the most corrupt presidents of the twentieth century.
“The much-publicized affair with Monica Lewinsky was trivial (except to Hillary and Chelsea). What was not trivial was his lying about the whole thing, which paralyzed the nation’s executive and legislative branches for more than a year. This man did tremendous damage to our country.
“We Americans have the right to expect honest, disciplined leadership. And we also deserve a leader who adheres to a decent standard of behavior within the walls of the White House.”
Now some would conclude that O’Reilly overstated his disgust of Clinton’s sorry behavior, but others would not. Loved by his friends and hated by his enemies, he remains today what he always has been–an enigma.