A US President is assassinated, elevating Vice-President Johnson to the top job – no, not JFK and Lyndon Johnson, but Lincoln and Andrew Johnson. It’s April 1865 and the last shot in the Civil War is still to be fired; but the one that killed the President is ricocheting across the political landscape as a seemingly ill-equipped individual inherits the reins of power. Even though the conflict that had set the nation against itself was officially over before the year was out, the aftermath dominated Johnson’s one term of office, and the strains it placed upon the various strands of government were something Abraham Lincoln’s unsatisfactory successor appears to have exacerbated. The unfortunate circumstances that led to Johnson’s capture of the Presidency after just six weeks as second-in-command would probably be his sole entry in the history books were it not for the fact that he is also remembered as the first American President to be impeached.
A Democrat who seems to have spent most of his time as President engaged in a tug-of-war with Congressional Republicans, Johnson was eager to bring the seceded States back into the Union as quickly as possible; key to his post-war Presidential Reconstruction was to pardon Confederate leaders and raise no objections to Southern legislation limiting the civil liberties of freed slaves (the so-called Black Codes). With Johnson opposing the Fourteenth Amendment giving those former slaves citizenship, he repeatedly attempted to dismiss Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (who approved the Fourteenth Amendment); the President’s actions violated the Tenure of Office Act, which Congress had passed to restrict his powers to fire officials, and when Johnson eventually dismissed Stanton, the House of Representatives moved to impeach him.
Andrew Johnson’s ‘high crimes and misdemeanours’ were listed in eleven articles of impeachment that resulted in the President’s Senate trial, though a potential conviction largely centred on the illegal dismissal of Stanton. In the end, Johnson narrowly escaped conviction, and there were endless rumours that bribery and corruption saved the President’s skin and prevented him being removed from office. As it was, barely a year later Johnson was the ex-President, anyway, having failed to win the Democratic Presidential nomination. His sole achievement in office appears to have been the purchase of Alaska from the Russian Empire, though his main claim to fame is the one that is currently receiving renewed interest on account of rather more contemporary events.
Just over a century on from the inglorious episode in the career of President #17, the 37th holder of the office came within a whisker of finding himself in the same position. In 1972, Richard Nixon was re-elected by what was then the biggest margin of victory in American history, yet less than two years later he became the first – and so far only – US President to resign before his term of office was up. The Watergate scandal lifted the lid on the unsavoury reality of politics at the highest level and enabled a jaw-dropping public to be exposed to it for the first time; whilst Nixon’s dirty tricks were undoubtedly an extreme manifestation of the man’s paranoid persecution complex, it’s not as though Tricky Dicky was the first sinner in a long line of saints. Nixon’s crime was that he got caught.
Few politicians who climb to the plateau of power manage to do so without pissing a fair few people off en route, but how that resentment can maybe be turned into legal action that brings them down is easier said than done. Bill Clinton’s enemies were mainly female, most of whom he’d enjoyed extramarital dalliances with whilst – according to Christopher Hitchens, anyway – Hillary paid them off in order to prevent any future kiss-and-tell exposés. The 42nd President always made it clear these dalliances were consensual, though it was perhaps inevitable that the question of consent was destined to rear its ugly head by the time Clinton ascended to the Oval Office. Of course, it was in that very room that the ‘incident’ many both at the time and since attribute to the impeachment of Clinton in 1998 took place; the tawdry Monica Lewinsky affair, in which the President had lied on oath that he didn’t have ‘sexual relations with that woman’ before then admitting he had, served to exhume the ghost of an older allegation that sealed impeachment proceedings. Former Arkansas state employee Paula Jones accused Clinton of sexual harassment dating from his tenure as Governor of Arkansas, and it was the lawsuit Jones filed against the President that gave additional weight to the Lewinsky lie.
Nixon had evaded impeachment on account of resigning before the process could be completed and then receiving a pardon from his successor, Gerald Ford; but in January 1999 Bill Clinton went all the way and became only the second US President to stand trial in the Senate. However, like Johnson before him, Clinton was acquitted and was able to serve out his second term in office, despite his already-dodgy reputation being further besmirched by the whole sleazy saga. One could even argue Bill’s incurable philandering contributed towards the failure of the former First Lady to win the White House, as Donald Trump and his team were quick to magic up another accuser of her husband whenever the Democrats sought to bring Trump’s own dubious record to the fore during the notoriously nasty 2016 campaign.
And now we come full circle as a third American President has been impeached. Ironically, considering the rumours and whispers of Trump’s overactive libido that dogged (and ultimately didn’t affect) his bid for the Presidency, it is a purely political issue that will drag him to the Senate early next year. As the blueprint for the process, Andrew Johnson made a lot of bad enemies and it was then up to his enemies to find something they could nail him with; if the now-three US Presidents to have been impeached share anything, it is that the crimes and misdemeanours that formed their articles of impeachment were all their enemies could legally cobble together. All seem like minor offences when compared to the litany of alleged offences that couldn’t be proven; and the Democrats’ relentless pursuit of Trump just looks like partisan politics of the most desperate order.
Ever since Trump’s inauguration, most of the Democratic Party’s energies seem to have been devoted not to finding the right man or woman to beat the President in 2020, but to digging up any tiny scrap of dirt that would be strong enough to force him from office. It’s as though the humiliation of Trump being unceremoniously booted out was somehow more satisfactory than him actually being defeated in a fair fight, as if the President’s own lowly moral character has infected his opponents to the point whereby they’ve given up trying to be the better man. Indeed, if the Democrats had spent half of the time unearthing the perfect foil to take Trump on politically that they have rooting through the Donald’s underwear drawer, they might not be so determined to prevent a second term of office by stooping to impeachment.
The allegation that the President involved a foreign power in his attempts to dig some dirt of his own (on Joe Biden) is serious when compared to the articles that comprised the case against his impeached predecessors, but there appears to be little chance the President will be convicted, so what’s the point? And where does that leave the Democrats? The whole affair has the distinct ‘last throw of the dice’ look for a party dedicated to Trump’s removal by means that are foul rather than fair.
© The Editor