In this year's presidential campaign, the oratory has at best proved lackluster. Electrifying speeches seem to belong to colorful eras long gone and such superb orators as Daniel Webster, John C. Calhoun, John Tyler, and Henry Clay.
But now an oddity: The most memorable speech in US Senate history was delivered not by one of these superstar senators but by a former US President: highly controversial Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, the only former Chief Executive in history who later got himself elected to the Senate.
Johnson's comeback had a storybook flavor -- all the more so because when he left Washington (March 4, 1869, the day Ulysses S. Grant was inaugurated the 18 th President) jut about everyone thought that Andrew Johnson was washed up.
After succeeding the slain Abraham Lincoln in the White House, Johnson pursued policies which brought the wrath of most senators down on his head.
One clash and uproar followed fast on the heels of the other. The upshot was that impeachment proceedings were initiated against President Johnson. On May 26, 1868, the final showdown vote came in the Senate (25 were in favor of impeachment, 19 against). Since a two-thirds vote was necessary, Johnson escaped that infamy by a lone tally.
At the close of his stormy term of office, he returned to Tennessee, determined to vindicate himself. After a brief interval he made the race for senator from his adopted state -- and was trounced. He came out swinging again for a congressional seat in the 1872 campaign. Again he met defeat.
Undeterred and with his fighting spirit very much alive, Johnson made speeches all across Tennessee. His listeners were keenly impressed by his common-sense ideas and outspoken views. Members of the Tennessee legislature took a new, more favorable look at Andrew Johnson. It took 55 heated roll-call votes for them to reach a verdict, but in the end they sent Johnson back to Washington as a US senator from Tennessee.
It proved a sweet triumphal return for the nicknamed "Tennessee Tailor" to the scene where, in earlier years, he had suffered humiliation. Admirers and well-wishers by the thousands waited for him over on Capitol Hill, singing, clapping their hands, and chanting "Andy -- Andy -- Hurrah for Andy!" He beamed with pleasure and waved both hands jubilantly to acknowledge the greetings of these admirers.
After entering the Senate chamber he found another pleasant surprise awaiting him. Bowers of fresh, lovely flowers surrounded the Senate desk he had used in earlier times. Feeling both humble and supremely happy at that moment, Johnson glanced about him and recognized 13 senators who, on May 26, 1868, had voted for his impeachment as President.
One of them -- Senator Morton of Indiana -- flashed a friendly smile. Delighted, Andrew Johnson bounded over and shook his outstretched hand heartily. Meanwhile, the packed galleries tingled with an undercurrent of excitement. Just then, the presiding officer signaled that Johnson was recognized for an informal speech.
His hands shaking with emotion, the broad-shouldered and impressive-looking Senator from Tennessee rose to his feet. The galleries let go with a long, wild outburst of cheering and applause. Johnson bowed in their direction and waved gratefully. He tried twice to begin his speech, but both times was drowned out by joyful shouts from the galleries.
As it turned out, that uproarious crowd kept Johnson from making any kind of speech that day, so spontaneous was his newly born popularity. Finally, on March 23, 1875, his chance came to speak freely (and without interruption). He delivered a scathing attack on "that pathetic creature and wretch in the White House, Ulysses S. Grant," and outlined a new program to revitalize the nation. Historians hailed Andrew Johnson's fiery, impassioned address on that occasion as "superb and truly memorable."