When a Presidency Is Squeezed
As House panel casts key vote, historians analyze shards of past impeachment efforts
Barely audible above the partisan din of the Lewinsky matter is the creak of the wheels of history, carrying Bill Clinton down a road only two other American presidents have traveled.Skip to next paragraph
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With today's vote by the House Judiciary Committee, which is expected to recommend a formal impeachment inquiry, President Clinton will join Richard Nixon and Andrew Johnson as the chief executives who have faced the ultimate congressional punishment: removal from office.
The committee vote starts in motion a process that is likely to be open-ended - and perhaps broader than just the perjury and obstruction issues surrounding the Lewinsky probe. Next stop is the House floor on Friday, where lawmakers are expected to approve the committee's recommendation.
The impeachment process, once under way, is almost certain to have a profound effect on the institution of the presidency. More broadly, it may alter the balance of power between the executive and legislative branches, not to mention Americans' trust in their government.
As difficult as this moment may be for the president personally, "I don't think he's the issue," said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah at a recent Monitor breakfast.
For clues to how the Clinton scandal will reverberate through America's system of governance, today's historians are avidly searching the past. Many see Clinton's plight as less wide-ranging and serious than were President Nixon's troubles, but neither is it as purely political and contrived as the impeachment proceeding against President Johnson.
Still, some find today's climate to be most analogous to that of 130 years ago. Like Clinton, Johnson was a Southerner of humble roots, and he faced a Congress dominated by a strong opposition party. And like the Congress of 1868, today's lawmakers may eventually decide that removal from office is too harsh a punishment.
The Johnson crisis started when the president unilaterally sacked his war secretary - an infraction of a new law requiring Senate approval for the removal of a Cabinet appointee. Shortly thereafter, a majority of the House voted to impeach him.
The case then moved to the Senate for trial. So sure was Senate president pro tem Benjamin Wade of becoming the next leader of the United States (under the succession rules of the time), that he began building his Cabinet before Johnson's Senate trial was over. But Wade was to be disappointed. Johnson escaped conviction in the Senate by just one vote and remained in office.
Historians view the Johnson impeachment as a purely partisan effort by a post-Civil-War Congress bent on ousting a president who favored a forgive-and-forget policy toward the South over one of crushing punishment.
For the executive branch, it was a close call with a Congress that endeavored to shift the balance of power and get the upper hand in ruling the country. "If Johnson had been removed," says presidential historian Henry Graff, "we would have had the gain of a congressional government."
Essentially, it would have meant the removal of a president not for an outrageous crime, but simply because he was unpopular with lawmakers - an action more akin to a parliamentary system in which legislators, not the public, determine who leads the country.
The impeachment process disabled the Johnson presidency for the remaining nine months of his term, but more important, it contributed to a succession of weak presidents for the next 30 years, says impeachment expert and historian Buckner Melton Jr. of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.