Political folly and bravery
If Andrew Johnson had been politically "smart" he would not have attempted to carry out Abraham Lincoln's policy of reconciliation with the states of the defeated Confederacy. But President Johnson was both a brave and sincere man. He believed in the policy of reconciliation. He believed it to be in the long-term best interests of the United States. He fought for reconciliation and in 1868 was impeached for that deed. He came within one vote of being convicted.
The ordeal of Andrew Johnson is the classic example of what can all too easily happen to a US president. His job is to think not only about the expedient course of action of the moment but also about the future well-being of the country. A nation lives in past and future as well as present. The average citizen is concerned primarily about the present and about his own immediate condition. But the president must try to think not only about the welfare of all the citizens but also about the welfare of their descendants.
That is precisely why a president sometimes does things which can seem mistaken to his contemporaries and which hence are unpopular at the time.
In the United States Congress of 1868 the radicals and the demand for revenge were dominant. Johnson's unpopularity was so extreme that some even wanted to accuse him of conspiring in the assassination of President Lincoln. In the eyes of the majority he was virtually a traitor. Yet history has vindicated him. The Lincoln policy of reconciliation was the sound and right policy. Johnson was both foolish to try to carry it out and exceedingly brave to do so. His place in history is honorable. That of his detractors and revilers is not.
It was not given to President Jimmy Carter to have to do anything as dramatic or heroic as to fight for a policy of reconciliation against a radical and rabid majority in the Congress. But on this day when the Carters return to Plains, Ga., it is in order to note that some of the unpopularity which denied Mr. Carter a second term was earned by doing things in the long-term best interest of his country.
The clearest example was the fight for the Panama Canal treaties. It was politically foolish of him to make that fight. It was bound to bring down on his head the disapproval of professional patriots and "manifest destiny" imperialists. Any demagogue would automatically take the negative side on that issue. Yet it was the right thing to do in the long- term best interests of the United States. The old relationship with Panama was as out-of- date as any 19 th-century empire.
In Tory circles in Britain Lord Louis Mountbatten was socially ostracized for having "presided over the liquidation" of the British Raj in India. He was never forgiven among the old "Empire loyalists." Yet that Empire was out-of-date and had to go. The same was true of the former US relationship with Panama. It simply had to be recast in modern terms. That was true from the end of World War II. Mr. Carter's predecessors from General Eisenhower on knew it, and knew it should be done. Mr. Carter was the first to have the political courage to do it. The measure of its propriety is that the new Reagan administration will accept it publicly, and privately be grateful to Mr. Carter for having spared them that necessary chore.
Mr. Carter did a number of other things which will ease the road for his successor. Mr. Carter broke the first ground in deregulating much overregulated enterprise. He deregulated airlines and sought to deregulate trucking. That was the reason the truckers campaigned, and voted, against him. They did not want to be deregulated.
Equally unpopular was Mr. Carter's decontrol of oil prices. It had to be done. Almost everyone is willing to recognize that today. Mr. Reagan can be thankful that Mr. Carter accepted the odium of being the first to do it.
Future generations of Americans will be grateful to Mr. Carter for setting aside great areas in Alaska as "wilderness". They will also be grateful to him for doing a great many other things towards cleaning up waterways, checking the pollution of the air, and safeguarding the forests and the parks.
He was denied re-election partly because he did all of these desirable and sometimes necessary things. Every one of them earned him enemies who contributed funds to his defeat. Mr. Carter was not a skillful politician. He did not have a firm grasp on foreign policy. He did not understand either the presidential office or what can and what cannot be done with presidential power. But he was not a demagogue. He was high-minded in purpose. He did his best, conscientiously and honorably. And he cleared the way in many respects for h is successor.