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Why Clinton Will Survive

by Donald R. Shaffer on Nov 5, 1998

Donald R. Shaffer

The specter of Watergate has hovered over the Clinton scandal. Yet overlooked in the stampede to compare Bill Clinton to Richard Nixon is the fact that another impeachment — that of President Andrew Johnson in 1868 — is more revealing about why Clinton is facing removal and why he ultimately will survive.

Consider how Clinton and Johnson got into trouble.

Both presidents frustrated contemporary political visionaries intent on using Congress to remake American society. Andrew Johnson became the archenemy of the Radical Republicans, who wanted to reconstruct the South by making African Americans citizens and creating an interracial society based on parity. Johnson, a Southerner and white supremacist, utterly refused to accommodate the Radicals’ plans for Reconstruction. Even facing a veto-proof Republican majority in Congress after the 1866 midterm elections, he continued obstructing congressional Reconstruction through his executive powers.

Like Johnson, Clinton has become the nemesis of the 1990s’ visionaries: members of the Republican right. He adroitly blocked their “Contract with America” by accommodating some of its more popular provisions, such as welfare reform, and successfully portraying the rest of them as part of an extremist agenda.

The enemies of Johnson then and Clinton now also saw both men as personally unsuitable to be President. The Radical Republicans felt that Andrew Johnson, a Southerner, Democrat, and former slaveholder, was the wrong man to reintegrate the South into the nation after the Civil War. In fact, his obstruction of congressional Reconstruction made Johnson a potent symbol of the unrepentant South. Attacking the recalcitrant Tennessean became an effective way of energizing Northerners to vote Republican.

Likewise, the Republican right sees Bill Clinton as a draft-dodging, pot-smoking, adulterous hypocrite, exuding false empathy, who utterly lacks the requisite character necessary to preside in the Oval Office. Clinton also has an intelligent, aggressive, and career-oriented spouse, who provides social conservatives with an emotional outlet for their anxiety over the increasingly prominent role of women in American society. As with Johnson, Bill-hating and Hillary-hating has helped the Republicans boost voter turnout among their conservative supporters.

Seeing each President, Johnson in the 1860s and Clinton in the 1990s, as unsuited for office and as an obstacle to their agenda, frustrated Republican visionaries began the campaign for impeachment. In both eras, they pressed wide-ranging inquiries looking for impeachable offenses.

The investigations of Andrew Johnson were as exhaustive as those of Bill Clinton, with the investigators delving into private acts as well as official duties. Radical Republicans in Congress intensively scrutinized President Johnson’s pardons of high-ranking ex-Confederates, his executive branch appointments, his personal finances, and — in an inquiry worthy of the conspiracy theories about Vince Foster’s death — whether Johnson had had any role in the plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln.

Yet, as the Johnson case suggests, more moderate Republicans will play the decisive role in deciding Bill Clinton’s fate, not the visionaries of the Republican right.

For Johnson then and Clinton now, moderate Republicans frustrated the drive for the president’s removal in the early stages. In both cases, they initially refused to support impeachment because investigations failed to turn up hard evidence of impeachable offenses.

Indeed, it took the character defects of the president in question to convince moderate Republicans in both the 1860s and 1990s to move the impeachment proceedings forward. Bill Clinton’s critical flaw, of course, is his uncontrolled libido.

Likewise, Andrew Johnson’s uncompromising self-righteousness led him to go too far in his defiance of Congress. Johnson angered moderate Republicans by violating the Tenure of Office Act, a constitutionally dubious law that prohibited the President from firing officials in the executive branch without Senate approval. Johnson’s dismissal of Edwin M. Stanton, the secretary of war, in February 1868, swung moderate Republicans into voting for impeachment. However, by May 1868, tempers had cooled enough that seven Republican moderates in the Senate voted for acquittal, ensuring Johnson’s survival.

Chances are increasingly good that Bill Clinton also will be spared removal. Like Johnson’s, his fate is in the hands of moderate Republicans. Because of their revulsion with Clinton’s behavior and need to appease Republican conservatives, the president might yet face an impeachment vote in the House. Given that the Republicans still have a narrow majority in that body after the recent election, it is also possible he will lose and join Andrew Johnson in the ranks of impeached presidents.

Nonetheless, Clinton will survive because for moderate Republicans presidential survival best serves their interests as it did in the 1860s. Moderate Republicans will much prefer a weakened Bill Clinton to continue in office, just as they preferred in the end to keep a weakened Andrew Johnson 130 years ago. Especially since the recent election, which left the balance of power in the Senate unchanged, has made Clinton’s removal by a two-thirds vote there an even more remote possibility.

Donald R. Shaffer teaches 19th-century U.S. history at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, and he is a writer for the History News Service.