Lessons of 1868

So, congressional Republicans have searched the Constitution and their souls and voted, to a man and woman, to start impeachment proceedings. This is Gingrichism’s finest hour, partisanship elevated to jihad. From Tokyo’s flailing banks to Milosevic’s Kosovo killing fields, the world is unraveling in a way that has everyone saying “1930s”—and the “sole remaining superpower” remains fixated on what the president did and didn’t say about what he and a consenting bimbo did in the hallway.

Who would have ever thought that 1974 would seem an era of disinterested civic spirit? But then, when the House Judiciary Committee voted to forward articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon, Republicans and Democrats split variously and voted their consciences as they never would now; Newt wouldn’t let ’em.

Before you go off despair’s deep end at such vindictive hypocrisy and dangerous frivolousness, consider this consolation: The country’s been through this before and survived. I don’t mean 1974, when Richard Nixon resigned to escape impeachment for real high crimes and misdemeanors. Then, the House Judiciary Committee didn’t even bother with Nixon’s tax evasion and falsification of records (crimes in some ways similar to, perhaps more serious than, Clinton’s lying) in its bill of impeachable particulars. Such personal miscreancy not entailing serious abuse of office or subversion of government institutions, didn’t rise to “high crimes”—then.

Consider instead 1868. Clinton’s troubles eerily recall those of Andrew Johnson, the only president actually impeached. Johnson too was a Southern ex-governor, a Democrat at odds with both the Republican Congress and much of his own party (unlike many Southern Democrats, he stood by the Union in the Civil War). Like Clinton, he tried to chart a “third way”—in his case, postwar reconciliation and reintegration rather than retribution. And, like Clinton’s enemies today, Johnson’s found legal pretexts for their partisan, ideological crusade against him. (That’s often the way with political executions—like nailing Capone for tax evasion or James Watt, Reagan’s eco-wrecking, insider-dealing secretary of the interior, for a politically incorrect remark.)

Northern senators fumed when Johnson balked at harshly “pacifying” and swiftly reforming the South, and unabashedly cited such policy differences in the debate over impeaching him. Most of the 11 actual impeachment counts concerned Johnson’s defying a newly coined law forbidding the president from dismissing his cabinet secretaries (a provision later declared unconstitutional). The other counts were essentially for dissing Congress in speeches.

As flimsy as this pretext sounds, it very nearly sank Johnson; the Senate came one vote short of the two-thirds majority needed to convict. Sen. James Grimes of Iowa, a Johnson foe who nevertheless cast the deciding vote to acquit (and became a model of statesmanship for the ages), explained thus: “Nor can I suffer my judgment for the law governing this case to be influenced by political considerations. I cannot agree to destroy the harmonious working of the Constitution for the sake of getting rid of an unacceptable President. Whatever may be my opinion of the incumbent, I cannot consent to trifle with the high office he holds. I can do nothing which, by implication, may be construed into an approval of impeachment as a part of future political machinery.” Oh well. Grimes’ good example held for 130 years.

Johnson served out his term, but his kinder, gentler Reconstruction was finished. Radical Reconstruction failed anyway; the beaten, resentful Old South reformed under Jim Crow laws and Klan terror. The next three decades’ presidents were weakened and checked by Congress and its railroad- and industrial-tycoon patrons.

Here we go again. But this time the Republicans are in no hurry to sack the president. They want to hamstring him, hang him out, and watch him twist in the wind. Thus the open-ended impeachment inquiry—to protract the agony through his term, without letting Gore become 2000’s incumbent.

Jay talking

You gotta hand it to Jay Inslee for trying to make impeachment a Democratic issue and nail incumbent Rick White for voting to proceed. Democrats who try to sit this fight out will find, as they did in 1994, that their voters just sit the election out, while the Republicans come out roaring for blood.

Last Sunday’s Seattle Times included a lengthy Washington Post survey of the “nine clusters” of American voters (four Republican and five Demo). It provides a sobering reminder of where the weight lies at ballot time. In eight of the nine “sectors,” between 44 percent and 59 percent of those surveyed say they plan to vote in November. But 76 percent of “religious conservatives,” the largest Republican sector and the one that voted overwhelmingly Republican in 1996, say they’ll vote this year.

A progressive backlash

This specter even has a plague-on-both-your-parties type like Michael Moore urging (in his e-mail newsletter) that everyone vote as a mass “act of civil disobedience”—and vote for the Democratic congressional candidate: “That’s right, my fellow cynics and progressives—the only way to send a true message to the right wing is to throw every Republican out of office. I’m talking about a backlash the likes of which American politics has never seen.” Impossible? Scotland and Wales voted out all their Conservatives in 1995, and Canada nearly did in 1993.

Or, as Jim Hightower said, in times like these, the middle of the road’s the place for yellow stripes and roadkill. Especially if you live where congressional and legislative general elections matter—outside the Democratic island of Seattle.

Fun projects

We knew bringing home the district’s bacon and fighting Pugetopolis gridlock were bloody businesses, but not this bloody. Look what Rep. Linda Smith lumps the Sound Move/RTA transit plan with, in a letter to Transportation Subcommittee chair Frank Wolf urging funding for it:

“Dear Frank,

I have truly enjoyed working with you on a wide array of projects, from the illegal sale of human organs harvested in China, to money laundering from gambling corporations, to transportation projects throughout the state of Washington….”

So which one did she enjoy most?

Verbicides: “Contemporary” isn’t, anymore

A pricey viewbox on Queen Anne is advertised as “neo-contemporary.” We’ll hold out for something more proto-antique.

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