Dickie, Don, and Andy

July 28, 2017

Impeach 1

Andrew Johnson shortly before his death in 1869.

A former colleague of mine used to say that I could work Enos Slaughter, Harpo Marx, or Andrew Johnson into any conversation.

He might have been right, but where Johnson is concerned, I didn’t need any help to work him into the general discourse about the presidency of Donald Trump. Others did it for me by invoking the impeachment of Andrew Johnson as a precursor to what—in theory, at least—could be in store for the 45th president of the United States.

That was understandable. Once impeachment was added to the discussion, there were only three precedents to turn to—the cases of Johnson, Nixon, and Clinton. The impeachments of Johnson and Clinton and the likelihood that Nixon would have been impeached had he not resigned all arose from circumstances that were particular to the behavior of those three men. In Johnson’s case, the circumstances were also particular to that time in history—the immediate aftermath of the Civil War and the murder of Abraham Lincoln. There is a limit to the parallels that can be drawn between those three cases and that of Donald Trump.

Impeachment 2

Richard Nixon

There are parallels, though, limited as they might be. The myriad authorities—the former directors of this and the professors of that—who help TV faces torture and dissect the matter virtually around the clock—have frequently recalled Nixon’s dismissal of special Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox as the sort of  decision that Trump might take regarding the investigation of Russian meddling in the last presidential election. And the authorities have speculated that such a decision on Trump’s part—with respect to special prosecutor Robert Mueller II, for example—would lead to the same sort of disaster that befell Nixon.

There is also this parallel—in this case concerning, if you’ll forgive me, Andrew Johnson. This has to do with the arms-length dust-up between Trump and his attorney-general, Jeff Sessions. Johnson also had a falling out with a member of his cabinet—the able secretary of war, Edwin M. Stanton, who had served in that capacity under Abraham Lincoln and as attorney-general under James Buchanan.

Johnson, although an admirable man in many respects, was famously the wrong person to succeed Lincoln at such a contentious and sensitive time in the nation’s history. There were several reasons for that, and one of them was that he was incapable of compromise. He and a Congress that was dominated by the Republican Party disagreed fundamentally about how the federal government should proceed with the defeated Confederate states and with the millions of black men and women who had been freed from lives of slavery.

Impeachment 3

Edwin M. Stanton

The short-hand version of this dispute is that the Republicans—led by the so-called Radical wing—wanted to put the southern states through a process of re-admission to the Union—including a period of military government—and extend to black Americans the same right to vote enjoyed by white Americans. Johnson, a southern Democrat who had stuck with the Union to the point of risking his life—wanted to restore the southern state governments with relatively little to-do, and he did not want to give the vote or much of anything else to the former slaves. Besides the obvious disagreements, there was an underlying difference with respect to the prerogatives the states and the prerogatives of the federal government—or the “general government,” as it was sometimes called in those days.

Included in the thrusts and parries of this contest was the Tenure of Office Act, a law passed by Congress, over Johnson’s veto, restricting the president’s power to remove from office, without the consent of the Senate, any federal officer the president had appointed with the consent of the Senate. That would include cabinet officers, of course, and it was designed to protect Stanton, who not only supported the whole Radical program but worked against the president’s agenda. This was a wry turn of events, because one of the bona fides Johnson could lay claim to was that he had retained Lincoln’s whole cabinet, even though Johnson was a conservative Democrat. In fact, he and others believed that he could not have violated the Tenure of Office Act by removing an officer he had not appointed in the first place.

Impeachment 4

Ulysses S. Grant

The law was in place, however, and it specifically provided that if the president suspended an officer while the Senate was not in session, the Senate, when it reconvened, could reinstate the rascal, and the president would have to keep him on. That provision meant a lot more then than it does now, because in the mid 19th century, Congress was not in session for most of the year.

Eventually, Johnson had enough of Stanton; while the Senate was in recess in August 1867, Johnson suspended Stanton and told him to turn the office over to Ulysses S. Grant—who not only opposed the suspension but disagreed with Johnson’s policies regarding reconstruction of the South. When the Senate returned in January, it did not uphold the suspension. Johnson believed, correctly, that the law was unconstitutional, and he decided to force the question in the courts. He removed Stanton and appointed in his place the comic-opera Adjutant-General Lorenzo Thomas who was not up to the fight when Stanton refused to leave office. When Johnson was impeached in February 1868, the charges against him boiled down to his violation of the Tenure of Office Act and his public challenges to the legitimacy of what he had referred to as a “rump Congress”—meaning that it represented only part of the country.

Johnson was acquitted by one vote, although some historians have maintained that several more Senators were prepared to vote for acquittal if there was a chance of conviction. Being partisan politicians, they weren’t about to climb out on that limb if it were not necessary.

The charges against Johnson regarding the dismissal of Stanton were flimsy, and the charges related to his public speeches were absurd. But impeachment is a political process, not a legal one, which is why—whenever the possibility of impeachment arises—the question of what constitutes an impeachable offense is argued anew. Gerald Ford once observed that grounds for impeachment are whatever Congress says they are; that’s true on a certain level, but the republic can’t stand if Congress can remove a president for expressing his opinion, much less for the color of his ties.

Many wished for the conviction of Andrew Johnson, but they might unwittingly have been wishing too for a serious jolt to the balance of powers intended by the founders.

 

 

 

 

 

NIXON AT THE KEYBOARD

NIXON AT THE KEYBOARD

There is a scene in a PBS documentary about Jack Paar that illustrates as well as anything why William Shakespeare would have loved Richard Nixon.

The scene comes from a 1963 episode of Paar’s groundbreaking talk show. Nixon, since leaving the vice presidency, had lost elections for president and for governor of California, but for a two-time loser, he was in a good mood — one might say light-hearted, a term not often associated with RMN.

Paar reminds the audience of something that was widely known at the time, namely that Nixon was a piano player. Paar also explained, to Nixon’s obvious amusement, that Nixon had also written some music for the piano and that his wife had made recordings of him playing his own tunes.

Paar said that bandleader Jose Meles had used one of those recordings to write an arrangement to back up one of Nixon’s compositions, and  Paar asked Nixon to take to the keyboard.

JOHN F. KENNEDY and NIXON

JOHN F. KENNEDY and NIXON

Before complying, Nixon noted that Paar had asked earlier about Nixon’s political ambition.  “If last November didn’t finish it, this will,” Nixon said, “because — believe me — the Republicans don’t want another piano player in the White House,” a reference to Harry S. Truman whose musical virtuosity was about on the same level as Nixon’s.

When I saw this incident on a PBS documentary about Paar, I thought about what a complex creature a human being is, and I thought about that again when I read Don Fulsom’s book, Nixon’s Darkest Secrets. Considering the depth and breadth of Nixon’s corruption and paranoia, I wouldn’t have thought it possible for a writer to do a hatchet job on the old trickster, but Don Fulsom has managed it.

On paper, at least, Fulsom has some credentials to be writing about this subject. He covered the White House and was Washington bureau chief for United Press International, which once upon a time was a viable news agency. Having been a journalist myself for more than 40 years, I would have expected a writer with Fulsom’s resumé, producing a book this long after Nixon’s death, to provide some insight into the whole man. As deeply immersed in muck as he was, after all, Nixon didn’t spend his whole time drinking himself blotto, assaulting people who annoyed him, beating his wife, raking in dough through his bag men, or plotting to have people like Jack Anderson killed.

And while his administration was forever besmirched by his prolongation of the Vietnam war and his order for the secret and murderous bombing of Cambodia, it was productive in many ways, including creation of the Occupational and Health Safety Administration , the National Endowment on the Arts, and the Environmental Protection Agency. Nixon approved the first significant step toward a federal affirmative action program. And Nixon — as probably only he could have — altered the course of modern history by changing the U.S. relationship with the Soviet Union and China.

Although Fulsom has riffled through some of the more recently released documents about Nixon, he hasn’t contributed anything to our understanding by recounting in nauseating detail the depravities of the man’s life. We get it. He was a sleaze. But he was also this other guy. This guy with a remarkable grasp of foreign affairs. This guy who supported a lot of moderate initiatives. And this guy who played the piano. And from this distance, that’s what’s so fascinating about him.

Look for Fulsom’s book with the scandal rags at the checkout counter. Shakespeare would have told the whole story.

You can see Nixon playing the piano on Jack Paar’s show by clicking HERE.

The relationship between baseball and presidents of the United States has been well documented; in fact, there is a room devoted to the subject at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY. The earliest association seems to be with Abraham Lincoln and it is most graphically represented by this Currier & Ives political cartoon, published in 1860, after Lincoln had outlasted three opponents to win the presidency. Lincoln is saying, “Gentleman, if ever you should take a hand in another match at this game, remember that you must have a good bat to strike a fair ball and make a clean score and a home run.”

ANDREW JOHNSON

How close Lincoln was to the game seems to be a matter of debate, but it is documented that his successor, Andrew Johnson, was the first president to witness an intra-city game and the first president to invite a baseball team into the White House. Among his papers are several honorary membership cards in baseball organizations.

Another president who had a particular connection to baseball was Dwight Eisenhower, who loved the game and said more than once that he would have liked to have played professionally. There is a lingering discussion about whether he did, in fact, once play semi-pro ball under an assumed name — something that would have fouled the amateur status under which he played football at West Point. A number of prominent witnesses said that Eisenhower had admitted to this in later life, but Eisenhower never publicly owned up to it.

GERALD FORD

Meanwhile, the Christian Science Monitor has looked into the subject of presidents and football — specifically, which president was the best player. The candidates are Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Ronald Reagan.

Even after one gets over the image of Nixon playing football, the answer isn’t as obvious as it may seem.

If you can’t guess, you can read about it at THIS LINK.

RICHARD NIXON

RICHARD NIXON

The AARP recently pointed out in its monthly bulletin that President Richard Nixon in 1972 proposed a health-care reform program that was shot out of the sky, with U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy wielding one of the guns.

“Nixon’s plan,” editor Jim Toedtman wrote, “required employers to provide health care insurance for their employees. It provided federal subsidies for the poor and created rural health clinics and a network of state committees to set industry standards, guarantee basic coverage and coordinate insurance for the self-employed. In the process, it would have extended health care coverage to almost all Americans.”

SEN. EDWARD M. KENNEDY

SEN. EDWARD M. KENNEDY

According to Toedtman’s commentary, Kennedy told the Boston Globe earlier this year that Nixon’s initiative was a “missed opportunity” and that, “We should have jumped on it.”

Should have. What were the chances that a Democrat, and a Kennedy at that, would support a sweeping program like that coming from Nixon? Ted Kennedy had his own ideas about health-care reform, and the twain never met. As a result, 37 years later, the problems perceived with health care then — cost and accessibility — are exponentially worse, partisanship still trumps the general welfare, and fundamental reform is no more likely, no matter what bill Congress may pass.

Nixon, meanwhile — if he can hear the debate from where he reposes — is probably as surprised as anyone to learn from his own party that he was a socialist.

BLUE BUG

BLUE BUG

I’ve stayed as far away from the Octomom story as one can get while remaining on this planet. Still, I felt uncomfortably close when I stumbled over a photo in the Los Angeles Times. It shows a display mounted on the outside wall of a Volkswagen parts business in Whittier, Calif., where Nadya Suleman lived until recently. (It’s something on the subject of my distance from this story that I learned the woman’s name for the first time today. For real.)

The item in the Times reads, in part, as follows:

Back in February, the world’s media converged on Whittier hoping to get a glimpse of octuplets mother Nadya Suleman and her 14 children.

There, drivers can’t help but chuckle at a display owners Ralph and Diva Chase have set up. Mounted on the wall of the building is half a grabber-blue 1969 Volkswagen Beetle. Inside, a black-hair mannequin — respectfully named Teri, not Nadya —  is sitting with her legs crossed and is surrounded by babies. A box of diapers sits on the bug’s roof.

Ralph Chase said his 22-year-old niece, Jenna White, put the display together, meant as a tribute to Suleman and her mark on Whittier.  “She’s Teri’s stylist,” he joked.

They sometimes change Teri’s clothes to freshen her look, and some people have come by to donate clothes for the display.

What caught me up short was the blue Beetle. See, I drive a blue Beetle. It’s not a ’69; it’s a ’99 with more than 167,000 miles on it, but from a distance it looks uncomfortably like the one Teri and the kids are sitting in.

'THE ONE'

'THAT MAN'

So this is “a tribute to Suleman and her mark on Whittier.” It got me to wondering, if I were to sacrifice my Beetle to commemorate someone’s mark on Whittier, whom do I envision beaming out from behind the wheel. Oscar de la Hoya? Nomar Garciaparra? Andy Etchebarren? Eric Stoltz? Or – should I even say it? – That Man who, the tapes tell us, wanted to “destroy” Thomas Eagleton – “pipsqueak that he is”?

I have to go with Andy Etchebarren. He was the last player to bat against Sandy Koufax – and he hit into a double play. That seems about right.

Put ‘er there, pal.

April 21, 2009

 

DICK CHENEY

DICK CHENEY

Former Vice President Dick Cheney thinks President Obama has sent the wrong message by traveling to Europe and Latin America and suggesting that the United States is rethinking its recent foreign policies. Cheney said last night that Obama needs to distinguish more clearly between “the good guys and the bad guys,” which I learned to do when I was 10 years old playing cops and robbers with Mike and Joe Pellegrino. That’s how we think when we’re 10.

Cheney is dismissing what we learned from Richard Nixon, that pretending that your adversaries and critics don’t exist (Cheney said the Bush administration’s policy was to “ignore” Hugo Chavez) is seldom productive. Cheney didn’t like that Obama shook hands with Chavez. Nixon shook hands with Zhou Enlai because China’s fall-out with the Soviets created an opportunity for the U.S. with respect to both countries, and, I suppose, because Henry Kissinger’s earlier snub of the Chinese premier had gained the United States nothing. The old “good guy-bad guy” model seldom works. And the idea that Cheney casts himself and his kind as the “good guys”  in this world is exactly the kind of hubris that causes more trouble than it solves.