Features

Claim to shame

National | As the Senate trial proceeds, the case of Andrew Johnson proves that history is the ultimate jury

Issue: "Clinton's great escape," Feb. 6, 1999

in Greeneville, Tenn. - There's something missing in Greeneville, Tenn. There's no Andrew Johnson Pest Control, no Andrew Johnson Dry Cleaners, no Andrew Johnson Collision Repair. Greeneville is a hilly little hamlet, well off the interstate, with the honor of being the home of Andrew Johnson, the nation's 17th president. His tailor shop is preserved here, as are two homes and his gravesite. But there are few obvious signs of civic pride, and almost no signs at all directing visitors to the Andrew Johnson National Historical Site. (Those endearing entreaties to "See Rock City" are far more numerous.) "I know," says a park ranger, seated behind the welcome desk at the Andrew Johnson Visitor Center. "People come in grumpy and mad because the signs aren't very good. They get lost between the highway and here. Maybe this will change things; maybe we'll get some new signs." "This," of course, is the impeachment of President Clinton, which has brought more attention (and more traffic) than usual to Greeneville. And Mr. Clinton, who began his inauguration day in 1993 at Monticello, the home of former president Thomas Jefferson, might do well to look to Greeneville to see how a hometown remembers a tarnished favorite son. "I get emotional," county historian Harry Roberts regularly tells reporters. "It hurts me, because nobody gives a durn about Andrew Johnson." Some town fathers complain that Mr. Clinton has given impeachment a bad name. They point out that Andrew Johnson was never accused of criminal acts. "Bill Clinton is there for totally different reasons," says Ed Brown, who heads a local trucking company. It's not unrealistic to expect some civic pride in having a president as a native son. Hyde Park, New York boasts an FDR Veterans Hospital, an FDR Truck and Van, FDR Hitches, as well as the Roosevelt Inn, the Roosevelt Theater and, of course, Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School. And Charlottesville, Va., home of Thomas Jefferson, has Jefferson Area Builders, Jefferson Elder Care, the Jefferson Lounge, the Martha Jefferson Hospital, Jefferson Preschool, and Jefferson Psychiatric. (A call to Thomas Jefferson Emergency Medical Services revealed that, no, an urgent need for a DNA test to determine the racial makeup of one's ancestry is not a medical emergency to which they will respond.) Even less known presidents spark some civic pride. Mentor, Ohio, home of President James A. Garfield, has the Garfield Park Pool, Garfield Auto Parts, and Garfield Metal Products. "I think it's because most people don't understand why Andrew Johnson was impeached," says Park Ranger Julie Arnold, back at the Andrew Johnson Visitor Center. "People assume he did something wrong, when he was really standing up for the Constitution." And she's right. Andrew Johnson, a tailor by trade who was taught to read by his wife, was a populist picked by Abraham Lincoln in 1864 as his running mate, mostly because Johnson was a Southerner who advocated leniency for secessionists. When Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, Johnson became a president whose biggest problem was the Radical Republicans; they were determined to show no mercy to the conquered South and were infuriated at Johnson's opposition to their Reconstruction plans. His impeachment was a political affair. Radical Republicans passed the Tenure of Office Act, which prevented the president from firing even his own cabinet members without congressional approval. Johnson defied the act and fired Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, an ally of the Radical Republicans. Congress impeached Johnson in 1868, though after a two-month trial the Senate failed to convict him by just a single vote. In 1926, the Supreme Court belatedly vindicated Johnson by ruling all the Tenure of Office acts unconstitutional. The people of Tennessee didn't wait that long, however: They elected Johnson to his old Senate seat in 1875. (He died on July 31, after spending just a few months in that office.) Ranger Arnold cheerfully recites these facts for the visitors who trickle in. "It's not hard to understand," she says of the 1868 impeachment and trial. "Most of the school groups can get it." She stops smiling when asked an unexpected question. Supposing she were transferred to a National Historical Site in Hope, Ark., or Hot Springs, or even Little Rock? How would she explain Bill Clinton's impeachment to busloads of school kids? "I ... I can't answer that," she says. "I don't know." Neither can the chief public affairs officer of the National Park Service, David Barna. "That would be our job," he admits. "We're in charge of 'interpretation' at all National Historical Sites, so it would be up to us to word the plaques. But we're not unfamiliar with controversy; one good example is the interpretation at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. There, we don't talk about the controversy much; we just talk about the war." Good thing; the Park Service, he adds, has some time before it has to address President Clinton's scandals. "We like for there to be 25 to 50 years in between an event and our interpretation, time enough for some historical perspective," he says. "We won't have to deal with President Clinton's impeachment for some time yet." Tell that to Ranger Julie Arnold. A family from Virginia has just entered-a couple and two teenage girls. They're all wearing sweats and sneakers, a sure sign of a long car trip. (Plus, three of the four rush immediately to the restrooms.) "We saw signs and thought, why not?" explains the mother as she awaits the start of Ranger Arnold's spiel. The family declines her offer of a private showing of the video, choosing instead to amble through the small museum on their own. They're disappointed; the Andrew Johnson National Historical Site seems to be history on the cheap. Johnson's tailor shop (a crude log building) is preserved behind waist-high partitions, but it is empty. The interactive exhibits consist of a really heavy iron (then called a tailor's goose and heated on a stove) for visitors to pick up. And a single glass case holds a few presidential odds and ends: a couple of walking sticks, a pocket watch, a desk blotter. But the eyes of the teenagers light up when they reach the sturdy, gray plaque titled, "Clearing Up A Misconception." "Dad, come here!" one whispers loudly. "Look at the tape!" All four huddle around the plaque, which reads: "On Feb. 24, 1868, Andrew Johnson became the first and only president ever to be impeached by the House of Representatives." But the words "and only" have been covered up-not by tape, for the record, but by the sticky part of a white Post-It note, cut to fit by Ranger Arnold herself. Mom takes a photo of Dad and the girls, grinning beside the plaque. As they start to leave, Ranger Arnold hands Mom a single brochure. "This is the old one," she says. "It says 'first and only,' too. It's being reprinted, so maybe this will be a collector's item some day. Hold on to it." She sighs as the family exits. "It's not the kind of attention I would choose," she says. "But if they're coming in, learning about history, I guess I can't complain." And they are coming in-attendance, usually 16,000 to 18,000 a year, according to Chief Ranger Jim Small, has jumped 15 percent since President Clinton's impeachment. In fact, the rangers had discussed putting a television near the Welcome Desk to broadcast the Senate trial-but in the end, says Ranger Small, they decided against it. They don't want Andrew Johnson too closely associated with the current president's troubles. Johnson had troubles enough of his own.

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