[FORUM]Eliminating the politics of strifeGreeneville is a town in the American state of Tennessee. It is a quiet place with a population of 15,000, about a 10-hour drive from Washington, D.C.
In the town is a memorial hall dedicated to the 17th president of the United States, Andrew Johnson, who became president in 1865 after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. A Democrat, Mr. Johnson served as vice president under Lincoln, a Republican. He was the first U.S. president to face an impeachment trial.
There are many interesting exhibits at the memorial hall. There is the real estate contract with which the U.S. government bought the sprawling land of Alaska from Russia for the small amount of $7.2 million. There are also the iron and scissors the president used while he was the owner of a small tailor shop.
But the most eye-catching exhibit is that of the Senate impeachment trial. Starting with an explanation of impeachment, there are pictures and articles from that time. An impeachment takes place in two stages: the House of Representatives votes to impeach, and the Senate then conducts a trial that determines the final verdict.
The official reason for Mr. Johnson’s impeachment was his violation of the Tenure of Office Act. This law, which had been promulgated by the radicals in Congress who were at odds with President Johnson, stipulated that the president could not fire a cabinet secretary without the consent of the Senate.
Mr. Johnson had attempted to fire his secretary of war, Edwin Stanton, without Senate approval, and he was impeached. Under the U.S. Constitution, Congress can impeach the president for treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors. Mr. Johnson’s violation of the Tenure of Office Act was considered to fall under the category of “high crimes and misdemeanors” by his impeachers. But it was a weak reason for impeachment.
The last part of the exhibit is a mock trial. Visitors are asked how they would have voted had they been members of the Senate required to decide President Johnson’s fate. Was he guilty or innocent? The votes were put in a glass voting box. In the real trial, the Senate failed by one vote to convict Mr. Johnson and remove him from the presidency.
The number of votes in the two voting boxes was about the same. This was rather surprising. The people there seem to have a lot of pride in President Johnson, and there are a lot of signs of affection for him.
After all, he was a success story who rose from a poor background. He could not afford to attend school as a child and his family had to worry about having enough to eat every day. His progress through politics to become president is a moving story. Shouldn’t there be more votes in sympathy for the president?
To this question, an employee of the memorial hall replied that this was due to a negative image caused by the political strife during his office. This, the employee said, was considered the real reason for his impeachment.
The majority of Americans consider the maintenance of unity an important element of leadership. The lack of such leadership obscured all the strong points that President Johnson had.
His task was to heal the wounds of the Civil War. He was successor to Lincoln’s policy of reconciliation, but he lacked the overview of history that was necessary to implement this policy.
He pushed for an appeasement policy sympathetic to the South. Some evaluate his choice as having been wise. They say that had he accepted the policies of the Northern radicals who formed the majority of the Congress, it would have caused a further rift between the North and South.
But it is the general evaluation that he practiced a politics of self-righteousness. He did not believe in compromise. He did not take criticism easily and was often angered by it. In an evaluation of all U.S. presidents by American historians, he ranks near the bottom.
Pesident Roh Moo-hyun, who is waiting for the outcome of his impeachment trial, predicted that politics after the legislative elections will change to show unity and coexistence. What are the prerequisites for this to happen?
In a speech commemorating Independence Day, President Roh said that we have developed democracy to a considerable extent and raised our economy to be the 12th biggest in the world.
Behind these achievements was the leadership of past presidents. Syngman Rhee helped found this country. Park Chung Hee led the industrialization of the country and Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung helped establish democracy.
We will not have a politics of unity if we are stingy in acknowledging the achievements of our past presidents.
Factious politics comes from a narrowness of mind in judging history. Only when those in power change their perspective of history will we be able to get rid of the politics of strife.
* The writer is a deputy managing editor in charge of political news of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Park Bo-gyun