Let us discuss the word “historic.” It gets flung around a lot, primarily by news personalities who want their reports to seem more important than perhaps they are.
It is a little like flu season, which each year we hear might be the worst flu season ever, or the election, which we’re told each time is the most crucial since the country was founded.
Everythingthat happens is historic, once it has happened and has therefore passed into history. That does not mean that everything will go on to become the stuff of speech and song. (Or the stuff of endless ridiculous conspiracy theory.)
We are entering a presidential impeachment trial. I cannot find anyone, whether their mouths foam against or in favor of the president, who is the slightest bit surprised by this. Nor can I find anyone who believes it will result in the president being removed from office, which wouldbe historic. Conviction and removal of the president would be both important and unprecedented.
When most of us were born, the historical record contained only one presidential impeachment, that of Andrew Johnson against whom 11 articles of impeachment were brought in 1868. The effort fell one vote short of conviction. (The republic survived. Had Johnson been convicted, the republic still would have survived.)
There have been two more impeachments in recent years, and there was almost a third.
Bur the history of the presidency is generally tumultuous.
In just the last 100 years:
• Democrat Woodrow Wilson suffered a stroke in 1919. The de factopresident thereafter was his wife, Edith Bolling Galt Wilson, until the end of his second term in 1921. Wilson was replaced by Warren G. Harding, a philandering Ohio Republican. Two years and five months into his first term, he died of cardiac arrest at age 57.
• The country survived Presidents Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover and they it, though Argentinian anarchists planned to kill Hoover by bombing his train in Argentina in 1928 (the would-be bomber was caught before he could plant the device).
• Following Hoover came the Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt, who broke with 150-year-old tradition by seeking and winning more than two terms in office. He was elected four times and died a little under three months into his fourth term. There was what seems to have been an attempt on Roosevelt’s life in Miami, Florida, in early 1933, two weeks before Roosevelt took office. The gunman, Giuseppe Zangara, ended up killing the mayor of Chicago instead.
• Next came Harry Truman, a fellow who in some respects resembles the current occupant of the Oval Office. For instance, when Washington Postcritic Paul Hume did not give a favorable review of a vocal concert by Truman’s daughter, Margaret, Truman dashed off a quick note: “Some day I hope to meet you. When that happens you'll need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes, and perhaps a supporter below!” (I should note that my father wrotea book about Truman’s involvement with the Pendergast machinein Kansas City.) It was during Truman’s presidency that the 22ndAmendment to the U.S. Constitution was passed. It prohibited anyone being elected president more than twice. Though Truman joked that it was because the country wanted to make sure he didn’t serve a third term, it didn’t apply to the president then in office. Truman was the object of two assassination attempts, one by mail bomb and the other by two gunmen, one of whom was killed (as was a White House police officer); the president was not injured in either attempt.
• Republican Dwight David Eisenhower, the hero general of World War II who succeeded Truman, suffered a heart attack in 1955 that had him hospitalized for six weeks. He had other health problems over the following couple of years, and his health was an issue in the 1956 election, which he nevertheless won.
IT SEEMS TO ME THAT WHATwe can think of the modern era began with the 1960 election. A time of memorable tumult certainly began then.
• John F. Kennedy, a Democrat, served as president only a little more than two and one-half years before he was assassinated in Dallas in November 1963.
• The presidency was then assumed by Democrat Lyndon Johnson, who became so unpopular due to the Vietnam War that seven months before the 1968 election he announced, “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.” While that seems late in the game, it really wasn’t at the time, which was before we had a class of professional candidates in an endless campaign, as we do now.
• Johnson got replaced in 1969 by Republican Richard Nixon, who won a re-election landslide – 520 electoral votes against 17 for candidate George McGovern – but whose paranoia and that of his aides got the better of him, and his campaign undertook tactics involving burglary at the Watergate hotel and more. He resigned in August 1974, the first and so far only president to resign. He would have been impeached and convicted if he hadn’t resigned.
• It is only through criminality not actually part of Nixon’s Watergate shenanigans that Gerald Ford became our only president, so far, never elected to the job. Spiro Agnew, Nixon’s vice president, had 10 months earlier resigned as part of a plea bargain connected to corruption while he was a Maryland official. Ford got appointed vice president and lost his attempt to get elected president. There are two other attempts associated with Ford: In 1975, Manson family member “Squeaky” Fromme tried to shoot him in Sacramento but didn’t know how a Colt Model 1911 worked, so when she pulled the trigger nothing happened. (We might nevertheless look forward to the Quentin Tarantino movie, “Once Upon a Time in Sacramento”.) Then, a little over two weeks later, Sara Jane Moore shot at Ford in San Francisco and missed.
• Ford was defeated by Jimmy Carter, who was defeated by Ronald Reagan, who was shot by John W. Hinckley Jr. outside the Washington Hilton on March 30, 1981.
• Reagan survived and was succeeded by George H.W. Bush, who in turn was succeeded by Democrat William J. Clinton. Saudi terrorists tried to set off a bomb under Clinton’s limousine in Manila in 1996, but Clinton is not remembered in connection with almost getting blown up. Instead, he was the first president since Andrew Johnson to be impeached by the U.S. House of Representative. The outcome in the Senate, then as now, was never really in doubt.
• George W. Bush was president when the U.S. was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001. An attempt to kill him in Tbilisi, Georgia, in 2005 failed when the Soviet-era hand grenade thrown at him failed to go off.
• Barack Obama, of course, was the first mixed-race American to be elected president.
Given that series of historic events, the current impeachment seems almost business as usual.
And the history of the presidency shows us that something being “historic” doesn’t necessarily mean it’s particularly unusual.
Editor’s note: Dennis E. Powell’s column appears every Thursday in The Athens NEWS. You can reach him at email@example.com.