Today's news is that the House of Representatives overrode a presidential veto yesterday, which sends the measure -- a $741 billion defense authorization bill -- to the U.S. Senate. In the early part of this year, the Senate saved President Trump from a nakedly partisan impeachment effort by Democrats. The upper chamber seems much less likely to have his back again. Not only is Trump a lame duck who should be concentrating on leaving office in three weeks on a high note, but both the defense bill and the veto were passed by robustly bipartisan majorities.
Speaking of impeachment, the first president whom Congress attempted to remove was born 212 years ago today in Raleigh, N.C., to parents who could neither read nor write. For those with institutional memories of Capitol Hill, Andrew Johnson is remembered less for his up-from-the-bootstraps success story or even his presidency than for his prodigious drinking habit.
When linked in history, Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson were a study in contrasts: Two men, one of whom succeeded the other in the White House, with such disparate political temperaments, political skills, and legacies. And though this perception was common while both of them lived, Lincoln didn't necessarily share it. He found similarities between Johnson and himself, and something of a kindred spirit.
Johnson was born on Dec. 29, 1808, in a North Carolina log cabin and migrated with his family to Tennessee. Abe Lincoln was born 45 days later in a one-room log cabin in Kentucky and migrated with his family to Illinois. Johnson lost his father when he was a small boy; Lincoln lost his mother at age 9. Neither man had much formal schooling, but they did have a burning desire to learn, and an aptitude for politics.
At 14, young Johnson and his brother were apprenticed to a local tailor, but both boys ran away. Returning home at 16, this prodigal son led his family across the mountains to Greeneville, Tenn. Andy secured a job in a tailor shop where he was discovered by a local girl named Eliza McCardle.
Educated and ambitious, Eliza took a shine to the young pilgrim. She read to him while he sewed, helped him develop his writing ability and oratorical style, and encouraged him in his quest to memorize the U.S. Constitution. The future president and future first lady were married in 1827 when he was 18 and she was 16.
Eliza was good with money, too, and she encouraged Johnson to invest in local real estate and surrounding farmland. In time, Andrew was successful enough to pursue a career outside the tailor shop, but his self-image and his political identity were always that of a working man. He ran for office as a Jacksonian Democrat, winning elections as alderman, mayor, state legislator, and congressman.
In the House of Representatives, Johnson championed legislation that was the forerunner of the Homestead Act and supported the Mexican-American War. It was at this time that Abraham Lincoln, representing an Illinois district as a member of the Whig Party, first took the measure of Johnson. Lincoln was on the same side as the Tennessean on homesteading, but not war with Mexico. Nonetheless, Lincoln took note of Johnson's passion and integrity, and when the Civil War broke out in the wake of his 1860 election as president, the new commander-in-chief couldn't help but notice that Andrew Johnson was the only Southern senator who broke with his region in support of the Union.
The rare Democrat who backed the Republican in the White House, Sen. Johnson became a hero in the North. "Do not talk about Republicans now," he said in a speech that made him a household name 143 years before Barack Obama did the same thing with a similarly themed address in Boston. "Do not talk about Democrats now," Johnson added. "Talk about your country and the Constitution and the Union!"
In 1862, Lincoln sent Johnson to Tennessee as wartime governor. In 1864, Lincoln chose him as a running mate in a ticket-balancing maneuver. And so it came to be on March 4, 1865, that a former tailor took the oath of office as vice president. He had arrived back in Washington fighting the effects of typhoid fever, a malady he treated by self-medicating at a party the night before. The medication in question was whiskey.
In any event, the vice president-elect showed up for his swearing-in ceremony badly hung over. It was a cold and wet Washington day, and while he waited for the ceremony to begin, Johnson visited the office of his former Senate colleague Hannibal Hamlin, the outgoing vice president.
Johnson requested, and was given, a tumbler of whiskey, which he quaffed quickly. Directly, he asked for another, which he also drank straight, and then a third.
His cheeks now as flushed as a Santa suit, Johnson entered the crowded Senate chamber. Hamlin made a brief and statesmanlike farewell speech. Things then went off-script. In the 1997 account of vice presidential historian (and then-senator) Mark O. Hatfield, Johnson arose unsteadily to his feet, apparently believing he should speak as well. With Hamlin tugging vainly at his coattails, the new vice president delivered a haranguing campaign-style address about his humble origins and how he'd bested the Southern aristocracy.
As the crowd watched in dumbfounded silence, Johnson kissed the Bible and then tried unsuccessfully to swear in the new senators, finally giving up in confusion. Sen. Charles Sumner buried his face in his hands, while President Lincoln displayed an expression, one witness wrote, of "unutterable sorrow."
Lincoln wasn't the only one. "I was never so mortified in my life," Michigan Republican Sen. Zachariah Chandler wrote to his wife. "Had I been able to find a hole I would have dropped through it out of sight."
Lincoln quickly regained his own equanimity, as was his habit. In the days ahead he assured the fellow Republicans who came calling at the White House -- doubters who began even then to talk of impeaching Johnson -- that he retained his confidence in the vice president.
"I have known Andy Johnson for many years," Lincoln wrote to a Cabinet member, "he made a bad slip the other day, but you need not be scared; Andy ain't a drunkard."
This charitable prediction proved insufficiently prescient. After assuming the presidency upon Lincoln's assassination, Johnson drank prodigiously, picked needless political fights, botched Reconstruction, and provoked a constitutional crisis with the Radical Republicans.
He survived impeachment by a single vote in the Senate, and left office nearly friendless, not so much in disgrace as in irrelevancy.
Returning to Tennessee, Johnson threw himself back into politics, winning election on the third try. He returned to the Senate in 1875, "in vindication," he said. This time, he took his oath of office without incident and served with distinction in a special session of Congress in March. He died that summer while home in Tennessee after suffering a stroke at his granddaughter's home. "Wrapped in an American flag with his head resting on a copy of the Constitution," wrote presidential scholar Paul H. Bergeron, "he was buried in Greeneville to await the judgment of history and historians." As for whether a sympathetic friend or family member slipped a bottle of bourbon into the casket to ease Andy's passage into the next life, we will never know.
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.