Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Be Sure Before You Censure

The New York Times
Be Sure Before You Censure

RUSSELL FEINGOLD, the outspoken Democratic senator from Wisconsin, wants to censure President Bush for authorizing wiretaps of Americans without court orders. His fellow Democrats haven't exactly leaped to his side, but a recent poll indicated that 46 percent of the public considers censure warranted. If that figure increases, Mr. Feingold may have company.

Still, history shows that he ought to move carefully. While many have compared the censure proposal to the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, there is a more relevant precedent: In 1834, America's most famous political orator, Henry Clay of Kentucky, arranged the Senate's only successful censure of a president, Andrew Jackson — and he never stopped paying for his accomplishment.

The bad blood between Clay and Jackson dated to the election of 1824, in which Jackson received the greatest number of popular and electoral votes, but not a majority of either. Clay finished third in the popular count and fourth in electors. The contest went to the House, and Clay threw his support to John Quincy Adams, who won the presidency and thereupon named Clay secretary of state — and next in line, in the practice of the day, for the White House. Jackson defeated Adams in an 1828 rematch, spoiling Clay's plans for the succession. But Clay maneuvered Jackson into vetoing a measure to renew the charter of the Bank of the United States, a privately controlled precursor to the Federal Reserve system. Clay forced the issue because he anticipated that the bank veto would undermine business confidence, which it did. Clay was wrong, however, in thinking this would fatally weaken Jackson in the 1832 election, in which Clay ran as the candidate of the new anti-Jackson coalition, soon to be called the Whigs.

Jackson was re-elected handily, and afterward withdrew the federal government's deposits from the Bank of the United States as punishment for its collusion in Clay's machinations. "The bank, Mr. Van Buren, is trying to kill me," Jackson told Vice President Martin Van Buren. "But I will kill it!"

Amid this so-called Bank War, Clay proposed to censure the president for removing those deposits without Congressional approval. The proposal enraged Jackson, who castigated Clay for being as "reckless and as full of fury as a drunken man in a brothel." It provoked an uproar in the Senate and the press, with Jackson's supporters rallying behind him as the defender of democracy against the moneyed interests, and his critics alleging that his interpretation of executive authority was revolutionary and unconstitutional. (Beyond the shouting, there were plausible arguments on both sides — as in the case of the Bush wiretaps.) On March 28, 1834, the Senate critics carried the day, approving the censure resolution by a vote of 26 to 20.

Clay thought he had won a great triumph. But the 1834 midterm elections returned control of the Senate to the Democrats, as the Jacksonians were called by then. And the Democrats refused to let the censure issue rest. Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, who had once shot Jackson in a street brawl (the president still carried bullet fragments in his shoulder) but eventually became the president's most devoted partisan, campaigned incessantly against the censure and all who had voted for it. His efforts helped make the retiring Jackson the focus of the 1836 presidential election, bringing voters out in force for Van Buren, Jackson's uncharismatic protégé.

The Democrats celebrated Van Buren's victory by voting to expunge the censure resolution from the records of the Senate. As Jackson, old and ill, prepared to leave Washington for the Hermitage, his plantation near Nashville, Benton choreographed an elaborate ceremony in which the original handwritten journal of the Senate from 1834 was carried into the chamber and the Senate's secretary, after drawing bold black lines around the censure resolution, wrote across it, "Expunged by order of the Senate."

Benton retrieved the secretary's pen and sent it to Jackson as spoils of victory, while Henry Clay was left to mutter against the "foul deed which, like the blood-stained hands of the guilty Macbeth, all ocean's waters will never wash out." Clay continued to pay for his temerity: in 1844, even as Jackson declined toward death, Clay lost his third (and final) race for the presidency to another Jackson protégé, James K. Polk.

Russ Feingold is no Henry Clay, at least not yet. And if he hopes to discredit Mr. Bush, as he doubtless does, I'd suggest he find means other than censure. The last thing today's Democrats want to do is to make George W. Bush look like Old Hickory.

H. W. Brands, a history professor at the University of Texas at Austin, is the author, most recently, of "Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times."