Jock decided to accept my “hauntings” by dead U.S. presidents with a certain amount of grace. Perhaps he had been advised to just go with the delusions until they passed. Meanwhile, Hilda was elated we were out for a second night in a row at a graveyard.
Admittedly, I had trepidation about meeting President Andrew Johnson. What do you say to a man who faced impeachment by Congress, then served in the Senate once he left office as president? That takes a certain tenacity, for sure. Still, Hilda and I returned to the graveyard. She enjoyed sniffing around the magnolia tree since thus far the presidential ghosts seemed to appear and disappear from there. I decided just to simplify matters and await them near what seemed to be their gateway. Just as I considered going home to avoid discussing his time in office, a deep male voice greeted us.
“Good evening, Gwenyfar … Hilda.”
I looked up to see the 17th president of the United States, dressed in attire right out of “Gone with the Wind” and a haircut known to little boys the world over as “The Bowl Cut.”
“Good evening, Mr. President. Thank you for meeting with us.”
He gestured to Hilda. “James mentioned Hilda would accompany you, but that she seemed unbothered by spirits.”
He surveyed the graveyard.
“The Union Colored Troops are buried here, yes?”
“Do you know I was the only Southern senator not to resign my seat when the states seceded?”
“Yes, sir. I read that was why Lincoln wanted you on the ticket.”
He nodded thoughtfully. “It’s an odd way to come to office: through death.” He paused and looked around at the graves. “Of course, the other Johnson to serve as president also ascended through death. No one really pays that much attention to the second name on the ticket—until they really must.”
He turned to look at me. “I know something about impeachment, and let me tell you: There is a real possibility that, if the Republican ticket wins, Mike Pence will be president sooner rather than later.”
I refrained from checking the time, but we couldn’t be more than 5 minutes into our chat. Already, here we were at impeachment.
“You know, I am sure I was brought up on 11 charges of impeachment by the House?” he queried.
“The Senate voted in my favor,” he pointed out.
By one vote, I thought. One vote. God, what did that feel like?
“Yes, by one vote they voted for me,” he said, as if mind-reading my thoughts. “The Senate is, of course, the province of gentlemen and they understood what the House would not or could not do.”
It’s now or never, I thought. “So do you regret removing Stanton from office and facing the impeachment?” I asked.
“I did what I thought I had to do. Politics is difficult to understand (and at that time) during reconstruction … I had obligations that Congress simply refused to accommodate and a cabinet that … a strong leader must lead, not follow. That’s what the country needed then.”
“Even though it ignored the checks and balances between the branches of government?” I asked.
“You know, we are well-aware one of the candidates doesn’t fully understand the checks and balances system. I would wager that perhaps a large portion of the electorate doesn’t either. I replaced Stanton for the good of the country during crisis. They brought up impeachment charges for that. What do you think is going to happen when he can’t fire a cabinet member or judge the first time they disagree with him?”
I smiled at the spirit and nodded to acknowledge I understood his point. But still. “When you were in the Senate, how would you have reacted?”
“I stayed! I didn’t resign and follow everyone else when the war started. Do you understand the determination and stamina that took?” he exploded.
“I can’t even imagine, sir.” I swallowed. “That must have been difficult.”
He nodded. “Leadership is vision, leadership is determination—it is follow-through.”
I wanted to ask him about compromise but just didn’t feel up to upsetting the spectre anymore than I already had.
“Standing on principle is important to me. I didn’t work my way up from a log cabin in Raleigh as an illiterate tailor’s apprentice to the highest office in the land because I fell for every pretty story someone told me. No, you don’t get swayed, you know what is right and make it happen.”
Do I have the guts to ask? I’ll kick myself forever if I don’t. “Sir, I’m not trying to be rude, but you mentioned your apprenticeship in Raleigh: the one you ran away from. There were advertisements offering a reward for your return. You left the state seeking your freedom.”
“That’s right, I did—one of the best decision I ever made. Went to Tennessee, met Eliza. That was the turning point for me: Eliza.” He shook his head. “Beautiful, shy, quiet. She’s the one who was my real teacher, you know. I think she was a lot like Jack’s wife, Jacqueline. I was so proud the day I could tell her we had a public library in the state of Tennessee, making books available to everyone.”
I took a deep breath and steadied my nerves. “But how could you then become a slave owner yourself after that? How could you, knowing what it felt like to have a price on your head and your freedom proscribed, do the same to others?”
“Obviously, you do not understand the difference, nor could I explain it to you. Andy Jackson was right: I shouldn’t waste my time trying to talk to you. Lincoln! Lincoln! Free the slaves! Free the slaves! It’s all you modern liberals want to talk about! Governing is much more difficult and complicated! Good night, Gwenyfar, Hilda!”
He turned on his heel and disappeared behind the tree. I had never been told off by a ghost before. I blew it. Now I would have to go tell my editor we didn’t even start to discuss the Homestead Act, or the power of the veto. Though I have to say, judging by his reaction, bringing up the veto of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 probably would have gotten an even bigger explosion. If nothing else, I had a stronger sense of the uphill battle newly freed slaves were fighting if the president—a white man who had experienced being an escapee and being sought for reward money—couldn’t sympathize with their plight. There really was little hope of finding any voice to speak on their behalf.
I sighed. “Better call Shea and get it over with. Home?” I asked Hilda. She wagged her tail in confirmation. We set off up Princess Street, each lost in our reveries.