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October 20, 1998

"Impeachment" is very much in the news these days because of the hullabaloo in Washington, but Noble county folks became well acquainted with the term some 70 years ago when one of our own, attorney Henry S. Johnston, was in trouble with the Oklahoma Legislature. The upshot of that turmoil came when Mr. Johnston was ousted from his office as governor of this state.

Most of us understand the implications of the word "impeachment." According to Webster's, when used as a verb it means to bring a charge, usually against a high public official. Sometimes we equate "impeachment" with "ouster." We forget that if someone is impeached, it simply means that an official accusation has been filed and a hearing, or a trial, may be held to rule on the validity of the charge and, if a guilty verdict is rendered, the nature of punishment is determined. Impeachment alone does not mean that a person is guilty of anything.

In Mr. Johnston's ordeal, his trouble came to a head in 1929, midway through his four-year term as the state's chief executive. The episode is now widely viewed to have been a fight among warring factions within the Democratic party -- the party he represented -- to wrest control away from Mr. Johnston and his supporters. It was a political struggle. To achieve the goals of his foes, Mr. Johnston was impeached (charged) by the state House of Representatives, then tried and convicted by the State Senate. Both were heavily dominated by Democrats.

The House voted 11 specific charges of impeachment against the governor, claiming ten acts of wrongdoing and one of "general incompetency." After the hearing, the Senate agreed that there was no criminal intent on the part of Governor Johnston and threw out all but the one incompetency charge. He was convicted of that alone, and for years after that efforts were made to remove the stigma from his name.

It was a bitter time for this state. Mr. Johnston and his devoted wife, Ethel L., put up a brave front but it is doubtful that they ever completely shook off the trauma it foisted on them. A cheering crowd of some 4,000 neighbors, friends, townspeople and supporters from throughout the state surprised him with a spontaneous greeting in the courthouse park when Mr. Johnston and his family returned to Perry. They met him in a caravan at the edge of town and escorted him to the park, where he acknowledged their friendship and the reception. He later described this as one of the high points of his life. Through the years other steps were taken to atone for the humiliation of impeachment. A portion of U.S. highway 64 at the south edge of Perry was memorialized by the state in Mr. Johnston's name. A concrete pillar with a bronze plaque marks the location. On the day before his death on January 7, 1965, the Oklahoma legislature approved a measure to soften the stigma of his removal from office. As a former governor, his body lay in state at the Capitol before funeral services were held in Perry.

Today, a group of state senators, headed by Charles Ford of Bartlesville, is attempting to raise funds to hang an oil portrait of Mr. Johnston in the vicinity of the Senate Lounge at the capitol. That would be a fitting tribute inasmuch as Mr. Johnston presided over the first Oklahoma State Senate following statehood in 1907. The painting will be part of preparations for the state's Centennial Celebration in 2007.

If you would like to help make this a reality, contact Charles Hall at the Exchange Bank and Trust Co. He is working with Sen. Ford in this very worthwhile effort. State Sen. Robert Milacek of Waukomis also is backing the project. To assist, make checks payable to the Oklahoma State Senate Historical Preservation Fund and direct them to Charles Hall. November 1 is the target date for completing the effort.