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Republic on Trial | The Nation

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Republic on Trial

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The other day Linda Douglass, the Congressional correspondent for ABC News, commented to Peter Jennings that some "conservative" Republican senators were opposed to a plan that Senate majority leader Trent Lott was canvassing to foreshorten the impeachment trial of President Clinton. "History, if not Republican voters, will judge them harshly," the senators reportedly told him, "if they give impeachment short shrift." The casual reference to history was significant. Our politicians and those who comment upon them these days have developed a virtual mania for history. President Clinton, several of his former aides have told us, is a great reader of history books and is preoccupied with his "legacy." He sits around hour after hour, according to his former pollster Dick Morris, wondering what ranking he will be given among Presidents. Above Eisenhower? Below Wilson? Up there with Teddy Roosevelt? Only poll results, it appears, interest him more. It's hard not to escape the conclusion that the judgment of history is, for him, a kind of ultimate poll, an eternal positive rating--the last, and most lasting, round of applause.

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Jonathan Schell
Jonathan Schell is the Lannan Fellow at The Nation Institute and teaches a course on the nuclear dilemma at...

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His detractors in both parties are, if anything, even more preoccupied with history. They want posterity to boo him. They want his legacy wrecked. "This guy is condemned in history for the acts he committed," Senator Joseph Lieberman said, adding for good measure, "Impeachment puts that mark indelibly in the history books.... He's got to be hurt personally, pained...." Senator Slade Gorton agrees: "President Clinton is whistling past the graveyard if he thinks that this is going to be forgotten during the course of the next twenty years or for that matter in the next 200 years." "The impeachment proceedings have left Clinton's credibility in shreds and his legacy permanently tarnished," chimes in the Washington Post. Not even a "papal indulgence" can remove this stain, says Senator Joe Biden, a Catholic--seeming, almost, to place the judgment of history above the judgment of God Himself.

This preoccupation with history must offend the ordinary person. Most people are obliged to live out their lives without giving a thought to some "place in history." There never was any place for them there, and there never will be. No unborn scriveners will look over their shoulders as they decide whether to be faithful to their wives or husbands, whether to stand up to the outrages of the boss or knuckle under, whether to tell the truth or lie, whether to obey the law or cut a corner. Their decisions are just as hard as those now being made by President Clinton and Trent Lott, and they make them without reference to any "legacy." The only legacy of their actions is the consequence for themselves and those among whom they live. Can I pay the bills? Am I doing right by my children? What should I do with my life? Can I face myself in the mirror in the morning? Such are the considerations people face when they make their decisions, and that is enough.

In the public sphere, there are, it is true, some good reasons for particular confidence in the judgments of history. For one thing, we in the present may not have all the necessary information. Some Pentagon Papers may reveal that the facts were quite different from what they seemed to be. The more important and deep-rooted difficulty, however, is that a conflict of interest is built into our attempts to rate our own actions. For each generation is a judge in its own case. To judge oneself fairly is not an impossible thing, but it's easier to judge someone else. Sometimes the excitement of the moment can even destroy the capacity for judgment. Consider, for example, the ability of the German people in the thirties to arrive at a true estimation of Hitler. Historians are still arguing about Nazism, but does anyone suppose that any future generation will look on Hitler as fondly as did the Germans who supported him and put him in power?

Why not invoke history's judgment, then? The problem, of course, is that, thanks to the same passions and interests that cloud our contemporary judgment, we are unable to know what people in the future will think. President Clinton, muse as he will, is the last person likely to arrive at a disinterested estimation of his legacy. Likewise, the Congressional Republicans are the last ones who can tell us what history will think of impeachment. Clinton, at least, has kept his hopes for posterity's congratulations to himself. Not so his detractors. They routinely speak as if impeachment is itself a judgment of history--a "black mark," in the words of Senator Phil Gramm, who argued against censure because, in his view, impeachment was already irrevocable censure. It seems not to have occurred to these Republicans that history is as free to condemn impeachment as it is to condemn the President and that the blacker mark may be on their own record.

This reliance on as-yet-unwritten history texts, which at first glance may look like a sign of self-confidence, is more likely a sign of nervous insecurity. The uncertainty was inadvertently revealed by former Republican Senator Alan Simpson when he expressed the view, widespread in GOP circles, that the public will have forgotten impeachment by the next election because "the attention span of the American people is 'Which movie is coming out next week?'" How, then, can impeachment be an indelible black mark in history? People will either remember and judge or forget. They cannot do both. From the start, the scandal has been characterized by an artificial and willful magnification of modest misdeeds into the gigantic and gratuitous crisis that now confronts us. The premature invocation of history is merely the final step in this process. The attempt is to summon up the ghostly legions of posterity as a counterweight to the flesh-and-blood majority of living Americans who consistently opposed impeachment and now oppose conviction. It represents the ultimate step in replacing the facts before us with inflated, constructed reality.

In simple truth, we have no access to history's judgments of us. Those who would try President Clinton and remove him from office should weigh the consequences of their deeds here and now, just as ordinary people do every day of their lives. Dependence on the opinion of the unborn amounts to evasion of responsibility by the living.

I cannot, without falling into the error I accuse others of, say that history will judge this abdication unfavorably. I will only say that I do.

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