Impeachment trials have notably lacked drama or even importance. Often, they have been an anticlimax to the convulsive events that precipitated them. Andrew Johnson’s trial extended over several months and was a tepid sideshow to the profound political and legal struggles that marked Reconstruction. The British Parliament considered Warren Hastings’s fate sporadically for eight years after he was impeached for his mismanagement of India policies, a subject heatedly debated for decades. The constitutional stakes sometimes appear high, but impeachment is essentially a quasi-legal extension of politics.
The impeachment and trial of William Jefferson Clinton followed form. Here was a proceeding whose remarkable moments seem in retrospect to be Robert Byrd’s bombastic oratory, Arlen Specter’s idiosyncratic attempt to import Scottish law by rendering a verdict of “Not Proven,” Henry Hyde’s ongoing fits of pique toward the Senate and misguided media speculations about “concessions” and “compromise” after one of the House managers of the proceeding, Lindsey Graham, lightened up and said “reasonable people can disagree.” Most senators even followed a script for their questions, asking ones planted by the lawyers or the leadership. The affair had all the spontaneity of a Pointillist painting.
Jeffrey Toobin’s A Vast Conspiracy and Joe Conason and Gene Lyons’s The Hunting of the President treat impeachment briefly as a mere coda to earlier stories of alleged presidential wrongdoing. Both books recognize that the interesting and important political story centered on the assault against Clinton, which had gathered momentum after his election in 1992. That story was unscripted and owed more to accident and inadvertence than to design. The President and his wife were accused, among other things, of crooked land deals, suspected insider commodity trading, drug-running and complicity in the murder of a presidential-assistant-cum-alleged-paramour, Vincent Foster. Finally, we had the National Dirty Joke. The Toobin and Conason/Lyons books essentially tell the same story, and tell it rather well.
Peter Baker, a Washington Post reporter, set out to write “an authoritative and straightforward history” of the impeachment and trial. This subject pales by contrast to the earlier story, for it has little drama, mystery or subtlety. Baker is apparently determined to give us everything he accumulated in his reporter’s notebook. His details are numbing; we have an abundance of trivia, rumor and anecdote, leaving him (and us) short on analysis and insight. But publishing publicity departments love this stuff. Press releases for the book emphasize the President’s request to attorney David Kendall to tell Hillary that “something had obviously gone on” between her husband and Monica Lewinsky. It was the “longest walk” of Kendall’s life, but he “laid the foundation” for Clinton to tell his wife. Certainly Clinton’s modus operandi was nothing new or startling.
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Typically, such books rest upon the usual unnamed sources. “I wish I could name them all,” Baker writes. But it is not difficult to dope out his sources, and their obvious, self-fulfilling purposes. Representative Asa Hutchinson, one of the House managers, talked with Baker at length. Baker apparently found him the most interesting of the prosecutors (Hutchinson could mute his sanctimoniousness and stick to the legal issues), or at least the one most willing to speak. Baker can tell you at length what Hutchinson was thinking and what motivated him. Needless to say, Hutchinson comes off better than his colleagues.
Baker seems to have chronicled the recollections of every participant and weighted them equally. We hear about the origins of Joe Lieberman’s famous speech, from its inception on the laptop to the incremental additions made before delivery. We are reminded of that very forgettable, very carefully planted rumor that Bob Woodward would report a second Clinton affair, with another intern. Remember Larry King panting over that one?
We learn that Senator Strom Thurmond flirted like a silly old man with the President’s female lawyers. Baker finds a few themes and uses them repeatedly. Thus, the Democrats would consistently expose Republican partisanship and “win by losing.” Then we had the “don’t irritate Byrd” strategy, meaning that the Democrats decided to pander to their silly old man.
Baker even reveals how Washington really works. At one point, Representative Robert Livingston, on the verge of gaining the speakership, apparently decided to scuttle the case, but his chief aide–an unsung Beltway hero–persuaded him that Tom DeLay’s secret room of evidence would prove the President was a rapist. “So what you’re saying,” Livingston said to the aide, “is we have to impeach the bastard?” Comes the breathless answer from the aide, eager to be immortalized: “Yes, I’m saying we have to impeach the bastard.” Finally, Baker performs a useful service by identifying Lisa Myers of NBC as a “key player.” And here we thought she was a working journalist.
Baker implicitly acknowledges the widely held notion that Tom DeLay steamrollered the House impeachment process. DeLay made mincemeat out of Peter King, the New York conservative who tried to form a bloc of Republicans opposed to impeachment. Finally, despairing, King informed Clinton, “There are people in my party who just hate you.” Livingston’s staff described DeLay as “the godfather.” He made Livingston, he threatened him and he unmade him. But Baker leaves DeLay in the shadows, with no explanation of the sources of his power or how he held the House in his sway.
David Schippers, chief investigative counsel for the impeachment inquiry, Chicago Democrat (of a sort) and Hyde’s fellow Knight of the Catholic Church’s Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulcher, has given us a book as comical and over the top as himself. Remember: This is the man who called up fifteen generations of fighting Americans from their graves to judge the House Judiciary Committee’s action. His ready audience, which has shot the book to near the top of the bestseller list, gets plenty of red meat. Special prosecutor Kenneth Starr’s report is treated as gospel; never mind that Starr acknowledged that without Monica Lewinsky’s falling into his lap, he had no other case against the President.
Schippers’s thesis is simple, and in part quite right: The Senate Republicans had no intention of seriously trying the case and sold out their House counterparts. Unfortunately, he explains this with scathing denunciations of “compromise” and “bipartisanship,” when in fact a significant number of Senate Republicans simply did not believe that Schippers’s case amounted to high crimes and misdemeanors, or that the President deserved to be thrown out of office.
The Senate treated the House charges with disdain, often bordering on contempt, much to the managers’ dismay and scorn. The senators even refused to provide partisan cover for the managers when they failed to mount a majority in favor of either of the two articles of impeachment. Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska, whose Appropriations Committee chairmanship gave him enormous clout and who is no stranger to partisan battles, offered the most revealing insight into senatorial minds. Stevens voted to acquit Clinton on the perjury charge but voted him guilty on the obstruction count–the latter a mere “courtesy” to the managers. Stevens had no illusions. The world remained a dangerous place, and he forcefully said he would not vote to remove the President if he knew his vote would be decisive to the outcome. With remarkable candor, he said that Clinton had “not brought that level of danger to the nation which…is necessary to justify such an action.” Stevens correctly gauged the national mood; this trial simply was not serious.
Stevens had hinted at this from the outset, infuriating Schippers. Yet Schippers was, inadvertently, right about bipartisanship. Current wisdom has it that the Clinton trial was a bitter, partisan affair and, as such, was doomed to failure. But just as bipartisanship worked to bring down Richard Nixon a quarter-century earlier, it may well have tarred and discredited Clinton’s accusers. The Senate certainly had its share of Clinton-haters. Trent Lott in 1974 had rejected impeachment as unthinkable; he had no trouble, however, applying it to Clinton. The usual suspects–Phil Gramm, Robert Bennett, Rick Santorum et al.–followed in lockstep. But Republican defections denied the impeachers any semblance of respectability and gave Clinton some measure of satisfaction.
There was no chance of removing the President once he had the support of his fellow Democrats. At that point, Republicans faced a choice: They could maintain party orthodoxy and vote for Clinton’s removal, or they could freely vote to hold the bar high enough to reject his removal from office. Enough Republicans were persuaded that the President did not merit extreme sanction–and they exposed the whole affair as a meaningless, vindictive exercise.
Impeachment and removal belonged, then, to the Bob Barr set within the Republican Party. Most Republicans preferred resignation; impeachment proved to be a grasping, last-ditch effort to humiliate Clinton. Resignation would not only satisfy the hatred for him but provide payback for the Nixon affair a quarter-century earlier. When Livingston dramatically announced his own resignation (after it was publicly revealed that he’d also had an affair), he called upon the President to do the same. “Sir, you have done great damage to this nation…. I say that you have the power to terminate that damage and heal the wounds that you have created. You, sir, may resign from your post,” Livingston pleaded.
Resignation had seemed a viable possibility months earlier, in the immediate wake of the Lewinsky revelations. Clinton’s real moment of danger came when Democrats, many of whom dislike him, briefly flirted with the idea of abandoning him. But that effort ended for several reasons, not the least of which turned out to be polls showing public apathy or outright support for Clinton. Democrats decided to resist Republican attempts to force out the President, by resignation or later by impeachment. Even as the Senate went through the last-minute ritual of its vote, Phil Gramm said that a leader with honor “would fall on your own sword.” But Gramm had (for him) a startling revelation: Richard Nixon had a sense of shame; Clinton had the hide of an elephant.
For Tom DeLay and his cohorts, who had known removal was unlikely but turned to impeachment to embarrass the President and tarnish his legacy, irony abounds. Not for the first or last time did Republicans underestimate Clinton; and not for the last time was he so blessed by his enemies. Prosperity and other Democrats proved indispensable allies.
There are no heroes in this tale, no redeeming moral or social virtue to offer in rendering American history. It is a smarmy story of petty politics, propelled by out-of-control media coverage. The constant theme is that the perpetrators remained wholly disconnected from that amorphous thing we call “the people.” We are neither puritans nor prudes–probably the real subject here was infidelity, and that is a subject too many have had to contend with firsthand, or have preferred not to. In the end, the American people saved Bill Clinton–almost in spite of him.
After Andrew Johnson’s impeachment trial, regret quickly took hold and impeachment was discredited for more than a century. Watergate and Nixon revived it in 1974. Now, our choices seem plain. Either impeachment will be used readily as a partisan weapon or it will become moribund once again. Neither result is healthy for the American constitutional system.
Toobin’s A Vast Conspiracy and Conason and Lyons’s The Hunting of the President knew the real story lay prior to impeachment.