In the fall of 1998, David Vitter felt compelled to weigh in on the national debate over the possible impeachment of President Bill Clinton for lying about sex. Vitter was not yet a member of Congress; he was a Republican state representative. And in an October 29, 1998, opinion piece for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Vitter took issue with a previous article, written by two law professors who had argued that impeachment “is a process of removing a president from office who can no longer effectively govern; it is not about punishment.” Given that Clinton was still a capable chief executive, they had maintained, impeachment was not in order.
Vitter, a graduate of Harvard University and Tulane law school and a Rhodes scholar, was aghast at this amoral position. He blasted the law professors for criticizing those congressional Republicans pushing for Clinton’s impeachment. Their argument that impeachment is “not primarily about right and wrong or moral fitness to govern,” he wrote, was utterly wrongheaded. He continued:
Some current polls may suggest that people are turned off by the whole Clinton mess and don’t care — because the stock market is good, the Clinton spin machine is even better or other reasons. But that doesn’t answer the question of whether President Clinton should be impeached and removed from office because he is morally unfit to govern.
The writings of the Founding Fathers are very instructive on this issue. They are not cast in terms of political effectiveness at all but in terms of right and wrong — moral fitness. Hamilton writes in the Federalists Papers(No. 65) that impeachable offenses are those that “proceed from the misconduct of public men, or, in other words, from the abuse or violation of some public trust.”
In considering impeachment, Vitter asserted, Congress had to judge Clinton on moral terms. Decrying the law professors’ failure to see this, Vitter observed, “Is that the level of moral relatively [sic] and vacuousness we have come to?” If no “meaningful action” were to be taken against Clinton, Vitter wrote, “his leadership will only further drain any sense of values left to our political culture.”
Strong words. Now that Vitter, who entered the House of Representatives in 1999 after winning a special election to fill the seat of Representative Bob Livingston (who resigned after being caught in an adultery scandal) and who was elected senator in 2004, has admitted he placed a phone call to the so-called DC Madam, his constituents can only wonder if he will hold himself to the same standards he sought to apply to Bill Clinton.
Vitter, who is married with four children, has been a vigorous advocate of family values, championing abstinence-only programs and calling for a ban on gay marriage. In a statement his office rushed out on Monday night–before he could be outed by Hustler magazine–Vitter said he had committed a “serious sin” and claimed that “several years ago, I asked for and received forgiveness from God and my wife in confession and marriage counseling.” I seem to recall that Bill Clinton took a similar stance after he acknowledged his affair with Monica Lewinsky. That, though, did not prevent Vitter from calling for Clinton’s forcible removal from office.
Perhaps Vitter ought to revisit the issue of whether the absence of moral fitness is a firing offense for a public official.
JUST OUT IN PAPERBACK: HUBRIS: THE INSIDE STORY OF SPIN, SCANDAL, AND THE SELLING OF THE IRAQ WAR by Michael Isikoff and David Corn. The paperback edition of this New York Times bestseller contains a new afterword on George W. Bush’s so-called surge in Iraq and the Scooter Libby trial. The Washington Post said of Hubris: “Indispensable….This [book] pulls together with unusually shocking clarity the multiple failures of process and statecraft.” The New York Times called it, “The most comprehensive account of the White House’s political machinations…fascinating reading.” Tom Brokaw praised it as “a bold and provocative book.” Hendrik Hertzberg, senior editor of The New Yorker notes, “The selling of Bush’s Iraq debacle is one of the most important–and appalling–stories of the last half-century, and Michael Isikoff and David Corn have reported the hell out of it.” For highlights from Hubris, click here.