Starr & Clinton: The latest chapter in our long history of impeachment drama
This past week, I naively thought I was gaining a handle on what was going on in the wonderful world of American politics.
Then a billboard sign went up in Oshkosh, Wis., demanding President Barack Obama be impeached; an 800-page book titled The Death of American Virtue: Clinton v. Starr was published; and former independent prosecutor Kenneth Starr, whose investigation led to Bill Clinton’s impeachment, became president of Baylor University.
This confluence of stories about impeachment, and on those associated with the high political drama in 1998, gave me flashbacks to that tawdry scandal—and made me dizzy.
And if those stories weren’t enough, this past Saturday night former Speaker of the House and Clinton impeachment ringleader Newt Gingrich triumphantly entered the Conservative Political Action Conference to “Eye of the Tiger.”
The partisan wrangling of the past year already had me on the ropes, but that sight this past Saturday night was the knockout blow.
I found some small comfort in the realization, however, that I wasn’t the only one recoiling from this barrage of impeachment recollections.
NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg wrote in her review of The Death of American Virtue that she felt the need “to take a bath” after finishing the book on the Clinton impeachment scandal.
Even Starr himself expressed “remorse” when asked about his involvement in the investigation that led to those all those “not-safe-for-work” descriptions of Bill and Monica. Starr admitted to ABC’s George Stephanopoulos that the House’s decision to impeach Clinton was both the “right” decision, but also “an unhappy” one. Candidly, he concluded, "Who is not sorrowful for the entire chapter in American history?"
Besides the Clinton impeachment and acquittal in 1998 and Nixon’s resignation in lieu of an impending vote on impeachment in 1974, the Congress has on only two other occasions made serious moves toward the impeachment of a sitting president. And that’s a good thing. The history of impeachment in this country is anything but pretty.
Impeachment and the Constitution
Most of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 agreed that an impeachment option was a proper recourse against any abrogation of justice by officeholders, particularly to prevent a relapse of tyrannical rule. Power vested in one person never sat too well with our revolutionaries after that whole King George III experience. After creating a new, singular executive in Article II of the Constitution, many worried aloud about the potential for the abuse of power.
When it came to debating the exact verbiage surrounding impeachment, however, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention were not so unified. They finally settled on “high crimes and misdemeanors,” in addition to “treason and bribery,” as grounds for impeachment. This was seen as an improvement from the rather vague “maladministration of justice” clause first brought up in the debate. This semantic tangle in Philly in 1787 produced not only the words of our Constitution, but ample fodder for historians and politicians to ponder for the next 200 years.
The First Presidential Impeachment Attempt
As far as presidential nicknames go, I’m partial to Zachary Taylor’s “Old Rough and Ready,” Martin Van Buren’s “the Red Fox of Kinderhook” and Grover Cleveland’s “Uncle Jumbo.” But it’s tough to top John Tyler’s “His Accidency.” It’s also tough to top Tyler's unique ascension to the presidency in 1841.
After William Henry Harrison, a.k.a. “Tippecanoe,” died within one month of being inaugurated, vice president Tyler became the first “happenstance” president. Tyler set precedent by claiming the power of the president and taking the reins of office, but in so doing, he also alienated the Whig party that put him in office. His apparent misuse of the veto prompted calls for impeachment. President John Quincy Adams, who by the 1840s was a member of the House of Representatives, attempted unsuccessfully to pass articles of impeachment out of the House.
Impeachment and Almost a Conviction
President Andrew Johnson, another “happenstance” president, assumed the office after Lincoln’s assassination some 25 years later. Johnson didn’t have any memorable moniker, but the Republican opposition had a few choice names for him.
Radical Republicans in particular saw Johnson as a key impediment to their plan to reconstruct the nation after the Civil War. To ratchet up the tension even more, according to most accounts, Johnson was an irascible politician and an avowed racist. Columbia University professor Eric Foner wrote how one contemporary described Johnson as “obstinate, self-willed, combative and totally unfit for his office.” Yet, added Foner, these charges were in and of themselves “not impeachable offenses.”
The House impeached Johnson instead for violating a congressional act barring the president from dismissing a high level appointee without the consent of the Senate. Another article of impeachment came from his "disgrace, ridicule, hatred, contempt and reproach of the Congress of the United States." The House passed 11 articles of impeachment. Yet Johnson escaped conviction in the Senate by just one vote.
So with a little historical context, it’s clear that impeachment is a rarity in American politics. And any whacky talk about impeaching Obama is probably just that—talk.