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What Makes Impeachment Talk Cheap

By Elizabeth Drew
Sunday, February 1, 1998; Page C01

opinion
Though talk of impeachment or resignation had begun to die down even before President Clinton's successful State of the Union speech and his continuing strong showing in the polls, many important political figures privately still consider it a real possibility. That the subject has been thinkable at all is remarkable, given that it is a grave, country-wrenching act to drive a president from office. It's a sign of a changed attitude toward the presidency, and also of the danger in which Clinton remains.

It should have been amazing that the word "impeachment" was in the air shortly after the news broke of President Clinton's alleged dalliance with a White House intern and his alleged attempt to cover it up. The proceeding is so serious and so rare that it has been invoked only twice in our nation's history -- Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Richard Nixon in 1974 -- and neither of them came to fruition.

Why, then, was the term so quickly and so easily thrown around? Has the bar been lowered? If so, why?

In part, the almost immediate discussion is evidence of the acceleration of our political debate. The new multiple outlets of information -- the cable news channels, the Internet -- have sped up the flow and processing of information. During Watergate, the news cycle consisted mostly of the morning newspapers and television shows and then the evening news -- with a lot of privately purveyed rumors in between. (At the time of Watergate, people were still using typewriters and carbon paper, and the fax didn't exist.) This time, rumors make it onto the Internet and the hungry airwaves even before the newspapers can be printed, heightening the sense of drama and fueling hyperbolic thoughts (as do the television logos, "President in Crisis").

And in part, the quick talk of impeachment reflects the fact that our politics have become meaner -- on both sides. (One can stipulate this without even taking into account the First Lady's charge that a right wing cabal is out to get her husband. That's true -- and she's been making this claim for years -- but that doesn't explain all of the president's troubles.) But more importantly, this accelerated talk also reflects a diminished view of the presidency -- for which the present incumbent shares large responsibility. As respect for the office declines, the possibility of removing someone from it becomes more conceivable.

But it's a far more awesome (in the original sense of the word) procedure than the loose talk would suggest. Before the Iran-Contra hearings began in 1987, the Democratic and Republican chairmen of the special Senate committee investigating the matter -- Daniel Inouye of Hawaii and Warren Rudman of New Hampshire -- decided the country couldn't stand another impeachment trauma. They agreed not to press the issue of President Reagan's culpability.

Nixon's impeachment came more than two years after the Watergate break-in and the articles of impeachment voted by the House Judiciary Committee covered a long train of abuses. That impeachment process was aborted when grateful Republicans seized upon a suddenly discovered tape of Nixon actually ordering an obstruction of justice -- the so-called "smoking gun" -- and told Nixon that he had to go. (Andrew Johnson's impeachment did go to trial in the Senate but that body fell one vote short of the necessary two-thirds to convict him.)

The grounds for considering impeachment of Richard Nixon far exceeded anything currently under scrutiny. The first article of impeachment charged that Nixon "made it his policy . . . . to delay, impede, and obstruct . . . . to cover up, conceal and protect those responsible; and to conceal the existence and scope of other unlawful covert activities."

Article II, even more grave than the first, charged that Nixon, "in disregard of his Constitutional duty to take care that the laws be faithfully executed has repeatedly engaged in conduct violating the Constitutional rights of citizens."

Article III called for impeaching the president for his failure to comply with the committee's subpoenas.

"We were looking for patterns," says Francis O'Brien, who was the chief strategist for then-Rep. Peter Rodino, the New Jersey Democrat who was chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. "We were in a Constitutional crisis. We're nowhere near now to what we were looking at then."

The Judiciary Committee's consideration was solemn (and bipartisan). As unpopular as Nixon was by then, there was no glee in the room when these articles were voted. Voting to remove a president was treated as a serious and almost frightening matter.

Through his own actions, Clinton has caused himself to be looked at through different lenses than earlier presidents. His longstanding belief that he could talk his way out of any corner finally caught up with him. Now, unfortunately for the country but also for him, very little that the president says about his own actions is taken at face value.

Even before the president's recent troubles, there had already been talk of impeachment in the House. A small band of conservative Republicans, led by Bob Barr of Georgia and seventeen co-sponsors (including the late Sonny Bono, eulogized by Clinton in his State of the Union speech) introduced a resolution in November calling for an inquiry into whether Clinton should be impeached -- on broad, catch-all grounds. Now it has been joined in a resolution about the Lewinsky case and House Rules Committee Chairman Gerald Solomon's own "wide-ranging" (his words) investigation of Clinton and his cabinet. Solomon doesn't want to rely on the Lewinsky case alone.

Within days of the latest allegations becoming public, there was talk on Capitol Hill and in the lobbying community that Clinton was "toast." People debated whether Clinton had two weeks or six weeks left. It was proof that the bar had, in fact, been lowered.

Some Democrats on Capitol Hill -- and elsewhere -- were talking privately about how nice it would be to be rid of Clinton and all his scandals and to have Al Gore installed in the presidency. Gore may have bobbled a couple of times in the course of raising campaign funds -- and in explaining himself -- but the debris he had accumulated was minuscule compared to Clinton's. Besides, these Democrats' thinking went, the Republicans would be far less effective in attacking Gore the incumbent than Gore the candidate.

This very same thought was one of the reasons that the House Republican leadership came to a quick consensus that they should keep quiet about impeachment -- and about the story in general.

The day after the story broke, Speaker Newt Gingrich said, "I think every citizen ought to slow down, relax and wait for the facts to develop." The other reason for the Republicans' restraint, according to Vin Weber, a former House member and still an important Republican strategist, is a concern for how the Republicans would look as the president was brought down -- if it ever comes to that. There is an understanding among the cooler-headed Republicans that because the president's transgressions don't look like they're of Watergate proportions, the episode could in retrospect look like not such a big thing and could rebound against them if it appeared that they had hounded him out of office.

The Republican leaders see the Gore possibility exactly as the Democrats do. A Republican strategist said, "The probability is that a Gore presidency would look good, perhaps through the 2000 election. The Republican plan to defeat Gore has always been fairly straightforward: a campaign to get the country scared of Al Gore as president by branding him a radical environmentalist who grew up in a hotel room. But if he's been president for two years, how do you beat him then?"

The Republicans convinced themselves that the Democrats would do their unpleasant work for them: The Democrats would go to Clinton, as the Republicans went to Nixon, and tell him it was time to go. Weber says, "No one in the senior leadership of the party in Congress seriously believes that there's going to be an impeachment. There may be an impeachable offense, but that's subject to a difference of opinion, and to different members' views of morality. They think that in the worst case, he'll resign."

But Weber also added, "That the Republicans are being quiet shows the seriousness of it. It's not just another chance to take a nick out of the president. It may be the end of his presidency." That a few prominent Republicans made remarks critical of Clinton at a meeting of the Conservative Political Action Conference this weekend doesn't change the basic strategy.

The Republican leaders saw the president's successful State of the Union speech, preceded the day before by his strong (but not airtight) denials, as a temporary lull. "People I've talked to haven't changed their fundamental view of this thing," Weber said on Wednesday as Clinton was basking in the good reviews of his speech. At week's end, Weber's sense of the situation remained the same.

Many junior Republicans don't see things in the cool, rational terms that their leaders do, and they'll act as a force on the leadership to sustain their position as the party of morality. Members of the religious right have expressed disappointment with the Republican leaders' response to the allegations. The circumspect comments of House Judiciary Committee chairman Henry Hyde -- if the charges were proved, "impeachment might well be an option -- were intended, in part, to keep the zealots at bay.

Hyde has said that any serious move to impeach would have to have Democratic support. Otherwise it would lack legitimacy, much less a chance of success. And the Democrats became calmer after the Congress reconvened last Tuesday and the president gave his speech. "We're not as deeply in the woods, but we're still there," one leading Democrat said. "The danger is that there are other women, or other evidence. We may be looking at a wounded president as opposed to one so seriously embarrassed he has to leave. But his idea of embarrassment may not be the same as ours." The rampant early talk that Clinton simply might leave office overlooked the fact that he is one of the most resilent politicians of our time.

Kenneth Starr could play a role here, too. A section of the independent counsel law written after Nixon left office requires the independent counsel to inform the House of "any substantial and credible information" that may be grounds for impeachment (however defined). Hyde himself has been leaning on that provision. "Let him do his job," Hyde said a week ago, "and when he does that, we will do ours." The legal case against Clinton could fade, of course, for lack of evidence.

The assumption is that the Republicans won't want to impeach a president who is at 60 percent in the polls (assuming Clinton remains there). And they might cynically decide it's better to keep a weakened president in office.

In the end, the decision to impeach is fundamentally a political decision. "It's based on the will of the people," Francis O'Brien said. "That's why it's put in the House and the Senate. It's not a judicial undertaking. You have to have the people's support for it, and it's not there."

Not now.

Elizabeth Drew's most recent book is "Whatever It Takes: The Real Struggle for Political Power in America."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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