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Dec. 10 Opening Statements: Marty Meehan (D-Mass.)

  • More Transcripts From the Hearings

  • By Federal News Service
    Thursday, December 10, 1998

    REP. MARTIN MEEHAN (D-MA): The rule of law. We've heard much about it over the past few weeks, and we'll surely hear more about it over the next few days. Above all, we have rightly heard that the rule of law must apply equally to president and pauper. Otherwise, the law shall be the exception and not the rule. But in striving to fix the boundaries of the rule of law, we must not restrict our sights to the president. The rule of law must rule here as well.

    And there is one body of law and only one body of law that governs this committee's action when it meets to consider articles of impeachment: the Constitution of the United States.

    No, the law in this room is not Title 18, Section 1621 and 1623 of the U.S. Code, the perjury statute, but rather Article II, Section IV of the Constitution of the United States: "The president, vice president and all civil officers of the United States shall be removed from office on impeachment for and conviction of treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors." If we foresake this constitutional standard and the precedents in which it has been applied, let there be no doubt about it, our actions will be lawless.

    I have read the words of our founding fathers, and I have reviewed the precedents, and I am left to conclude that impeachable conduct is conduct which clearly, concretely and convincingly demonstrates that a president lacks the capacity to govern, that a president is unable or unwilling to fulfill his or her core responsibilities or respect the boundaries or his or her power.

    I also have a good sense about what isn't impeachable conduct. Being a bad husband is not in itself impeachable conduct. Failing to live up to the expectations of those who elected you is not in and of itself impeachable conduct. And breaking a law is not in and of itself impeachable conduct.

    So we must ask ourselves, how does Bill Clinton's conduct reflect upon his capacity to govern?

    Let us start with what we've learned about Bill Clinton. We've learned that he is more reckless in his private life than we even imagined -- maddeningly reckless for someone with so much potential and so much to lose.

    We have learned that his instinct is to deceive when he's asked about his private recklessness, particularly when those doing the asking are linked to his political enemies. We have learned that this particular instinct to deceive carries into a judicial proceeding, though not without a competing instinct to act lawfully.

    What we see in Bill Clinton's sworn testimony are these two competing interests at war. I believe that that instinct to act lawfully was surprisingly successful in battle, given the strength of its enemy. Yet that war produced two casualties that we should all lament: forthrightness and clarity. And the lines might indeed have been crossed on occasion, most predominantly and prominently with respect to the president's testimony about precisely where he touched Monica Lewinsky.

    I disparage Bill Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewinsky, I disparage what he did in his testimony, legal or not. I disparage what he said to the American people about this matter and I disparage what he put this country through over the last 12 months. But can I conclude clearly, concretely and convincingly from the president's conduct that he lacks the capacity to govern? Only if I willfully blind myself to the rule of life, a phrase I borrowed from Professor Laurence Tribe.

    The rule of life teaches us that people are complex, they do wrong in certain contexts, yet forces behind that wrongdoing do not necessarily infect every context of their lives. Where they have erred, they sometimes come to realize it, regret it and confine it. Branding a president who teetered on the edge of illegality in testifying about an illicit affair a tyrant, or a traitor in waiting, clearly defies the rule of life. In fact, when I look at Bill Clinton's acts of governance, I see no failure to execute our laws properly or no lack of respect for the boundaries of presidential power.

    It also defies the rule of life to suggest that allowing the president to remain in office will result in diminished respect for the rule of law or the abandonment of morality. The American people are smart enough to know the difference between right and wrong, to realize that supposed role models who do wrong are models for nothing in those instances. To recognize that the president is already paying a steep price for his deception and to understand that he remains subject to indictment and prosecution for any illegality he might have committed, whether we impeach him or not.

    Yet this committee nonetheless proceeds on a lawless path to impeachment designed to arrive there on Saturday, December 12th, 1998. And despite the awesome constitutional and practical significance of impeachment, we have been proceeding as if we're about to do anything but something exceptional.

    Material witnesses? None to be found here, even though there are multiple instances of conflicting testimony on critical issues. We instead appear to have embraced a new theory of jurisprudence whereby the defense must prove its innocence to stave off punishment, or at least the burden shifts to the defense after the prosecution claims it has made out a prima facie case of some unrevealed charge.

    Accountable? Not us. We simply pass scandal on to the Senate, leaving it to the other body to do the dirty work of determining fact and meting out proportional punishment.

    Restrained? Only restrained from criticizing ourselves for having dumped a gratuitously salacious referral on the American people without even having read it first.

    I observe the polls indicating that the American people overwhelmingly oppose impeachment. Observe how we have conducted this impeachment inquiry, and I find myself suspecting that I am witnessing some grand scheme to convince the American people not to take this process seriously, to tune us out and let us commit a constitutional wrong without anybody noticing. For those who might hope for this outcome, let me say to you that whether or not the American people tune us in today or in the following days, history will not tune us out. The leading constitutional law treatise describes history's view of the 1867 impeachment of former President Andrew Johnson with the following words, quote, "The congressional attempt to oust Johnson was itself an abuse of power." End quote.

    I am sick at heart today, for I believe that similar words will come to characterize the actions of this committee, and perhaps those of the House. Indeed, I fear not only how history will treat us, but how our actions will shape history. We lay the groundwork today for a startling precedent, a precedent by which private wrongs readily become grist for an opening -- a reopening of elections; by which major constitutional clashes between executive and legislative branches are triggered by near party-line votes within the legislature; and by which the American people's views on what makes for a high crime and misdemeanor are flatly ignored.

    So I say to my colleagues outside this committee, who may not have mind their minds up on whether or not to impeach the president and are watching us tonight, it is not only this president and the nation's fate that hangs in the balance, but also the fates of presidents to be -- thirty more seconds, please.

    REP. SENSENBRENNER: Without objection.

    REP. MEEHAN: -- but also the fates of presidents to be and our fate in the eyes of history. Please, save the Constitution from an overreach, save our nation from a prolonged Senate trial, save the House from the condemnation of history, and save history from this committee's excesses.

    Thank you.

    REP. SENSENBRENNER: The gentleman's time has expired.

    The gentleman from Ohio, Mr. Chabot.


    Copyright © 1998 by Federal News Service, Inc. No portion of this transcript may be copied, sold or retransmitted without the written authority of Federal News Service, Inc. Copyright is not claimed as to any part of the original work prepared by a United States government officer or employee as a part of that person's original duties. Transcripts of other events may be found at the Federal News Service Web site, located at

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