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400 Historians Denounce Impeachment

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  • Full Text of Statement and List of Signers

  • By John F. Harris
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Thursday, October 29, 1998; Page A4

    Some 400 of the nation's leading historians and presidential scholars came to President Clinton's defense yesterday with an open letter complaining that if the impeachment proceedings against him are successful it would leave the presidency "permanently disfigured" and hold "the most serious implications for our constitutional order."

    Two of the nation's most celebrated historians – Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. and C. Vann Woodward – were on hand to represent an informal coalition calling itself "Historians in Defense of the Constitution." Among those who signed were Stephen Ambrose, James McGregor Burns, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Gary Wills, all of whom have written best-selling histories and presidential biographies.

    "Although we do not condone President Clinton's private behavior or his subsequent attempts to deceive," the group's statement read, "the current charges against him depart from what the Framers saw as grounds for impeachment." Instead, the drafters of the Constitution "explicitly reserved" impeachment for "high crimes and misdemeanors in the exercise of executive power."

    "We face a choice between preserving or undermining our Constitution," the statement continued. "Do we want to establish a precedent for the future harassment of presidents and to tie up our government with a protracted national agony of search and accusation?"

    The petition drive was organized by Princeton University historian Sean Wilentz, who said he first enlisted Schlesinger and Woodward, then rounded up other signatories by phone, fax and e-mail.

    Wilentz said the group, though it included many well-known liberal activists, is not partisan, and includes many people with no special affection for Clinton. Wills, on the faculty of Northwestern University, has called on Clinton to resign, while biographer Goodwin has written critically about Clinton's behavior in the Monica S. Lewinsky affair.

    Even Schlesinger, a White House aide under John F. Kennedy and a Democratic loyalist, has questioned what he called Clinton's overeagerness to accommodate Republicans on such issues as welfare reform. Yesterday, he noted the irony that many congressional liberals who Clinton has shunned have come to his defense, while many more moderate "New Democrats" have fled.

    But Schlesinger, 81, said Clinton has been "a very lucky man in his enemies" – House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr. Whereupon the historian rallied to the president's defense. While Clinton has lied about his "love life," he said, this is hardly equivalent to previous presidential deceptions on unambiguously public matters as the Watergate or Iran-contra scandals.

    Meeting with reporters, Schlesinger was pressed on how Kennedy, on whom he lavished praise in the Pulitzer Prize-winning history "A Thousand Days," would have fared if his own subsequently well-documented affairs had been publicized at the time. Schlesinger said Kennedy's private life did not interfere with his duties, and rejected the notion that there was "a parade of bimbos" around JFK.

    The historians' petition drew fire from former education secretary William J. Bennett, himself a former academic. He accused the group of an intellectual "sleight of hand" by dismissing the impeachment inquiry as a probe into Clinton's private behavior, and said it is wrong to contend that the framers reserved impeachment solely for misuse of executive power. According to this logic, he said, a president who engaged in crimes such as rape or child molestation could not be impeached.

    Also yesterday, former representative Peter Rodino (D-N.J.), who presided over impeachment hearings against Richard M. Nixon, said in remarks published in the Newark Star-Ledger that he does not believe there is enough evidence to justify removing Clinton.

    Researcher Ben White contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1998 Washington Post Company

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