Q&A About Impeachment
"Levey Live," appears each Tuesday from noon to 1 p.m. Eastern time. It is a live, moderated discussion offering washingtonpost.com users the chance to ask questions directly of the people who make the news and the people who report it.
Our topic this week was the ongoing (some might say "eternal") impeachment process and the final stages of the House Judiciary Committee's investigation. A transcript follows.
By the way, on Friday, please join us for "Levey Live: Speaking Freely," an open-agenda conversation about anything on your mind or in the news. Got a question about D.C. politics, consumer issues, or world affairs? Bring it up on "Levey Live: Speaking Freely," and let the Webbed world know where you stand.
Olathe, Kan.: There has been so much talk about presidential censure vs. impeachment. We know that a president can be impeached without actually being removed from office, so what exactly is the difference between censure and impeachment and what would be the consequences of both, assuming there is a congressional vote for impeachment without Clinton being kicked out of office?
Bob Levey: Censure is just a sense-of-the-body resolution. It has no legal standing and no constitutional meaning. It's the equivalent of the House declaring this National Rutabaga Week. Impeachment is described in the constitution. It's an assemblage of charges brought by the House, and sent to the Senate for trial. It has tons of legal standing and oodles of constitutional meaning.
McLean, Va.: Is the impeachment vote done by secret ballot?
Bob Levey: No way. The members of the Judiciary Committee are polled, one by one. How it might work on the floor of the House isn't as clear. Polling the members happens only by majority vote, and it isn't clear (to me, anyway) that this would be possible or desirable. Similarly, in the Senate, the trial would be public but the vote wouldn't necessarily be.
Atlanta, Ga.: In regards to the Constitution's requirement that the chief justice preside at a president's impeachment what do you think that means (i.e., anything the chief justice thinks it means)? Can he dismiss charges? Can he interrogate witnesses? Can he bring the defense and prosecution together in chambers to plea bargain the case? Can he MAKE the senators sit and listen and not carry on any other business? (You get the idea.)
Bob Levey: The rules are pretty rigid. The chief justice conducts the trial the way any judge would. He cannot dismiss the charges, plea-bargain or interrogate witnesses. He can very definitely make the senators sit and listen. In fact, for sheer showmanship, this would be terrific. Imagine all 100 sitting there, unable to run their mouths for a change! However, the Senate isn't powerless. It can vote at any time to dismiss the charges. So politicking will go on, even if verbiage won't.
Matthew from Laurel, Md.: Bob, do you think his lawyers and political handlers are to blame or do you think it is Clinton himself?
Bob Levey: Clinton is clearly to blame for the actions that got all this started. As for what has happened since, Clinton has been the subject of an incredible tug-of-war between his political people, who want him to be viable as president, and his criminal defense people, who want to keep his carcass out of jail. Don't forget that there is a very serious chance of that, once he leaves office, regardless of how impeachment turns out.
Washington, D.C.: The president has done a very good job in keeping the country alive and going well. Why not just drop this impeachment business and let [him] do [his] job?
Bob Levey: Because he is not the CEO of a company. He is (supposedly, anyway) the moral exemplar of the country. He has very little unchecked power. His job is to lead and inspire to be big. So if he lies, it matters more than if anyone else does at least that's the way it's supposed to work. If I had a vote in the House, it would be quite simple. Any public official who lied under oath would have to go. Any president who did it would have to go at the speed of sound. All else is just spin and politicking.
Fairfax, Va.: Bob, many Democrats keep referring to this as about sex. I don't get it. The charges are about perjury, obstruction of justice, witness tampering and perhaps abuse of power. Why can't we just have an honest debate of the facts rather than spin?
Bob Levey: I agree completely. However, it IS about sex in the sense that sex is what started it and sex is what has kept the story superheated. You can't expect people not to notice that a man and a woman did something pretty saucy in that White House hallway.
Bob Levey: Not even close. To me, impeachment should be about crimes that rock the national boat. This one doesn't. The perjury rap ought to be (and very well might be) determined in a criminal courtroom after he leaves office. I've said from the first that the right answer here is for him to resign. It would spare everyone (including Clinton himself) pain and torture. But the man is way too proud to consider resigning, or the reasoning behind that step.
Arlington, Va.: Has Henry Hyde's reputation suffered from the impeachment inquiry?
Bob Levey: I hate to be a wise guy, but Hyde's rep has improved ever since he said that the affair he had when he was 41 years old was a "youthful indiscretion." I don't think the laughter has subsided yet!
Alexandria, Va.: Ken Starr says that he will prosecute President Clinton after he leaves office. Why would Ken Starr have authority to prosecute Bill Clinton two years from now? Couldn't the judicial branch (or appropriate branch) have the option of naming a different prosecutor? Does the IC act specify that Ken Starr is prosecutor for life of Bill Clinton?
Bob Levey: Starr has never said this or even publicly hinted it. It'd be his "baby" in a criminal action against Clinton because it has been his "baby" all along. He knows the case best, and he has shepherded it this far. In any other case, the prosecutor who starts is the prosecutor who finishes.
Washington, D.C.: It has been leaked that Clinton will address the nation in a last attempt to sway opinion and keep his job. Why couldn't he have avoided this by doing the honorable thing earlier? [edited for space]
Bob Levey: Darn good question. I'm back to pride as my answer. There is something very wrong with Bill Clinton's ears. He hears only what he wants to hear. That's especially surprising in a man who's such a good politician. I'm afraid that being in the White House has persuaded him that he isn't like others.
Why don't we make the president pay a huge fine? For example: Pay back all of the money that tax payers paid for the investigation that took forever; and a fine for embarrassing our country to the rest of the world.
Bob Levey: This would be a truly terrible idea. See where it would lead. Any time one politician doesn't like another, he can sic the investigative dogs on his enemy. By your reasoning, the victim should have to pay to be investigated! Dangerous, dangerous, dangerous.
Fort Worth, Tex.: What is the difference between congressmen taking free junkets to various resorts and what Mike Espy was accused of doing? This is very hypocritical, isn't it?
Bob Levey: It would be indeed, if members of Congress still took junkets. They can't any more. Nor can they accept speaking fees. True enough, every elected official gets direct campaign contributions, which are slimy in the same way. And true enough, many members of Congress take junkets that are paid for by taxpayers, not lobbyists. But Espy took favors from the very people he was charged with regulating, and members of Congress can't do that.
Vienna, Va.: You just said "...the prosecutor who starts is the prosecutor who finishes." When is Starr's work done?
Bob Levey: As long as the case continues, his work is never done. But that doesn't mean Starr will or must keep the job he has. Starr could quit the case at any time. He almost did that a couple of years ago. In that case, I imagine one (or more than one) of his assistants would pursue it, as long as they could convince the three appeals judges who monitor their work that there was still a good legal reason.
Los Angeles, Calif.: How can you defend Hyde so easily and attack Clinton so hatefully? Don't you think we can see this and it is the common man who is fed up with such partisanship politics? By the way since when is 50 years of age a youthful indiscretion?
Bob Levey: Clinton has never said he was youthfully indiscreet at 50. All he has said is that he is sorry for having "misled" the American people. Do you really blame me (and millions of others) for being revolted by his use of that word? He lied plain and simple. Any other verb choice is an attempt to hide, duck and deceive. That isn't proof of partisan politicking (by the way, I'm not partisan). It's just common sense.
Washington, D.C.: On one hand you say that any public official who lies should be out of office. On the other hand you don't support impeachment for Clinton's lies about personal sex, not national considerations. Aren't you holding two contradictory opinions at once?
Bob Levey: No, because I think any public official caught lying as much and as recklessly as Clinton has should resign. I don't support impeachment because I don't believe lying in a civil case fits the legal definition. But that doesn't mean I think Clinton should escape any penalty. He shouldn't.
Camp Hill, Pa.: Don't quite follow why the 'fine' idea is so bad. You'd only do it if some culpability was found, right? (Although *how* is a good question.)
Bob Levey: The "fine" idea isn't in the Constitution, so I don't see how the Hill could consider it. I grant you that it's frustrating to have only one weapon here impeachment or nothing. But that's the system the forefathers gave us.
Washington, D.C.: I managed to hear a bit of the proceedings this morning and I was struck by the testimony of a voice I assumed was the president's lawyer. He said the president was sorry for misleading his family, staffers and the country and went on about his chief's deep sorrow. Oh please. Don't you think this mess might have been avoided had Clinton come clean right from the start? What a monumental waste of time and our money...
Bob Levey: This case isn't about soap opera values. It isn't about whether lawyers light up the Oprah scale. It's about whether laws were broken. I'm in the "oh, please" school myself. What in the world does contrition have to do with any of this? Is this about some third-grader who can wipe the slate clean by saying he's sorry? Obviously, Clinton regrets only one thing that he got caught.
Great Falls, Va.:
Bob Levey: a) We'd run the risk of being indicted for perjury.
Washington, D.C.: In response to a recent question regarding "embarrassing our country to the rest of the world", I have a quick reply. Having lived abroad for much of the past three years, I've noticed that what truly embarrasses our country is not Clinton and his behaviour, but rather our peculiar preoccupation with Clinton and his behaviour.
Bob Levey: I don't see how it embarrasses us in the rest of the world to expect the president to obey the law.
San Francisco, Calif.: Do you think Sam Dash's resignation has hurt Ken Starr's credibility?
Bob Levey: Not really. Starr's credibility was hurt far more when he held Monica in that hotel room without letting her call a lawyer or her mother.
Bob Levey: We'll be at it for another 23 minutes. Keep the questions and comments coming.
Temple Hills, Md.: How much are we going to spend to investigate the sex lives of each and every member of Congress who votes for impeachment of the president?
Bob Levey: Zero dollars and zero cents, I fervently hope.
Silver Spring, Md.: Here's the part I still don't get: For years we've been told how really, really smart Clinton is, how he's such a fast study with a steel trap for a mind. And yet, in reading the lead story in Style today- the one that repeats the President's emphatic statement about NOT having a sexual relationship with La Lewinsky, I am struck by how totally STUPID he was. Did he really think he could get away with this, that no one would notice or rat him out? Wow.
Bob Levey: I've often wondered about a guy who's this smart claiming dozens of times that he can't recall conversations or testimony even when he had gone through the details just a few days earlier and had testified that he DID remember. Simple explanation: He really DID think he could get away with it, and I suspect he still does.
Laurel, Md.: Why does everyone make a distinction between lying under oath in a civil trail vs. a criminal trial? Lying under oath is lying under oath. Isn't it?
Bob Levey: Yes, indeed, and the perjury statute applies in both "vineyards."
Dallas, Tex.: Any personal predictions (HJC, full House, Senate)?
Bob Levey: Committee impeaches because it has boxed itself out of any chance to do anything else. Full House impeaches because any Republican who votes against it will look as if he's condoning hallway sex. Senate takes up the case just to say it has, then dismisses it.
St. Louis, Mo.: The first witness this morning said that an act is impeachable only if "it destroys public confidence in the president." Since Clinton is popular, his acts didn't do it, hence no perjury. Do popularity polls raise and lower the bar for what is impeachable?
Bob Levey: In other words, polls run the country, and should, according to that witness. If that doesn't outrage you, nothing could. By the way, polls are mighty suspect. Have you ever wondered why 60-something percent of voters say that Clinton is doing a good job, but only 40-something percent voted for him?
Washington D.C.: The crime of perjury is always based on an underlying criminal or civil act. It seems most of the American public understands that the underlying act here IS sex and is IS NOT government-related acts. Why do you think the Republicans insist on dismissing this salient fact? Y2K prez politics? Nixonian revenge? Pique with Clinton's obstinacy?
Bob Levey: There are still oodles of Republicans who think they can win political advantage from this case. I think that ceased to be true about two seconds after the story broke.
In a ranking of the presidents, how low is Clinton going to be now compared to if the Lewinsky matter had never occurred?
Bob Levey: Even if Clinton survives, he will always be a National Snicker. Even if he passes Social Security reform and achieves something like peace in Iraq, he will be remembered for the cigar and the time he called that congressman while Monica was, ahem, taking care of him. Remove Lewinsky from the equation, and Clinton would be remembered pretty favorably, I imagine not as a legislative wizard (that was Lyndon Johnson) but as a president who rolled up his sleeves and did some good stuff.
Arlington, Va.: Do you really think that Connie Morella will vote in favor of impeachment?
Bob Levey: Yup, for the reason I just mentioned: She'd be afraid of the reaction if she didn't.
Washington, D.C.: Only in America can the president look you in the eyes, lie and then deny it. What leadership lessons can I teach my child from this lack of respect and dignity?
Bob Levey: If you figure it out, let me know. I don't know a single parent who isn't wrestling with this issue
Fairfax, Va.: Bob, you continually fault Clinton for "misleading" the public. I think we should point the fingers at the real culprits, The Lawyers. I think a lot of his tiptoeing was a result of too much lawyer input.
Bob Levey: Sure, there has been way too much strategizing, micromanaging and manipulating at the behest of lawyers. But it is Clinton himself who bought into their strategy. He could have tossed the lawyers and their advice right out the door. He could have said, "Guys, I appreciate your counsel, but this isn't about parsing and slicing and dicing. It's about the good of the country." He didn't do that, did he? By the way, I fault him for using the word "misled." That's a $10 synonym for "lied." Just tell it simply and straight.
Lakewood, Colo.: Clinton' s lawyer says this is a lame duck congress and any decision will not stand. Who decides which congress can legally vote for impeachment 105th or 106th? Can this whole matter just end up in some constitutional court, since there is no precedent for a lame duck congress impeaching a president?
Bob Levey: The constitutional court is the House (and later, the Senate, if it gets that far). It isn't clear whether the case has to be decided in this Congress. It's not even clear (to me, anyway) whether Clinton could appeal a finding that said the 105th had to make a decision.
Orlando, Fla.: Bob, how could the Republicans on the Judiciary Committee [have] handled this thing better? They've sure taken a lot of flak (deservedly so, IMHO) for their conduct of the "investigation."
Bob Levey: Hyde could have done a much, much better job of keeping the ship pointed straight ahead. What in the world was that business of looking into Clinton's campaign finances, and then backtracking two days later? A public relations disaster. The whole thing reflects the total lack of Republican leadership (why isn't Livingston directly involved?) and the age-old tension within that party (who runs the show right-wingers or middle-of-the-roaders?)
Silver Spring, Md.: Let me ask a follow up about something you said a moment ago, that you suspect that Clinton still thinks he's going to get away with this his trail of lies upon lies. Even if he escapes impeachment, won't history be a harsh judge? After all, this mess seems to prove what conservatives and Clinton-haters have been saying for years about "Slick Willie." Seems they were right all along, that he's a dissembler who really can't be trusted.
Bob Levey: It sure seems that way. Then again, Nixon was somewhat reborn (image-wise) after Watergate. Even Clinton got weepy at his funeral. So anything's possible in the legacy biz.
Everyone keeps blaming Clinton's lawyers, which leads me to ask why nobody seems to be mentioning that he himself is an attorney. Shouldn't he have known what he was doing, regardless of the input of others?
Bob Levey: Amen and a half! This is what's so disturbing about the whole business, when you get right down to it. This isn't some dumb yokel who's listening to lawyers who are vastly more sophisticated than he is. It's a graduate of Yale Law School, for heaven's sake!
Fairfax, Va.: You stated earlier that any official who has lied under oath should be forced to resign. What about Reagan and the arms scandal? What about Bush and taxes? It appears to me that this has been politically driven even though independent counsel was supposed to prevent that from occurring. How do you perceive this view?
Bob Levey: Neither Reagan nor Bush told their lies under oath. If they had, I'd feel the same way about them as I do about Clinton.
Washington, D.C.: To respond to Fairfax, I don't think all Democrats see this as an issue about sex. Nor do all Democrats like their man in office. But they tend to think that Clinton's virtues as an effective leader outweigh his trespasses. Care to comment on Hyde's comments during Iran-Contra that lying shouldn't always be viewed as unacceptable?
Bob Levey: Hyde sure looks like an egg-on-the-face idiot for that quote. It's all pretty easy: lying is lying. Either you did or you didn't.
Washington, D.C.: Is personal misconduct considered an act of "high crime"? Is lying about personal misconduct an impeachable offense? In pleading the fifth amendment, can one lie about personal misconduct, and is this still constituted as perjury? Is one a perjurer if one lies about personal misconduct in order to defend oneself?
Bob Levey: The whole problem is that no one is sure what an impeachable offense is or isn't. For example, Congress considered impeaching President Johnson because he said uncomplimentary things about Congress in a loud tone of voice! What it all comes down to is that impeachment is (and is expected to be) political.
Alexandria, Va.: You say that the president is supposed to be the moral leader off this country. Where does it say that, either in the Constitution or in his oath of office? He's just a politician, and, let's face it, most if not all politicians make pretty poor role models.[edited for space]
Bob Levey: That'll do very neatly as a bottom line. Politicians are indeed politicians. Ever more shall be so.
Bob Levey: That's it for today. Many thanks for being with us. Be sure to join us on Friday, from 1 to 2 p.m. Eastern time, for "Levey Live: Speaking Freely," our weekly anything-goes show. And be sure to join us next Tuesday, Dec. 15, when we'll take a look at college admissions how to get in, how to prepare for the SATs, how to keep parents in their chairs. Our guest will be Ben Baron, regional director of Kaplan Educational Centers.