e-mail us


Not even bombs dull impeachment frenzy

By the time this issue reaches you, some mighty gust of wisdom may have overtaken the impeachment circus in Washington and brought with it an air of gravity and sobriety.

At press time, however, the pro-impeachment movement is in a feeding frenzy, and it appears there is no reasoning, no appeal to anything larger than partisan advantage, that will stop it.

Not even, at the last moment, would the latest re-enactment of George Bush’s ill-fated Desert Storm be enough to derail the impeachment train for more than a day or two. These days we name our wars before they even get underway -- Desert Storm, Desert Shield and now Desert Fox -- like the latest in a new product line.

Most of the huffing and puffing in Washington had to do with suspicion over the timing of the bombing raids on impeachment eve and two days before the start of Islam’s holy month of Ramadan.

Few if any were asking the tougher questions about who authorized this act of war, what it aims to accomplish and how long we intend to maintain the raids. Though the soldiers in the field would receive a vote of Congressional solidarity, this war otherwise did not inspire the usual nonpartisan displays of unity. The Republicans were not to be deterred from impeachment.

We find ourselves driven to the threshold of impeachment by a relentless and unfettered prosecutor and a president whose propensities for womanizing seem matched only by his ability to provide his enemies with increasing reasons to hate him.

But do we really want to cross that threshold?

The question drapes itself over every conversation, because beyond Capitol Hill there appears to be little conviction that this enormous investigative and prosecutorial enterprise should go much further.

Is there a principle at stake that should take no account of public opinion?

By the time the House convened to consider this most serious step, the arguments on each side had long been honed to sound bites:

-- Clinton lied under oath and tampered with witnesses, which is a direct assault on the country’s rule of law, and he should be impeached.

-- Clinton’s behavior was reprehensible and indefensible. But it was a private sexual matter involving two consenting adults, and he lied about it. His actions, though they are to be condemned, hardly constitute the serious matter required for impeachment.

Perhaps the lack of outrage in the country at large stems not from disinterest but from a sense of proportion that is brought to the issue by those far enough away to remain unaffected by the heat of Washington’s political furnace.

After all, Americans twice elected Bill Clinton. By the second time, anyone who voted for him knew they were voting for a world-class cad who had a long track record of surviving past sexual indiscretions.

Clinton is a liar and may even have perjured himself. Allow the courts of the land to deal with those issues.

In the end, however, he lied about sex in a case that was yanked, as an errant thread, from a swatch of seemingly unrelated patterns. Special prosecutor Kenneth Starr clearly stretched the limits of his mandate to tease out this thread. He conducted his dogged chase of a case that a panel of distinguished former prosecutors from both parties said would not stand much of a chance in a normal courtroom situation. The Republicans in Congress seem unable to resist tugging until the whole mess unravels.

As the case marched through the Judiciary Committee and went before the full House of Representatives, it clearly lacked an essential element: gravity. The posturing about huge principles was all out of proportion to what was actually going on and what charges were actually being considered. The ultimate aim of removing Clinton from office was way out of balance to the offenses committed.

The comparisons to Watergate were wearying. There is no comparison between what Clinton did and what Richard Nixon did in terms of abuse of power or threats to the Constitution.

Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), who came so highly recommended as a man who would bring to the Judiciary Committee proceedings a sense of fairness and the big picture, the seriousness that would give the hearings credibility, failed miserably.

His troops were out of control. His own call for Clinton’s resignation even before his committee had completed its deliberations and his appearance at a news conference where boxes of evidence served as a backdrop were grossly unprofessional and put the lie to any talk of fairness. He was clearly no Peter Rodino, the late Representative from New Jersey who scrupulously detached himself from any appearance of partisanship when he oversaw the Judiciary Committee proceedings during Watergate.

However, the most disturbing effect of all the Capitol Hill goings-on has been the cheapening of the very serious notion of impeachment.

For most Americans, the word once rang with the severity reserved for the most egregious abuses of power or betrayal of trust in office. In this case, the special prosecutors and politicians -- and the media, particularly the 24-hour treatment by electronic news outlets -- have trivialized not only impeachment, but the office of the president and the Constitution.

This Congress, regardless of what happens, has shown it is willing to use something as serious as impeachment as a common partisan tool to punish.

National Catholic Reporter, December 25, 1998