TOPICS > Politics

Historical Perspective on the Impeachment Process

January 29, 1999 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Some additional perspective on partisanship now, and to Margaret Warner.

MARGARET WARNER: For an overview on how the partisanship of this impeachment stacks up historically, we turn to four historians: Robert Dallek, professor of history at Boston University and author of “Hail to the Chief: The Making and Unmaking of American Presidents”; Joan Hoff, director of the Contemporary History Institute at Ohio University; Buck Melton, a constitutional historian at the University of North Carolina and author of “The First Impeachment”; and NewsHour regular and presidential historian Michael Beschloss. Buck Melton, should we be surprised when you look at past big decision moments in the congress, should we be surprised at the level of partisanship in this one?

BUCK MELTON: I actually don’t think we should be surprised at all. Of course most of us have lived through Watergate, and we’ve been drawing on the Watergate experience to explain and understand what’s been going on these last several months. But what we forget is that we had a lot of — or very little partisanship in Watergate. We had a lot of partisanship in the other two great national impeachments of our history, the impeachment of Justice Samuel chase and of course the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson. In that regard, this highly partisan impeachment is much more par for the course than was Watergate.

MARGARET WARNER: Par for the course, Joan Hoff?

JOAN HOFF: It definitely is. And I would even throw in that the Nixon impeachment procedure was highly partisan, as well. Our country’s history has been highly partisan, and I think we tend to forget that maybe from Kennedy forward, when a few presidents like Kennedy and even Johnson up until Vietnam, more or less got a free ride from the public, or in essence, we were told we should be bipartisan on foreign policy. Reagan was popular, and consequently, I think the American people have forgotten how partisan our early history was. Anti-federalists and federalists used to walk across the street and not speak to one another – to avoid speaking to one another. So partisanship is there and impeachments are about political – they’re virtual political assassinations and we’ve just forgot that. And so consequently, all this talk about how everyone was going to be non-partisan was futile from the beginning. The process itself is partisan.

MARGARET WARNER: You’re nodding your he had, Bob Dallek.


MARGARET WARNER: Partisanship is in our blood.

ROBERT DALLEK: Well, it’s not only in our blood, but this fight that’s going on now is part of a culture war. See, I think this goes back to the 1960’s. The Republicans are furious at Bill Clinton, the conservatives at least, and this doesn’t have much to do with his policies because he’s very much on the same page as they are. What I think they’re angry at is that he smoked pot, he did what he did in the White House with Monica Lewinsky, he thumbs his nose at traditional cultural values, and I think this is a big part of what’s going on in this impeachment struggle.

MARGARET WARNER: But now the Framers, Michael, distrusted partisanship. They didn’t at first even want to have political parties, did they?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: No. That’s exactly right. Parties are not mentioned in the Constitution and the Framers were worried about factions. And the other thing is that they — I think I disagree a little bit. They were very concerned that throughout history members of congress on great issues would not merely follow the party line. And take a look at the big decisions in this century, for instance, 1939 and 1940 on whether we should get involved in the war in Europe and later on in Asia. It wasn’t it wasn’t a party-line vote. There were people who were isolationists and interventionists on both sides of the aisle. The same thing was true in civil rights in 1964. Republicans and Democrats were in favor of that bill and those that followed. The same thing was true on the War in Vietnam. It’s hard to say that the Republicans or the Democrats were particularly the pro war in Vietnam party. So I think one of the big tests for history is when you look at something like this, was this a case in which members of the House and Senate were able to rise above merely what party affiliation they had and consider the question on its merits? And on this, I think the impeachment of Bill Clinton will have a very tough time before the bar of history because, in order to justify the way that the members of the House voted and the members of the Senate seem about to vote, you’d have to say that the Democrats are the perjury and obstruction is not impeachable party, and the Republicans on the other side. I don’t think anyone would say that.

ROBERT DALLEK: But Michael, don’t you think that Joan’s point is a very good one, that an impeachment is a political assassination? And if you’re going to take a president down, drive him from office, that party is going to fight like mad to beat that back and I think it’s inevitable. An impeachment crisis will produce a kind of fierce partisan politics that the founding fathers understood when they made the bar so high to convict a president in the senate, requiring two-thirds vote.

JOAN HOFF: And impeachment is different from the other issues I think you mentioned, Michael. In other words, it isn’t civil rights, it isn’t a foreign policy issue. And there – and on impeachment, the parties just fight each other to the death. And I think what bothers me about this particular impeachment hearing and procedure is that I do think this one is resulting in a dumbing down of the standards for impeachment. That didn’t happen, I don’t think, with the earlier justices, nor did it happen with Johnson, nor did it happen with Nixon. But now we’ve got a standard that no president could ever not meet to stay in office, it seems to me. Both parties have dumbed it down to where I don’t think you’re going to ever be able to impeach especially a popular president at all.

MARGARET WARNER: Buck Melton, do you agree with the — there’s the view at this table, and I’m sorry you’re not here at the table with us — that impeachment is not like other big moments of congressional decision-making and is naturally more partisan?

BUCK MELTON: I think we’d like it to be different from these other things. There’s something about the idea of law that makes us think people should rise above politics. But we do know that judges on the benches of the regular courts do make policy-based decisions or even openly political decisions on occasion. We would like to see that degree of non-partisanship in the senate that we like to attribute to the federal judiciary, but politics is part of the process, whether or not we like it. The trick is to try to keep politics beaten down and have some element of due process or order in the impeachment process. We’ve gotten some of it, but the partisanship just grows the further we get into it.

MARGARET WARNER: So, in other words, you’re saying you think that the public and all of us have an expectation, because it’s quasi legal that it should be less partisan, when in fact it ends up being usually more partisan than most congressional decisions?

BUCK MELTON: Exactly; as we get into it and we see the partisanship explode, we are very disappointed that that has happened. And I think that’s what we’re seeing happen here. We saw the great bipartisan consensus meeting in the historical senate chamber, and everyone felt good about himself and herself, and we’ve gone downhill from there and that’s what caused all this disappointment.

MARGARET WARNER: Now Michael, meanwhile, though, the public is, in terms of at least their party, their sense of party affiliation is less partisan now than almost anytime in the last 50 years. I mean, is that part of — do you think that’s part of the reason that the public is telling pollsters they don’t like what they’re seeing because they see it as so partisan?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: That’s part of it. And that’s one thing that I think has estranged them a lot from what they see in Washington because they feel that members on both sides are operating almost like robots. But one thing I think is very important, and that is, as we look back on something like an impeachment, yes, it is a political assassination, and yes, people do fight to the death, but not always. One reason why we think very well of what happened with Richard Nixon was that Republicans who had fought alongside Richard Nixon for years, once they were confronted with evidence that Nixon had committed crimes that, in their mind, went way beyond the threshold of what was impeachable, they we willing not only to administer the death sentence to Nixon, whom they loved, but also in many cases administer the death sentence to themselves because many of them were looking into their open graves, many of them that fall, in the fall of 1974, lost re-election.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think, Bob Dallek, that Congress, itself, though, is more partisan today than it used to be? I’m of a column that Dale Bumpers, the senator from Arkansas just wrote, about how different it was even than when he came in the 70’s. He said, “Now every vote we take has a partisan bent to it. There’s just very little comity across partisan lines.”

ROBERT DALLEK: Well, Margaret, there have been episodes in the country’s history where it’s been as intensely partisan — that 80th Congress that Harry Truman struggled against — that do-nothing, good-for-nothing Congress that Truman beat up on so effectively in the 1941 election. So it comes and it goes. This period is, I think, is an intensely partisan one, and there’s a striking irony I think that historians are going to see about this Clinton presidency, namely the fact that here is this man who is such an extraordinarily adept politician — that State-of-the-Union speech he gave was a wonderful example of it — and yet he presides over one of the most partisan periods in modern American political history. So there’s a striking contradiction. He doesn’t control it, and yet he works so hard to reach accommodations and to be a centrist. Last point: I think the public is so put off by this because they don’t like radicalism. They don’t like extremism. They’re in the center.

MARGARET WARNER: Of either side?

ROBERT DALLEK: Of either side. And they want a centrist solution to this. So the public, I think, conveys a kind of wisdom that the congress doesn’t demonstrate to us.

JOAN HOFF: I think though also what the public is conveying in terms of these polls, which really it is keeping — the polls are keeping him in office at this stage of the game — but he is governing by polls, so how are we to take these polls if we look behind them? He’s literally creating that popularity by governing through polls and focus groups. So should we be taking so seriously his high popularity rates since that’s how Clinton governs? Impeachment is becoming, as I said, less likely as long as you have a popular president who can manipulate public opinion by giving the people or telling the people what they want to hear.

MARGARET WARNER: But just going back to the partisanship issue, though, do you agree that we are in a particularly partisan time and if so — at least here in Washington — and if so, why?

BUCK MELTON: Yes, I think we’re very clearly in a very partisan time, and it may be traceable back directly to the era of Vietnam and Watergate, a lot of historians speak of a thing called the liberal consensus as existing from the end of World War II down to say the beginning of Vietnam, a fundamental agreement between the two parties on most major issues. And Vietnam and Watergate together served to polarize the two parties and throw the pendulum swings farther and farther apart with every passing cycle. And in that sense, this can be seen as a sequel to Watergate or perhaps even as a retribution to Watergate, that this may not be the last one if you take that view. We may see further impeachments within with the next generation or so.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: But the problem, you know, is that partisanship in this case is over one man. Oddly enough, Bill Clinton — oddly enough, on foreign policy, there isn’t much difference between the two parties these days, and if a Republican president came in in two years, you probably wouldn’t see him managing the economy very differently. The sad thing is that all this ugliness is over one human being rather than some great issue like slavery or intervention or civil rights.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. I’m sorry, all four — I’m sorry to say we have to leave it there, but thank you very much, all four of you.