TOPICS > Politics

A Historical Look at the Impeachment Vote

February 15, 1999 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Now, our second impeachment discussion tonight, and to Margaret Warner.

MARGARET WARNER: Some historical perspective now on the potential legacy of this impeachment from NewsHour regulars: Presidential historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss, and journalist and author Haynes Johnson. Joining them tonight is Joan Hoff, director of the Contemporary History Institute at Ohio University.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Haynes, let’s take Susana Cordova’s challenge there. What — she asked, she wondered, she’s an elementary school principal we should explain. And she wondered what a high school history text, which would sum this whole episode up in two paragraphs would say. Let’s say you’re writing that now for a history textbook in 40 or 50 years.

HAYNES JOHNSON: You’re asking historians to write in two-paragraph forms in the age in which everything is verbose?

MARGARET WARNER: Two brief paragraphs.

HAYNES JOHNSON: Well, I would think something like this, you can’t do it of course, possibly, but I would say something like William Jefferson Clinton, the x number president of the United States, 47, 48, whatever he is, became first elected President of the United States to be impeached, tried, and then acquitted by the senate after a scandal exposed his adulterous affair with a White House intern. You’d have to put her name in, Monica Lewinsky. So she makes the history books. The strong public support the president received during that episode highlighted the contrast between the way people viewed their political institutions in Washington and raised questions about what are the proper lines in the age of television and instant communications between public acts and private conduct.


MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I think Haynes said it very well. I don’t know if you can add any more sentences, but I think a couple you might add would be this: That the episode left an impact on the presidency. Yes, the system did work and the congress was able to judge the charges against Bill Clinton, but I think a future historian would say that just like the fact that the system worked with Richard Nixon in Watergate in 1974, the presidency was never the same afterwards. After 1974, schoolchildren had the assumption oftentimes that presidents did not tell the truth, that they got involved in crimes. I think that will be even more the case nowadays. And I think even more so — when you see this in polls over the last weekend — especially younger people are going to think that Washington is sort of a tragic comedy with everyone sort of doing things that are almost like a bleak carnival that has very little impact on their lives and that is lethal to a democracy.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you agree, Doris, that — well, I won’t put words in Michael’s mouth. You heard him. How would you, if you were writing this couple paragraphs, explain this whole episode?

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, I think in some ways I would start with the sadness that the idea that a political culture as ours, which prides itself on compromise, was somehow unable at so many points along the way to stop a speeding train that was set in motion by first the acts of the president himself, who, through a combination of superior immense charm and grave moral weaknesses instigated the scandal that did, indeed, set that train in motion — but once it was, there it seemed impossible for an entire generation of politicians in the House and in the senate and the White House to figure out a compromise solution before it came to the trial.

A legal trial represents the failure of the political system in so many ways, not the success of it. And when you think about the number of moments when it could have been different, when maybe censure might have been possible, when impeachment didn’t have to happen, when President Clinton could have taken responsibility earlier, I think people will have to ask themselves in this two paragraphs — what was it about the political culture of this time that made it so impossible? Was it a poisoned atmosphere, was it the character of Bill Clinton, was it the power and passion of that conservative group of Republicans, was it the spin mechanism that we’re all part of? Was it the loss of authenticity of words, was it the inability of people to work together? But it left an even more damaged political culture that needs lots of repairing?

MARGARET WARNER: Joan, how would you write this?

JOAN HOFF: Well, I think I’d start with the same first paragraph where you quickly dismiss the idea that we had a president who was impeached but acquitted and you give in euphemistic terms the reasons for that, the sexual affair but in very written, euphemistic terms. And then I’d like the second paragraph to be a bit longer and to combine a few of the things we’ve heard here.

I think we should really look at the constitutional process and in the first paragraph we say it worked. What’s making people feel dissatisfied, as the people in Denver I think were, was the idea that the political system isn’t quite working. And Doris touched on that. And I think what’s wrong is that since the end of the 60’s, we had up until that time a kind of bipartisan consensus on domestic and foreign policy. It broke at the ends of the 60’s. And the parties have been fighting for political realignment so that one party would be more dominant than the other. And they’ve seesawed back and forth.

And what the 90’s really reflects is we haven’t been able to come up with that realignment. And part of the problem is that as we’ve moved from the 60’s, that whole participatory idealistic democracy of the 60’s has been kind of perverted into single-issue politics, identity politics, fragmented, largely because the politicians have failed to come up with significant campaign reform.

So I think that second paragraph should say to people, the parties were fighting for alignment and in 50 years we’ll know who won. We don’t know. And at this time in our history, the 90’s look like the 20’s or look like the 50’s. They’re complacent because of the victorious wars we’ve fought and the prosperity. And they’re not fighting over ideology or issues, but they’re fighting over petty personalities. And that’s a part of this realignment process.

And I would hope the textbook would explain that and then be able to say how the realignment turned out. The final sentence would probably be and you can’t impeach a popular president when you’re governing through poll-driven forms of government.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. I want to pick up on different threads, but Haynes, let me ask you about the sort of related theme from Doris and Joan and what this said about our political culture. What would you add to that?

HAYNES JOHNSON: Well, let me say first of all just listening to my friends and colleagues here, you could never do this in two paragraphs.


HAYNES JOHNSON: And you can see each one, I could see paragraph five, paragraph six, long paragraphs and so forth.

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: It’s writing by committee.

HAYNES JOHNSON: But in terms, seriously, in terms of this has a long-term impact, I think, on the way people believe and the trust or lack of trust publicly toward their institutions, toward the political system, toward congress, toward the presidency, as Michael said, and the rest. And it exposes the difficulty to work together at a time when there’s no great overriding issue at the moment, happily no crisis, no war, at peace, no cold war, no communism to put a thread to force united attitudes toward a common purpose. And so you are sort of adrift. But it’s more than that. I think the really disastrous cynicism that has — you say lethal to a democracy, Michael, that’s what I’m afraid this may lead to more, just distrust. We’re voting at the less — less than ever in our history on a rate election by election by election. Unless you think that it doesn’t matter, which now people say it doesn’t matter what happens in Washington or the presidency or the congress, of course it matters who’s in charge, who writes the laws, who commissions the army, who sends us into combat, who polices our environment and so forth. So it does matter, but there is a view that maybe it doesn’t. It’s irrelevant and it doesn’t work.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you agree, Michael, that this will — that this episode in and of itself will exacerbate or intensify this trend? I mean, we’ve been on this trend for a while in terms of public cynicism and disconnect and so on.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I think we’ve seen that trend go into fast forward over the last 13 months. And the problem is that in a system like ourselves ours when you’ve got people without much trust in their leaders or in their institutions, what that means is that you have to have individual human beings who have got these wonderful skills that can overcome these problems and take a look at the way we elect presidents or nominate them. Someone goes into a New Hampshire primary, has to raise tense of millions of dollars, appears on television, and people make a choice probably next year in about 30 days whether that’s the way to find someone who’s going to be able, for instance to, deal with congress in an atmosphere of cynicism like this, or someone who’s going to be able to persuade Americans to make a sacrifice in the case of a war or an economic crisis. I don’t think that’s the best way of doing that. And I think we’re in for some pretty bleak times.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Now, Joan, follow up on the theme that Michael introduced about the impact this would have on the presidency. There’s been a lot written about whether this would lead to sort of a series of weakened presidents, as we had after say Andrew Johnson’s impeachment. What’s your view on that?

JOAN HOFF: I think it will be like after Watergate. You’re going to a congress that will try to assert itself perhaps for the next couple years, probably not beyond the year 2000. And an impeachment process doesn’t really affect the power of the office of the presidency at all, because once the person who has been in this case — impeached and then acquitted — leaves office, the power remains there and the dignity will return to it once Clinton no longer occupies the Oval Office.

But the thing about the legacy, the impact is that in the year 2000, your going to have, I think, not impeachment talked about, because in the 1976 election you didn’t have impeachment talked about. What you had talked about was morality and whether private lives should be scrutinized. And I think it will be a subtone in the 2,000 election. We’ve heard about and I think Haynes touched on this. But fewer and fewer people are voting. And yet we’ve heard if he had not been acquitted, we would have overturned two elections. Well, with fewer people voting, we’ve really not had a referendum on Clinton. I think the year 2000 will be the referendum because it will give — if Gore wins, it will give Clinton a third term just as it gave Reagan a third term when Bush won. So their office remains with its power and the dignity will return once he leaves office.

MARGARET WARNER: Doris, what’s your view of that, about the presidency being affected versus President Clinton and his legacy?

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: I’m with Joan on this. I don’t think the office itself necessarily because of the impeachment will be weakened over the next decades. I think the desire on the part of the public to have a president that they respect is still strong. In fact, in some ways it was their love for the presidency that saved Bill Clinton. It was more their love for the institution than their love for the man that kept that support going, not wanting their president to be removed but by what they saw as an illegitimate process.

I think the problem, however, is what Michael suggested earlier, which is that we have an electoral system now that is not necessarily designed to bring out the kind of candidates that are going to give us that dignity, that respect, that internal strength again, because we put them through such crazy hurdles, having to raise all that money, go out before the primary, oftentimes speak in poll-driven language.

And whatever those internal qualities are, either no longer in these characters are the kind of people that have them are unwilling to stand, given what intrusion in their private lives may go forward. So, we’re at a juncture right now where I don’t think that the institution itself has been weakened. It’s only going to depend on what happens as time goes by. But we have to figure out some way of fixing the system itself so that the kind of people who can restore that dignity — look, when Franklin Roosevelt became president, it looked like the institution of the presidency had been incredibly weakened under Herbert Hoover. He couldn’t deal with the depression. And suddenly a new character is in there, new events, new powers of the presidency are shown.

Similarly in the end of 50’s, a silent generation, you had John Kennedy, civil rights, and Lyndon Johnson bringing back those powers of the presidency. The office itself is so dependent on the personality that if the right kind of person gets in there and the citizens can get active again and start caring again it can come back together, but I guess I always look for the silver lining in all this. And this one is harder to find.

MARGARET WARNER: We have very little time. Quickly, do you think this impeachment will make that more or less likely that we’ll get people like that running?

HAYNES JOHNSON: We’re going to have a wave of reform. Everybody will be clean as the driven snow in the next election. They’re all going to run on ethics and morality. And I hope we’ll have some good people in there. But I’m not sure.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I think we Americans are going to get a little built more profound about the impact of private lives on public leadership. And I think one happy silver lining — just as Doris is saying –could be that we’re a little bit more sophisticated about those things.

JOAN HOFF: And I think the politicians are, even if they have a tainted background, they’re not going to lie about it. As long as they’re not hypocritical about it, I think they can own up to it and we can get good people in office. But they have to own up to it.

MARGARET WARNER: Doris, last brief word on that.

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: I think the genie may have been put back in the bottle so that we won’t just intrude on people’s private lives unless it’s relevant to their leadership. And if that comes out of that, that’s a really important thing.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, I think this is amazing; we’ve had a discussion about impeachment that’s ended up with a big silver lining. Thank you all four very much.

HAYNES JOHNSON: Dreamy romantics.