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Different Perspectives

December 14, 1998 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: Two months ago we presented a series of one-on-one conversations on the issues raised by the conduct and investigation of President Clinton in the Monica Lewinsky matter. And two of the participants – with very different views – are back now – together this time: Calvin Trillin, who’s an author and staff writer for the New Yorker and columnist for Time Magazine, and William F. Buckley, who is also an author and editor-at-large of National Review.

Bill Buckley, should the House vote articles of impeachment against the president?

WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY, Editor-at-Large, National Review: Positive.

JIM LEHRER: Why?

WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY: Why?

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY: Well, for the reasons enumerated. The fact of the matter is that he is proven guilty of disreputable behavior. His reasons for doing it are self-serving, legalistic, formalistic. The gravity of what he did is measured by the impact of it. The fact that you’re devoting the entire program to it and have on several occasions is an index of that gravity. And the wonderful resilience of the Constitution is that it provides for situations in which a miscast leader can be removed without upsetting anything. I remember The Economist pointed out that a great tribute to the Constitution was that when Nixon resigned from office, there were two policemen outside the White House. It is a tribute to that resilience, I think, that grown-ups should now face and do the right thing.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think grown-ups should do, Mr. Trillin?

CALVIN TRILLIN, Author: Well, if they’re in the Congress, I don’t think they should vote for impeachment. I would agree with a lot of what Bill Buckley said. The reason that I don’t think he should be impeached – and this will, I think, warm the cockles of Bill’s heart – is that I am a strict constructionist of the Constitution. And the Constitution says that impeachment is reserved for treason, bribery, and other high crimes and misdemeanors. If it weren’t for that “other,” I might find some argument in it. But – and if I hadn’t heard Professor Wilentz say that originally it said “other high crimes and misdemeanors against the United States,” it’s obviously put in there to remove a president from doing the job that he is not doing properly, and doing illegally, and this simply doesn’t rise to it. You don’t – I don’t think – I’m sure that the Framers did not say you can impeach for disreputable behavior; they didn’t say you can impeach somebody for dissing the House Judiciary Committee or for being insufficiently contrite or the maddening kid in a class who always seems to get away with anything. These things might be irritating, but I don’t think they’re impeachable constitutionally.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, go ahead.

WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY: I think it’s hard to say how the Framers – if they were confronted with the situation – would react. But it seems to me that a general sense of what was considered permissible in the company of these men would have made what Mr. Clinton did inconceivable.

He lied under oath. He asked the American people to please believe him when he said such and such a thing; it was incorrect. And he proceeded from that moment on manifestly to hope he would get away with it. If it hadn’t been for that dress, he would be right now pleading that he had never done anything. That suggests a lack of judgment. Here he was engaging in an act that would slow up his entire career and perhaps even abort it; it would become the talking point of the entire world; and notwithstanding that, he proceeded to do it. By the time that tip-off came, Lewinsky had told 11 people about it. Now a president who uses such bad judgment is a president we shouldn’t – in my judgment – continue to keep in charge of so – so important an office.

JIM LEHRER: Cal Trillin, why should we keep him?

CALVIN TRILLIN: I wouldn’t – I wouldn’t argue. I think it was worse than bad judgment; it was reckless behavior. But the Constitution doesn’t say to impeach him for reckless behavior. And I think there’s a reason for that, and it’s obvious; a lot of people have talked about it. It says in the Constitution you can only impeach him for some high crimes and misdemeanors specifically mentioned, because they think it ought to be hard because it reverses an election. I don’t think the people who voted for Bill Clinton thought they were voting for Woodrow Wilson. Most of this stuff was – was out, except for he hadn’t been caught. They voted for him twice. They voted again in the mid-term election in a way that everybody has interpreted as support. They consistently say they want him to stay in office — 66 or 70 percent of the people – that’s quite a few more people than actually voted for Bill Clinton. And I think reversing an election is – is a momentous thing and purposely I think the Constitution says it ought to be reserved for treason bribery, and other high crimes and misdemeanors.

WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY: Jim.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, sir.

WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY: It does not reverse the election. The election voted for him as president and for Al Gore as vice president. If he is impeached and convicted, Al Gore, the people’s choice, becomes president. When Nixon was chased out of office, who became president? Ford. Nobody ever voted for him, but nobody thought that by impeaching Nixon they were reversing the election of Nixon, who won – by the way – much more widely than Mr. Clinton did just 18 months before he was taken out of office. Sorry.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. I was just going to say let’s talk about the public opinion polls and how the public feels about this, because we spent the first part of the program on the polls – you all heard what the regional commentator say about this. Beginning with you, Bud Trillin, do you think that that should influence the members of the House of Representatives, what the public opinion polls think, or other measurements of public opinion say on this?

WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY: What does the Constitution say about that, Bud?

CALVIN TRILLIN: The Constitution is mute on that subject. I – no, I think that they should vote their conscience, of course. I can see – I can see times when the president’s behavior would be so egregious that he would be unable to rule, but then, of course, he wouldn’t have a 66 or 70 percent approval rating. I don’t think necessarily that the fact that the polls show this or the elections show this – everybody takes whatever he wants to from an election or a poll – I think they have a right to vote whatever they think; however, I don’t think that their vote really – and I think they’re going to vote whatever they think, no matter what it is.

JIM LEHRER: Would you feel differently, Mr. Trillin, and I guess what I’m saying – would you feel differently if the polls showed say 67 percent of the people wanted Clinton – President Clinton out of there – would you feel any differently about the argument about whether or not he should, in fact, be impeached?

CALVIN TRILLIN: I would feel that the argument that is so weakened – I mean – often the example of what if the president is a drunk, or what if the president is – is just – would be called in the South sorry – won’t come out to play – then should he be run out of office? I think the answer is still no. But there’s more of a case for it, I think, if people have totally lost confidence in them. And I merely think that this is a card that can’t be used here, because it’s obviously not true.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Buckley.

WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY: I think the American people aren’t enormously distracted by this. They have, as some of your guests have just pointed out, their own concerns. Those concerns tend to be comprehensive. But to suggest that because the people are laggard on something like this – a Judiciary Committee ought not to be impaneled, ought not to pursue the evidence, ought not to make its recommendations – is simply to fail to recognize that there’s often an obligation of leadership. The overwhelming majority of the American people were not in favor of liberating the slaves. They were certainly not in favor of going to war with Hitler – 81 percent opposed – they weren’t in favor of the Gulf War – but from time to time the duty has to be done, and the question is: How would the people react? I think this is absolutely predictable; that if he is, indeed, impeached next week, there will be nothing that suggests a harsh, negative reaction and people will accept it.

JIM LEHRER: Now on the acceptance issue – first of all – do you agree with that, Bud Trillin, that the people will accept it?

CALVIN TRILLIN: I don’t think that people are laggard, and, as you know, when I was on this program a few weeks ago, I identified – my wife and me as the American people since we’ve been precisely what the polls have shown from the start of this. I don’t think – I’ll ask my wife when I get home, but I don’t think we’ve been laggard. I think we understand what’s going on. 70 percent of the people think he did this – 60 percent think he did that. I think that they think – not surprisingly – since I’m the American people – just what I think – that yes, he did it, but it doesn’t rise to the level of impeachment. But I would agree with, Bill, that the congressman I don’t think should be attacked for voting what he thinks is right, no matter what the polls say.

JIM LEHRER: Bill Buckley, back to your acceptance point, if, in fact, this goes to the floor – I mean, we know it’s going to going to the floor – but let’s say that the House of Representatives on Thursday or Friday votes it out at least one article of impeachment – and it’s done by let’s say a three or four vote margin – and let’s say it overwhelmingly Republicans vote for it – and overwhelmingly Democrats vote against it. Will that affect the acceptance level by the American people if it’s straight party-line vote, as it was in the impeachment committee itself?

WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY: I think to a certain extent it will be. The closeness of a vote tends not to be remembered the day after. People remember who won an election, not by how – by the margin with which he voted. But I do think if the impeachment carries, a certain number of people are going to say there is a moment of gravity that the American people have to respond to and – to use my own phrase – if they are grown up about it, they won’t think it’s catastrophic. How many people – including Democrats – said this is unacceptable behavior? Well, if it’s unacceptable, how can we accept it, or is that language has to be revised in order to accommodate Mr. Clinton’s record?

JIM LEHRER: Where do you come down on the acceptance question, Bud, on this, whether or not if it remains a straight party issue, a straight party vote all the way to the end, all the way to the end of this week, I’m saying, do you think that’s going to be a problem?

CALVIN TRILLIN: Well, I think the Republicans are counting on the possibility that it won’t be a problem because of the passage of time. I mean, there have been stories in the paper today that they figure in two years people will – by the time the next election comes around people will have forgotten it. But it’s hard to lose the feeling that one party is running the president of another party out of office, or at least attempting to, or using this newly popular idea that Mr. Smaltz, the Espy special counsel has now propounded, that indictment, itself, was a good thing, because it sort of stiffens the backbone and keeps the other people from reaching into the cookie jar. If it doesn’t pass, they know it’s not going to pass in the Senate -I don’t think many people believe that – but I -

WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY: Mr. Clinton has done everything he could – tell me if I’m interrupting -

CALVIN TRILLIN: No, that’s all right.

WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY: –done everything in the world he could to keep that impeachment being recorded. He doesn’t mind censure; he will accept a half dozen censures; but if he feels that strongly about it, he must feel that the impact of it, whether moral, historical, or even academic, is something that he simply doesn’t want to happen. That’s why people are struggling so much against that impeachment being carried.

CALVIN TRILLIN: Oh, I don’t think he wants it to happen, because it – you know – he’ll be the second president impeached and all that. I can’t imagine anybody in his position would want it to happen, and if it – if it sort of rebounds on the Republicans in the year 2000, it’s not really going to mean much to him. I can’t imagine – you know – he would want it to happen. But I don’t think that means it’s a good thing – the fact that he doesn’t want it to happen.

JIM LEHRER: Bill Buckley, the polls here again – the polls show that an overwhelming majority of the American people want the president to be censured, rather than impeached. How do you feel about censure as an alternative?

WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY: Well, I listen to people who say that it’s extra-constitutional – it may not be unconstitutional – but the New York Times, for instance, wants it – a lot of people want it who don’t believe that they are – that this is an unconstitutional aberration. There is the question: Is it a bill of attainder? Is the pressure for censure backed by a huge fine, a form of pressure, without – without process? The reason people would settle for censure is they want some evidence that they agree that what he did was wrong. But they’re stopping short of impeachment. It’s stopped short – in my judgment – of the process designated by the Constitution – where you go – but if somebody has incapacitated himself morally by his – morally and actually by his – by his offenses – which include, of course, perjury and the abuse of office.

JIM LEHRER: Bud Trillin, do you have a censure opinion?

CALVIN TRILLIN: Well, I’m obviously a constitutional lawyer. I heard on television the other day that – of the ones asked, something like twelve to four they thought it was constitutional, and some of the others weren’t sure. I think if they coupled it with a fine – if they’d have a bill of attainder presumably – I can imagine that since they’ve censured so many other people – I can’t imagine that they can’t do it. Who’s going to object to it, if he’s agreed to it. So, yes, they could do it, and I suppose that people are looking – I think some people on both sides are looking for a way out but I think that the Republican leadership is now somewhat in the position of those people in drawing room comedies who burst through the door and say something and are going to do it no matter what.

WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY: And what if he didn’t – what does that have to do with people saying he would agree to censure?

CALVIN TRILLIN: Yes. I don’t think it makes -

WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY: You don’t have to require an acquiescent presidency.

CALVIN TRILLIN: I absolutely agree that it doesn’t make any difference if he agrees to it. The only point about his agreeing to it is that if he agrees to it, presumably, he wouldn’t be challenging it in court and saying that they can’t do it.

WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY: You can’t challenge it in court, the censure motion, can you?

JIM LEHRER: Let me ask you both. Both of you have been around a while, trained observers, writers, et cetera. Do you feel a moment of gravity in our country at this moment, Bill Buckley?

WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY: Well, yes, I do. I do, because the easy thing to do is to do nothing, and when one opts for the easy thing to do when face to face with a challenge of this kind, it seems to me on the emaciating experience, it seems to me to turn back on the right thing to do, that is a debilitating national inclination.

JIM LEHRER: A sense of gravity, Bud Trillin?

CALVIN TRILLIN: I think if it’s possible, it’s almost anti-gravity. I mean, it’s such a bizarre case, and anything that only happens twice in 200 years carries a certain gravitas, but if the second time the question before the justice – the chief justice of the Supreme Court – in the Senate as a hundred silent senators sit there is – did he touch her breast, or didn’t he touch her breast – that it has to be sort of -

WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY: Come on. You’re making fun of it. The question did he touch her breast or not touch her breast is a kind of legalism to which the defenders – the White House defenders of this – have let themselves go – it’s -

CALVIN TRILLIN: Yes. All I’m saying is that what’s would have to be dealt with. I don’t think that the Framers thought of that as what we would be talking about on the second time that the impeachment of president reached the Senate.

WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY: What did they think about the Warren Jenkins era?

CALVIN TRILLIN: I don’t think they had any thoughts of the Warren Jenkins era, Bill.

JIM LEHRER: Bud Trillin, Bill Buckley, thank you both very much.