TOPICS > Politics

Historical Perspective

December 21, 1998 at 12:00 AM EDT


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And for that overview we turn to NewsHour regulars Presidential Historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss and to Journalist and Author Haynes Johnson, and joining them tonight is former Senate Republican Leader Howard Baker, who also served as the ranking Republican on the Senate Watergate Committee in 1973.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Senator Baker, how do you come down on the question of whether censure is an option for the Senate?

HOWARD BAKER: Oh, I think censure is always an option, but I think the Senate is under an obligation to go forward with a trial, at least the beginnings of a trial. I think not to do that would be an affront to the House of Representatives, who has gone through agony and political distress in order to reach this point. So I think that at some point there’s a high likelihood that there will be consideration of censure. But I – you know – I think impeachment with the House of Representatives on these two articles is in and of itself the ultimate censure. He’s only the second president in the history of the country to be impeached by the House and the first elected president to be impeached. So we’ve already started across that threshold, and there may be other actions, as President Ford and President Clinton have suggested. But I agree with those who say that it should not occur until after the Senate has undertaken its constitutional obligation to commence this trial.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And commence the trial, or do you think the trial needs to go forward and there has to be evidence heard and all of that?

HOWARD BAKER: Well, I think that’s entirely up to the Senate. I have great confidence in the Senate and its ability to decide these things not only for its own purposes but also for the public good. And I think you’ve got strong leadership in the Senate on both sides of the aisle. The one thing I very much hope does not occur in the Senate is that you have the fierce, antagonistic partisanship that was so evident in the House of Representatives.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Doris Kearns Goodwin, in their op-ed piece today former Presidents Ford and Carter said they – they told the Senators to look to history, turn to history for help in deciding what comes next. When you look at history, what help does it give you?

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, it’s actually complicated. While I do believe that there is an option for censure because the Constitution doesn’t say that you can’t do it, when you look at the Andrew Jackson situation, what happened is that when he was censured by the Senate, it started in the Senate, finished in the Senate, nothing in the House, he argued that it was unconstitutional because he claimed that, in substance, the censure resolution really was an impeachment resolution but that his enemies knew they could not get a majority in the House or two thirds in the Senate, so they substituted this censure resolution instead, without giving him the right to a trial, a chief justice, the examination of witnesses, and it would last forever as a stigma on his reputation, on the history of his family, et cetera, et cetera. Now in this case what makes it different, obviously, is we’ve gone through the impeachment proceedings in the House, and the president maybe wants a censure, so it’s not as if we’re short-circuiting his rights. But it’s one of those cases where the Constitution only tells the Congress that it has its right to discipline its own members, and that’s where they’ve come up with censure, reprimand, and expulsion. There’s no mention of any kind of censure for the president. But the fact that the Constitution doesn’t say it can be done doesn’t mean it can’t. Many other things that we do today are grown out of a living Constitution. So I do think it represents a compromise; it may be a little tricky and murky, given the history of censure. But if the president is willing to talk it through with the Senate, I think it makes it very different than the Andrew Jackson situation.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So, Michael, do you think the conclusion is that to a very large degree, as Senator Byrd has said, we’re navigating in previously uncharted waters?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: We sure are. We’ve never had a situation which a president was impeached and then going into a Senate trial in which he was unlikely to have the votes to convict because in the Andrew Johnson case in 1868, Johnson went from impeachment in the House to a situation which it was expected that there would be two thirds of the vote to convict him, and that almost happened. I think the other thing is that as history looks at this, one test is going to be how much we see Senators either siding with the idea of censure or voting for or against the president on the basis not of party but their individual conscience. I think one thing that historians will say about what happened on Saturday is that the tragic element was that it took place so much along party lines. There’s no necessity that what divides the Republican and Democratic Parties in 1998 is their view on whether perjury or obstruction is impeachable or not. And you look through history at someone like Edmund Ross, who was the one who decided the acquittal of Andrew Johnson in the Senate, or someone like James Buckley in 1974, the first Republican conservative to come out for the removal of Richard Nixon, you’d love to see some instances like this in which people go against party lines and also go against the polls.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So do you think that’s what’s at stake here, Haynes? I mean, we just heard all the Senators talking about this. Do you think that how history views this impeachment process hangs on how the Senate handles this now?

HAYNES JOHNSON: Absolutely. It is now in their ballpark. They have the right to judge and try and convict or acquit. And this – as Michael says – we’ve not been here for except once – 130 years ago – and that was a president who wasn’t elected president and an extremely unpopular president at that. This is – you have the situation here a president who is soaring in the polls – even today – and has for 10 months – and what you saw just in the last few minutes – first with Jim – with the four Senators, the two Republicans, the two Democrats, our esteemed former Senator Howard Baker – is the voice of the Senate. This is what the Senate is supposed to do. It sits back. The old cliché about the Senate was designed to be the cup that cools the hot tea and the coffee – that’s what you’re seeing here. We’re talking about bipartisanship, about the need to be civil, about the political system being on trial, about the country being on trial. And I think that’s exactly where there’s a drawing back from what we’d seen – if any – if you had had four members of the two parties in the last months or weeks leading up to this – Republicans – it would have been strident and absolutely sharp lines drawn. You didn’t hear that in these last 15 minutes.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Senator Baker, do you agree that’s what at stake here really is how history does view this, if it can be done in a bipartisan way, history will look at this process one way, and, if not, history will look at it another way?

HOWARD BAKER: I think absolutely. I think what is at stake is nothing less than relevance of the impeachment provisions of the Constitution as it relates to a president. And I think the Senate, itself, will be judged on whether or not it can accommodate its divisions of opinion and different attitudes without becoming partisan, as they did in the House. I remember back in the Watergate days that fateful moment when Republicans had to decide – and they were in the minority then – had to decide whether to join their Democratic colleagues and go forward with the investigation to wherever it might lead us – to – involving a Republican president. And they did that. And I’ve always been proud of the fact that it was fully bipartisan in the Senate when we had hearings – the investigation there – and then in the House Judiciary Committee it was essentially a bipartisan undertaking. That is absent from the House proceedings – I’m confident will not be absent in the Senate. I think the Senate will take its responsibility seriously, and I fully expect that it will be non-partisan, bipartisan, and that the issue will be decided on its merits and on the basis of what’s best for the country.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Are you helping put a deal together, Senator?

HOWARD BAKER: No. I am not. Someone asked me the other day: Have you been called by the White House? And I said, no. They said, well, what would you do if you were called? I said, well, I would hope I wouldn’t be at home. (laughter among group)

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Doris, how would you describe what’s at stake here?

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, I think when people talk about the importance for it being bipartisan, what they really mean is that at the end of this process you’ve got to convince people – all right thinking people actually – that if you are going to convict the president, that what he has done is a grave assault on the constitutional system. So far, they’ve not persuaded a majority of the Democrats or the country at large that that’s what these actions represent. If he should be convicted, minus that kind of broad support and understanding on the part of the public, then I think what’s at stake a hundred years from now is people looking back on an illegitimate process, which really hurt the presidency and hurt our constitutional system. So unless the Senate, if it were to move forward to conviction, what they mean by the need to get that two thirds is the need to persuade and shape opinion in the Senate, which is not there now, not just because there aren’t enough Republicans, but it’s not there in the Senate, it’s no there in the country at large. If they can’t do that process, then it means that they’re not right to go forward. And, in fact, then a censure does become important. And it’s not just – compromise is a great thing. Our system was built on compromise. It’s not like it’s falling back away from conscience. So I think what’s at stake really is the way we look at the presidency and the Congress and the whole set of institutions. It’s as big as all of that.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Look forward, Michael. There are still several things left to happen. What are you looking at to help you decide? I know as an historian you can’t make a decision right now about how to look at this.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: We’ll come back in 60 years, Elizabeth.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Right. But tell me what you’re looking at that we haven’t talked about tonight that has yet to happen.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, one thing to remember is I’m joking about 60 years, but one thing about history is that political events usually look very different a half century later from the way that they did at the time. At the time that Andrew Johnson was impeached, most Americans who saw that happen felt that Johnson was a big law breaker; he deserved his fate; and that this was a fair process. In time we looked back on this and found that the law that he was accused of breaking – the tenure of office law – was actually declared unconstitutional in 1926. And, therefore, this was an effort to get Johnson out not because of what he had done but because at large group in Congress did not like his views on reconstruction. Nixon the opposite; we feel that Nixon deserved to go. So I think one thing we have to be modest about his to remember how different this will look later on. The other thing is if there’s a censure, it really does have to have some teeth. For instance, if there is simply a resolution that the president then tacitly explicitly rejects and says, well, I just don’t accept what has been said, it’s going to leave a bad taste, I think, in the mouths of the country because there will be a sense that this was not a case in which the president and the Senate agree that he had done certain things and apologized and then was ready to move forward. We’ve had a case in which this happened. Richard Nixon left office and accepted a pardon from Gerald Ford, never confessing to what he had done in Watergate and never apologizing. The last 20 years of his life Nixon went around the country making the point I was driven out of office by an unfair coup to reverse the election of 1972. It’s very important that that not happen this time.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Senator Baker, what do you think about that?

HOWARD BAKER: Well, I think that is true. I have one little slightly different view, though, of the legitimacy of the process. I really do believe that public opinion is controlling. After all, in the final analysis, public is sovereign and you can doubt the sovereign’s judgment but you can’t doubt their authority. But on the other hand, the Senate is elected; the Senate is constituted to bring to bear its best judgment on the facts presented to it, especially an impeachment case. So even though you may have high poll ratings and approval ratings, I don’t think that should at this point have a profound impact on what Senators finally decide ought to happen. It probably will – as a practical matter – but I think they should not assume that they are governing by poll and will not make that decision on the basis of a poll. Once again, I have such a high regard for the Senate and its leadership I think that’s an unlikely prospect, and I think that the constitutional system for impeachment is it involves a president, will be fully protected.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Oh, thank you all very much.