September 10, 1998
Jim Lehrer discusses the country's ability to go through a trauma, such as an impachment process, with 3 presidential historians and a history professor.
JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight some overview thoughts from three newsier regulars: Presidential Historians Doris Kearny Goodwin and Michael Beschloss and Journalist/Author Haynes Johnson, joined tonight by Seymour Martin Lipset, professor at George Mason University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Michael, what does history tell us about our country's ability to go through a trauma, such as an impeachment process like this?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: History is pretty reassuring, Jim, I'm happy to say. You know, the thing that the founders worried about when they began to think about this device of impeachment to remove a president, they didn't want this to become a way that members of the House and Senate could simply remove a president that they didn't like for partisan reasons. They wanted this to be something that was on the basis of the evidence and really above partisanship. If you look at the case of Andrew Johnson, 1868, in his Senate trial the people who saved him were the radical Republicans who opposed him politically. Richard Nixon in August of 1974 - the reason why he seemed headed to impeachment and conviction was that Republicans who had supported him, like Hugh Scott, the Senate Republican leader, and John Rhodes, the House Republican leader, Barry Goldwater, the 1964 Republican nominee, they were the ones who went to Nixon and said we're going to oppose you in a Senate trial or in a House impeachment vote, and we think you should resign in order to avoid that fate. So the result is that in history these things have tended to be rather bipartisan, or at least above partisanship, and usually based on the evidence. We haven't had a situation which the fabric of our society was shredded. That's what the founders worried about.
JIM LEHRER: Professor Lipset, does this look, this particular process is about to begin or has begun - who knows where it may end with President Clinton - does it have the right bipartisan or non-partisan taint thus far?
SEYMOUR MARTIN LIPSET, George Mason University: So far it does, and I think we owe a lot to Senator Lieberman, who is a person who has reputation of being beyond reproach, who's very religious, but even more who is politically close to the President. And he's the chairman of the Democratic Leadership Counsel, where Clinton was, worked with him. He supported him. He's a friend of his, and then some of the others have come out critical of the President who were never that close to him. So I think it's true.
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with Michael that just as a matter of principle, it isn't going to work if it is perceived as a partisan effort, no matter what?
SEYMOUR MARTIN LIPSET: No. I completely agree. The country would be split apart if it was a partisan effort, if it was all the Democrats voting against impeachment and all the Republicans voting for conviction, that would really tear the country apart, and the Republicans - you know, in the previous things they were looking - as they are now - for Democratic support in the Democratic agreement.
JIM LEHRER: But, Doris, refresh our memories on Watergate. My memory says that when the first charges came against Richard Nixon, the Democrats said we're very much opposed to Nixon and the Republicans were opposing him. But it took a while for things to change, did it not?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN, Presidential Historian: I think that's exactly right. I think what happened is as the process unfolded and as the nature of the charges became clearer and more defined as that vague term "high crimes and misdemeanors" became translated into abuse of power, the misuse of the Secret Service, the misuse of the FBI, then it became a more bipartisan function. And you had certain Republicans who were willing to go along to vote on the Judiciary Committee to the full House floor the articles of impeachment. The same thing happened in the Andrew Johnson thing, whereas it turned out all right in the end, as Michael said, at the beginning that one really started as a partisan struggle. There was such anger on the part of the radical Republicans toward Andrew Johnson for not following their reconstruction program in the South. It was over big, important issues, and Andrew Johnson had responded somewhat defiantly. He called these radical Republicans reptiles. He called them traitors. He said they should be hung, and they got so angry that they used really a fig leaf - the Tenure of Office Act that they had passed, which later turned out to be unconstitutional, when he removed Secretary Stanton from office against that Act, they used that as the article of impeachment, along with the argument that he has somehow undermined the dignity of the Congress and held it in contempt, and it really was the political argument against him. But in the end, as Michael suggested, when it got to the conviction process in the Senate, the seven radical Republicans did go along and say no, this is not worthy of impeachment. And they saved the day and historians give them great credit, even though they never won re-election again.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Well, Haynes, today - we just ran it in our News Summary a while ago - Sen. Daschle, the minority leader of the Senate, says this process was off to an unfair start against the President because it wouldn't let him participate, it wouldn't let him have a statement - or the report before it was made public. Does that - is that a harbinger of anything?
HAYNES JOHNSON, Journalist/Author: I'm afraid that I disagree a little bit with - it's certainly true about Sen. Lieberman. He set a standard for the Democrats - of bipartisanship in this case - and there certainly was partisanship in the Nixon case. But I think there's a very different - this begins a process under deeply bitter partisan bickering. For four years now we've gone through this process, and I think you've seen already and you're going to see in the House Judiciary Committee is deeply divided on partisan lines, much more than the House Judiciary Committee was in 1974, for instance, when Chairman Rodino was in charge of that committee, so there's going to be a much more difficult process. And, furthermore, I think what's happening now - it's played out against this - we can't talk this lurid backdrop - the noise - the backdrop of eight months. You know, we know everything almost exactly about this story that we knew the first night you interviewed him, we met with him here, eight months ago - almost literally eight months ago - except that we now say - the President has said, yes, it's true, rather than not being true, and we've had this constant sort of roiling and running. That didn't happen in Watergate, where there was a sort of solemnity of the Watergate process. People - maybe it was because it was the first time since 1868 that we had an impeachment process, the second time in our history. Now it's the second time in a generation. But I think the political climate is much more difficult today. That's across the board. So it's going to be trickier to achieve this clear bipartisanship. It won't work. You're absolutely correct. It takes 2/3 of the Senate to convict, for instance, so you can just see the differences that are looming here.
JIM LEHRER: Margaret, Michael talked earlier to the law professors about the public's role in this, public opinion. How would you measure its importance in this particular case?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, you know, they always say the justices of the Supreme Court read the election returns, and I think you can say that even more so, particularly of the senators, who would have to vote in a Senate trial. And this was the genius of the founders, because they had balanced this impeachment and removal device halfway between the legal process and halfway from the other end - the political process. They intended that these people weigh the evidence in a legal way but also be sensitive to the political currents in the country.
JIM LEHRER: So, but Professor Lipset, does that mean the members of the House Judiciary Committee are going to look at the polls every day, members of the House and members of the Senate, if it goes that long?
SEYMOUR MARTIN LIPSET: You know, if you look at the whole pattern, with respect to President Clinton, he's been, in a sense, saved by the polls. The polls, you know, have all along said - at least close to 2/3 of the populations and all the polls have sort of agreed on this - approve of his record, what he's doing as President. And a lot of other questions - his character they don't agree with, and all sorts of things, so that this kept them going. Now, one of the things I think that contributed to that is the economy. The economy was doing so fantastically well, I think this is what many people are answering, when they said they approved the President. And I think one of the dangers that faces them now is that the current economic malaise or stock market crash, if we really go into something that looks like a deep economic crisis, I think that will hurt him, you know, independently of what's been going on in the testimony. The public - I would say that it's the American people who will make the decision about what impeachment and the like - because if the people turn against him and the polls say this, the Congress will turn against him. If the people continue to say he's doing a good job as President, then I think you will see a lot of people, particularly of Democrats, staying with him?
JIM LEHRER: And, Doris, is that the way it ought to be?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, I think there's one role the public might play that we haven't mentioned, which is I think their reluctance to have an impeachment process going forward is what they've been saying for months and months, not just that they like him but that they know how disruptive it is, and, in fact, the more the economic situation seems parallel, the more they might say we want to just stay the course with the leadership we have, rather than the unknown. And that might be a good thing, to at least put a break on the process, make it go a little slower, because the 24-hour news cycle - and this extraordinary saturation of the news that we have today we didn't have in '74 - we certainly didn't have in 1868. That rushes things. That creates the frenzy to have something happen quickly. We talked about censure a couple of weeks ago as a possible solution to all this. And now everybody is saying that's past, it's over. We never even thought it through, whether it's a good solution or not. So maybe the public split from the Washington community, which has been evident for a long time, will act as a break, and anything that slows the process down, allowing it to be deliberative, will be a good thing.
JIM LEHRER: And Haynes, if the public isn't on board, it isn't going to work, right?
HAYNES JOHNSON: No, that's right. Well, it could work if the political people decided they have to impeach this man and remove him from office, they could do that at their peril, because they will then pay the price, which is your point and we've been talking about here. But the other side of this thing is there are almost no winners in this thing - unlike the Nixon period - if you remember, the country had a sense out of that period that they were honorable, strong people who were - Sam Ervin, who spoke the language of Shakespeare and England and American.
JIM LEHRER: With a North Carolina accent.
HAYNES JOHNSON: With North Carolina - I speak - my country - you know, I speak my mother tongue, you know, and was wonderfully eloquent. You had Judge Sirica did his job. The press wasn't ravenous, wild, mad, hated, as we are today in this process, and the whole sense of decorum. I'm afraid this is going to be a more untidy process.
JIM LEHRER: Michael, untidy process?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Yes. And one cautionary note. We had an advantage in the Nixon case because in the end we had those tapes, which show that Nixon was definitely guilty of the abuse of power and obstruction of justice that he was charged with. Most Americans felt that he deserved to be thrown out of office. We may have a situation here in which the evidence is a little bit more murky and which you may have a sizeable number of Americans and a sizeable number in the House and Senate saying this is a bad thing that Clinton did, but perhaps it did not deserve removal from office. If that happens, you could have a residue for ten, twenty, thirty years in which a former President Clinton - I'm getting way ahead of ourselves - but could argue I was put out of office and I shouldn't have been. This was an effort to reverse the mandate of 1996. That was exactly the argument that Richard Nixon made for the last 20 years of his life, that this was a push against him.
JIM LEHRER: Yes. And the process, itself, could it be damaging, Professor Lipset?
SEYMOUR MARTIN LIPSET: Oh, I think it could be if - particularly if, as Haynes suggests, partisanship enters into it, and -
JIM LEHRER: It is untidy.
SEYMOUR MARTIN LIPSET: It's very untidy, and if it gets partisan, it'll be a real problem, and terribly disruptive of national unity and the like. The lucky thing was - as you say - that in the Nixon case there was clear-cut evidence. You also have the fact this is different because almost everybody now who knows about it agrees he's guilty - if by guilt you mean he committed perjury and, of course, engaged in peculiar - they'll find out about it - peculiar forms of sexual activity. But the - that will not be the question, whether he's guilty or not. It's really how people respond to the sense of what he's done to the country. I think, you know, one of the differences between this and the other is even if it's a legal matter, I don't think this one is going to start on legalities. Some of the things that Sen. Lieberman raised about what he's done to the children, about bringing in - about, you know, not showing any respect for morality, which is not illegal, will, I think - can, I think, be very important.
JIM LEHRER: With the public, as well as the members of the House and Senate before this is all said and done.
SEYMOUR MARTIN LIPSET: In a way, more with the public.
JIM LEHRER: All right. We have to leave it there. Doris, gentlemen, thank you.