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Grounds for Impeachment

By George F. Will

Sunday, August 23, 1998; Page C07

Rahm Emanuel is one of those windup dolls the president has been sending forth for seven months to deny the obvious. ("Did he have sex? No. Sexual relations? No.") But Emanuel is magnanimous: "I'm not owed an apology."

Earth to Emanuel: What about the apology you owe the public, on whose payroll you have been while insulting the public's intelligence?

Compassion being the defining virtue of an age dubious about all other virtues, Emanuel is presented as a victim, of Bill Clinton, just as Clinton presents himself as a victim (of Ken Starr and others disrespectful of Clinton's family values). Actually, Emanuel and others like him resemble some other slow learners.

In the 1930s many people became convinced that capitalism was in crisis and Soviet communism was the wave of the future. Some of them stuck with their faith through the late 1930s Moscow purge trials. And the 1939 Hitler-Stalin pact. And the 1948 coup in Prague. And Khrushchev's 1956 speech detailing (a few of) Stalin's sins. And the suppression of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956. And the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.

Then in 1974 Solzhenitsyn's "The Gulag Archipelago" appeared, and the true believers, being bookish, awakened: Something was not quite right in Russia. These people did not merit commiseration about their "god that failed," they deserved permanent banishment from politics.

In January Clinton coldly lied to his assembled Cabinet, knowing they would go forth and amplify the lie. Yet now that they know they were ill-used, not one Cabinet member feels sufficiently strongly about it to resign. Such evidence of the condition of the political culture should stimulate interest in impeachment as an instrument for the purification of that culture.

Impeachment is intended to deal with abuses that relate "chiefly to injuries done immediately to the society itself." Says who? Alexander Hamilton, which is telling.

Hamilton believed that "energy in the executive is a leading character in the definition of good government." So it is significant that when the three authors of the Federalist Papers got around to explicating the Constitution's impeachment provisions, James Madison and John Jay ceded to Hamilton, a supporter of a strong presidency, the delicate task of interpreting impeachment as a weapon for disciplining executives who use their energy in inappropriate ways.

Impeachment, Hamilton argued in Federalist 65, concerns "those offenses which proceed from the misconduct of public men, or, in other words, from the abuse or violation of some public trust." In Federalist 77 he asked, does the Constitution provide "safety, in the republican sense -- a due dependence on the people"? He said it does because, among other reasons, a president is "at all times liable to impeachment."

But for what? A familiar flippancy, that grounds for impeachment are whatever the House of Representatives says, is akin to the notion that the Constitution is whatever the Supreme Court says it is. That only means there is no appeal from the Court, not that the Court cannot construe the Constitution incorrectly.

Twenty-four years ago a study written (with the participation of Hillary Rodham) for the House committee considering impeachment of Richard Nixon said: "From the comments of the Framers and their contemporaries, the remarks of delegates to the state ratifying conventions, and the removal power debate in the First Congress, it is apparent that the scope of impeachment was not viewed narrowly."

It argued that the pedigree of the phrase "high crimes and misdemeanors" pertains not to criminal law, not just to "crimes of a strictly legal character." Rather it has "a more enlarged operation." Its proper objects include offenses "growing out of personal misconduct" and a "wide range of . . . noncriminal offenses." Thus the articles of impeachment indicted Nixon for, among many other things, "making false or misleading public statements for the purpose of deceiving the people of the United States" about his misdeeds.

Public lies, and personal behavior destructive of trust, are, Ann Coulter argues, central, not peripheral, grounds for impeachment in a system such as ours. In her book on Clinton's debacle, "High Crimes and Misdemeanors," she says that in British history impeachment had been a means of resolving otherwise intractable disputes over policies. But under our Constitution, such power struggles can be resolved through separation of powers mechanisms such as vetoes and judicial review. So, Coulter says, "elections decide policy; impeachments judge character."

Anesthetics and forceps may be needed to extract articles of impeachment from a Congress that reads its duties in poll results rather than in the Constitution. Nevertheless, Clinton's conduct, as already known, is an impeachable offense.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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