Appeal to Proportion in the Clinton Impeachment Trial: Reconciling Judgment with Disposition

By Arthos, John | Western Journal of Communication, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

Appeal to Proportion in the Clinton Impeachment Trial: Reconciling Judgment with Disposition


Arthos, John, Western Journal of Communication


In a press release during the impeachment proceedings against President William Jefferson Clinton, Senator Paul Wellstone paired the ideals of proportion and prudence, concluding that even before the final Senate vote was taken "so many opportunities for the exercise of more prudent and proportionate judgment fell by the wayside" (1999, p. 1). In the closing argument of the Senate trial, Dale Bumpers used the same topos: "[T]he charges brought and the punishment sought are totally out of sync. There is no balance; there is no proportionality" (1999, p. 7). Senator Joe Biden struggled for a name: "You can call this what you will--a sense of proportionality, a sense that the punishment should fit the crime," and he finally settled on the idea of "good sense" (1999, p. 3). Proportion was one of the dominant appeals by the opponents of impeachment and removal over the course of the affair (1), and almost absent from the rhetoric of the accusers.

My purpose in this paper is to describe the appeal to proportion exemplified in the rhetoric of the Clinton impeachment process, where it blossomed in a variety of forms. As an appeal to judgment, it emerged sometimes in a strict analogical formulation, or as a bivalent weighting of alternatives, or as the appropriate blending of many and incommensurate elements. Sometimes it referred to the disposition of the case, to the process of deliberation, or to the faculty of judgment. Its polymorphous presence is not accidental. Proportion acts in this discourse, I argue, at a deep ontological level. It links the subjective and objective by acting as an interface between the disposition of the facts of the case and the disposition of judgment itself.

From Fact and Definition to Proportion

The president's accusers generally found stasis at the level of fact and definition. During the Senate trial House Manager Stephen Buyer of Indiana made the case for both. The fact of the grand jury testimony provided an indubitable premise: "I believe John Adams was right. Facts and evidence. Facts are stubborn things. You can color the facts. You can shade the facts. You can misrepresent the facts. You can hide the facts. But the truthful facts are stubborn; they won't go away" (as cited in McLoughlin, 1999, p. 269). This meant generally rejecting arguments requiring the balancing of harms, finding the principle of judgment in the sharp dichotomy of right and wrong. Definition helped nail down the second impeachment charge: "`Black's Law Dictionary' defines `obstruction of justice' as `[I]mpeding or obstructing those who seek justice in a court, or those who have duties or powers of administering justice therein.' It is very clear" (as cited in McLoughlin, 1999, p. 259). Both proofs were regularly characterized by this kind of sharp, clean certainty.

If the prosecution saw the case simply and with clear consequences, they saw the defense as sophistical and dissembling. House Manager Steve Chabot during the closing arguments of the Senate trial: "To their credit they produced smoke so thick that it continues to cloud this debate. But if you look through the smoke and the mirrors employed by these very able lawyers, you will see the truth. The truth is that President Clinton lied ..." (as cited in McLoughlin, 1999, p. 403). The prosecution argument was a rhetorical stripping of the veil and exposure of the stark and simple truth: "It all swoops down the telescope to one issue: Did the president utter falsehoods under oath?" (George Gekas as cited in McLoughlin, 1999, p. 402). Impeachment advocates were generally suspicious of shades of gray, and the decision was framed as a simple choice flowing from a simple factual finding: "If you believe he is a victim, then you ought to acquit him. If you believe he has lied, then he ought not to be our president" (Lindsey Graham as cited in McLoughlin, 1999, p. 428). On the perjury count: "We have laws against that in this country.

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Appeal to Proportion in the Clinton Impeachment Trial: Reconciling Judgment with Disposition
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