The Impeachment of President Clinton: An Ugly Mix of Three Powerful Forces

Article excerpt

KAREN A. POPP [*]

I

INTRODUCTION

President Clinton should not have been impeached by the House of Representatives and, once impeached, was properly acquitted by the Senate. Thus, it should come as no surprise that I agree with much of what Professor Susan Low Bloch has written in her article, A Report Card on the Impeachment: Judging the Institutions That Judged President Clinton. [1] As Professor Bloch indicates, it is essential for us to assess how Congress arrived at the point of impeaching President Clinton, how the impeachment process itself worked, and what we can learn from it. [2] Indeed, much has already been written and said on these topics, and these issues will no doubt continue to be debated and analyzed for years to come.

So, how do I rate the impeachment process of President Clinton? I would give it a failing grade. Although the Senate reached the right result by acquitting the President, the fact that the Senate voted as it did is cold comfort. The impeachment process should have never gone that far. In effect, the second parachute finally opened, just before the impeachment process hit the ground. One nevertheless wonders, "Why did the first parachute fail?"

As the events were unfolding, it appeared that the 1998-99 impeachment debacle resulted in large part from an ugly mix of three extremely powerful forces: an independent counsel who abused his virtually unlimited power; extreme congressional partisanship that was motivated by the desire to gain control of the government; and media outlets that continuously sought to profit from the sensationalism of it all and consistently flouted standards of professional journalism along the way. These three forces appear all the more responsible for the impeachment now, with the benefit of hindsight. Each of these forces, standing alone, was powerful in its own right. Together, they were insurmountable.

Before delving into an analysis of the combined effect of these forces, I must acknowledge that other factors--including the President--played key roles in the events that led to the impeachment. There can be no doubt that President Clinton's reckless and careless personal conduct with Monica Lewinsky contributed to the events of 1998 and 1999. Indeed, there could not have been a "Lewinsky matter" without that conduct. The President's conduct was wrong and regrettable, and he has acknowledged this. [3]

The general public also played a role, at least in the beginning. Many people were mesmerized by the events that began to unfold in January 1998 and hence contributed to the media frenzy as cheering spectators. However, as 1998 wore on, the majority of Americans had grown tired of the exhaustive coverage of the Lewinsky matter. [4] Most people, although angry about the President's behavior, did not believe that he should be removed from office. [5] Unfortunately, the public's opinion did nothing to deflect the House Republicans from their chosen path--impeachment.

The impeachment itself, which did not occur until eleven months after the story was first reported, however, would not have occurred at all but for the three forces indicated above--the independent counsel, the House Republicans, and the media. Those three forces are the focus of the remainder of my comments. It also is appropriate, for context, to describe briefly the constitutional backdrop against which the players waged the Clinton impeachment debate.

II

THE CONSTITUTIONAL STANDARD

One may well ask whether the Constitution itself played some role in the wrongful impeachment of President Clinton. Does the Constitution set the standard for impeachment of a President too low? Although it may be too soon to know for sure, I would submit that the Constitution sets a sufficiently high bar for the impeachment of a President, but that bar was disregarded in the impeachment of President Clinton.

The Framers established the standard for impeachable offenses in language that is now quite familiar. …

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