Ethics & Public Policy Center

Impeachment and the American Grain

Published in City Journal on October 1, 2019


More than a century passed between the impeachment of Andrew Johnson in 1868 and the almost-impeachment of Richard Nixon in 1974. Since then, the intervals have been getting shorter—a sort of Doppler effect. It was only 24 years after Nixon’s resignation that Bill Clinton’s case came before the House of Representatives, and only 21 years after that that the impeachment investigation of Donald Trump began.

It seems possible that in the manic accelerations of the twenty-first century, impeachment may soon become routine. The nation is at war with itself. If Hillary Clinton had been elected in 2016, Republicans might have tried to impeach her. Indeed, if impeachment becomes a regular tactic of the opposition, America will have informally adopted a quasi-parliamentary system of governance. Impeachment will amount to a chronic, slow-motion vote of no confidence, staged now and then in intervals between the quadrennial elections that the Constitution intended.

No matter what the outcome of an impeachment, the process itself would, among other things, ensure that nothing much would get done in the way of the public’s business. That would, in fact, be the goal—to paralyze an enemy administration by putting the incumbent through the wringer.

How would this serve the country? It would certainly be a quantum leap in partisan antagonism. In the past, Americans regarded impeachment as an extreme rarity, a sort of civic apocalypse. In the future, it might become merely another ritual of hardball politics.

I can think offhand of at least a half-dozen presidents who might have been impeached—but were not—for abuses of the public trust: I don’t mean that they necessarily should have been impeached, only that their enemies might have made a plausible case for it. Would Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus have been sufficient grounds? Could Woodrow Wilson have been impeached for ordering the racial segregation of workers in the Post Office and other federal departments? In the last months of his presidency, when he was incapacitated by a stroke, Wilson—or anyway, his wife Edith and his physician, Cary Grayson—concealed the facts of his grave medical condition from Congress and the American people. One way or another, he should have been removed from office. Franklin Roosevelt had a foxy way with the truth, and Republicans might have persuasively accused him of abuse of power in lying repeatedly—or anyway, in staging fancy misdirections—as he maneuvered America toward involvement in World War II.

As our history shows, presidential incapacity is always a theme. In 1944, as the war neared its end, Roosevelt’s family and allies might have made a stink—someone should have—about the idea of a man in such appalling health (his heart exhausted, his complexion the color of a sidewalk) running for a fourth term. The nation, of course, would not impeach its collapsing god; but he should not have been permitted to run again.

Was it an impeachable offense that John F. Kennedy lied about his potentially fatal Addison’s disease? Or that he boosted himself with vitamin-and-amphetamine shots administered by someone called Dr. Feelgood even as he caromed from the calamity of the Bay of Pigs to the disastrous meeting with Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna? Or that he opened himself to blackmail, or something worse, risking his presidency for the sake of reckless private pleasures? Kennedy conducted affairs with, among others, the girlfriend of a Mafia don and a woman who may have been an East German agent.

Lyndon Johnson could have been credibly accused of abuse of the public trust. His entire conduct of the Vietnam War might have been set forth as an impeachable offense—a seemingly interminable chain of systematic deceptions of the American people. The Gulf of Tonkin incident in summer 1964—a sequence of screwups and stupidities—set the standard. Apart from the war, Johnson’s personal conduct would have invited charges of sexual harassment or worse. His sketchy financial dealings going back decades would have kept an impeachment committee and its investigators busy.

Leaving Watergate aside, Richard Nixon gave orders—for the invasion of Cambodia, say—that members of Congress might have considered grounds for removing him from office. Candidate Nixon’s back-channel contacts with the South Vietnamese before the 1968 election—in which he persuaded South Vietnam president Nguyen Van Thieu not to agree to a peace deal pending between the Johnson administration and the North Vietnamese because Nixon, if elected, could offer the South something better—was arguably treasonous and, though it occurred before he took office, might have clinched the case against him.

Impeachment is a prompt retaliatory reflex. It usually descends upon a president, or other public official, not long after the alleged offense occurs. But if an act seemed like a good idea at the time (as, to many, George W. Bush’s Iraq War seemed a good idea when he launched it)—though it later comes to be viewed as a mistake—it will be left to historians, rather than Congress, to conduct the inquiry and to impose the censure: an impeachment in the public memory, as it were. Such is the process that leads to the removal of Confederate statues—or attempts to de-sanctify Thomas Jefferson or George Washington because they owned slaves.

Each president is unique and should be understood in the context of his time and character and culture. Donald Trump’s gaudy, risky, high-concept presidency is unprecedented—yet also weirdly in keeping with this century and its ways. The spectacle of his impeachment can be no surprise. It is his kind of theater.

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