Twenty years ago this month, I found myself seriously double-booked, so to speak.
The editing of the first volume of my John Paul II biography, Witness to Hope, was entering the ninth inning, and I was furiously engaged in exchanging edited and re-edited copy with my editors in New York. At the same time, the Clinton impeachment drama was cresting. And as I had long done speechwriting for Congressman Henry Hyde, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, I spent week after week of split time, working on John Paul II from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., then switching to impeachment for a couple of hours before returning to Witness to Hope in the evening.
It was not the optimal way to work but it had to be done, even if it seemed likely that the president would be acquitted in a Senate trial. On December 19, 1998, the House of Representatives voted two articles of impeachment and senior House members, including Mr. Hyde, solemnly walked the two articles across the Capitol and presented them to the Senate’s leaders. On toward midnight, Henry Hyde called me and, referring to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, said, “We’re not going to make it. Trent won’t fight; I saw it in his eyes.” After a long moment I replied that, if we were going to lose, we had a duty to lay down a record with which history would have to reckon.
Which is what the great Henry Hyde did during the January 1999 Senate trial, where he bent every effort to prevent the proceedings from descending into farce.
For Hyde, the impeachment of President Bill Clinton was an unavoidable piece of nasty business. It was not a matter of partisan score-settling, nor was it a matter of punishing a president for gross behavior with an intern in the White House. It was a matter of defending the rule of law. As Henry put it to me when it seemed clear that the president had perjured himself and obstructed justice, “There are over a hundred people in federal prisons for these crimes. How can the chief law enforcement officer of the United States be guilty of them and stay in office?”
Impeachment is a political process and it was clear by mid-fall of 1998 that the politics were not breaking toward removing the president from office. They had been pointed that way over the summer, though. And as the pressures built, it seemed as if the Clinton presidency might end as Richard Nixon’s had: Party elders, in this case Democrats, would go to the White House, explain that it was over, and ask the president to resign for the sake of the country. Then around Labor Day that year, Maureen Dowd of the New York Times and other columnists began suggesting that, if Clinton were impeached and convicted, the sexual revolution would be over, the yahoos of reaction would have won, and we’d be back to something resembling Salem, Massachusetts, during the witchcraft insanity.
That was preposterous. It was also effective. And within days, at least in Washington, you could feel the templates shifting: This wasn’t about the rule of law, it was about sex and the yahoos couldn’t be allowed to win. (That Henry Hyde was the leader of the pro-life forces in Congress neatly fit this storyline, of course, abortion being a major plank in the platform of the sexual revolution.)
So once the game was redefined—Are you for or against the puritanical yahoos?— there was little chance to wrench the political process back to what it was really about: the rule of law. In his opening speech during the president’s trial, Henry Hyde tried valiantly to refocus the argument, insisting that high office did not absolve a man from obeying his constitutional oath to faithfully execute the laws of the United States and his oath swearing to tell the truth to a federal grand jury. To suggest that it did was to “break the covenant of trust” between president and people, dissolving “the mortar that binds the foundation stones of our freedom into a secure and solid edifice.”
It wasn’t a winning argument. But it was the right argument. And on this 20th anniversary, the nation should remember with gratitude those like Henry Hyde who, under fierce assault, stood for the rule of law.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington, D.C.’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.