Alexander Cockburn and I had our most ferocious arguments not over climate change or the relative merits of Muddy Waters versus Howlin’ Wolf, but about the impeachment of Bill Clinton. Alex didn’t think Clinton should be pilloried for lying about sex. I thought the more trivial the offense the better, for the man whose murderous sanctions on Iraq killed a half million innocent kids.
Cockburn didn’t care much for Clinton and didn’t really become animated in Bubba’s defense until Alex’s own nemesis Christopher Hitchens offered his services to Lindsey Graham and the other Republican persecutors. Hitchens’ loathing of the Clintons was so pathological that it drove him to inform on his former pal Sydney Blumenthal, Bill and Hillary’s political hitman, for his scurrilous table talk at a luncheon in Georgetown trashing Monica Lewinski and Kathleen Willey, who had accused Clinton of sexual assault. Hitchens dropped a dime on Sydney during the impeachment trial and Alex later dropped the hammer on Hitch the Snitch in columns for CounterPunch and The Nation. All of this is to suggest that impeachment is not only a political trial, but a personal one, too.
When I was in school in DC in the 1970s studying history and literature at American University, I became a little obsessed with the life and political thought of George Mason, one of the shrewdest and most psychologically conflicted of the American Revolutionaries. Mason, whose sprawling plantation at Gunston Hall was just across the Potomac in Virginia. Mason was a slave owner, who refused to sign the Constitution because it didn’t abolish slavery. He was a proto-abolition who, unlike his compatriots Washington and Jefferson, refused to free any of his slaves in his will, fearing they would be abused in a landscape of racists. Like I said, a conflicted man and, in many ways, a difficult one to like. But it was Mason who took the most strident position in favor of the impeachment clause at the Constitution Convention in 1797, arguing that any president who “procured his appointment” by corrupting the electors must be impeachable, which is a concise description of the current charge against Trump.
Mason would, I think, have been appalled to learn the country, even then riven by savage political divisions, waited 70 years to launch its first impeachment inquiry into the actions of a sitting president. Mason, and many of the other early radicals, viewed impeachment as a lethal check on the unfettered expansion of power in the hands of the executive branch and believed that it would, and should, be threatened and used with some regularity. Instead, impeachment has become a dusty constitutional relic, akin to the emoluments clause.
Constitutional scholar Alan Hirsch’s succinct but very well-argued book Impeaching the President: Past, Present and Future can serve as a field guide to our forthcoming trauma. Hirsch’s book reminds us that US politics has always been nasty & vicious and that Joe Biden’s bipartisan fairy tale exists only for the rich (and defense contractors).
The chapter on Andrew Johnson’s impeachment is especially informative. The main charge was that President Johnson had illegally fired the Secretary of War, but the floor speeches included allegations that he was a drunk, a liar, illiterate and had been complicit in the assassination of Lincoln. A racist from Tennessee, who Lincoln recruited as his VP because he was the lone southern Democrat in the Senate who had opposed secession, Johnson’s real crime was sabotaging Reconstruction. His impeachment failed by a single vote, a vote which helped spark the Jim Crow era.
One of the anecdotes in the Hirsch book that struck me is the fact that Tom Eagleton was one of the few Democrats to oppose an impeachment inquiry into Nixon, which leads me to believe Eagleton suspected the fatal leak about his electroshock treatments came from the Democrats and not Nixon’s bag of dirty tricks.
Of course, McGovern supporters had every reason to want Eagleton off the ticket. He was apparently the anonymous source of Robert Novak’s infamous quote from an unnamed Democratic senator that McGovern was the AAA Candidate: “Amnesia, Amnesty and Acid.”
Trump will only go do down if he becomes toxic to the political future of Republicans in the Senate. A constant refrain from the press is who will be the Howard Baker of 2019? A reference to the Tennessee Republican senator during the Watergate hearings, who asked, What did the President know and when didn’t know it?
But if you read Jimmy Breslin’s great book on Watergate, How the Good Guys Finally One, Howard Baker was actually an obstructionist until almost the very end and his famous question, which he repeated like a talking doll, served as a defense of Nixon…until suddenly, with the release of the tapes, it wasn’t.
I think impeachment articles should be drafted after a president commits his first war crime. Trump committed his on day three of his administration, when he ordered a raid on the village of al-Ghayil which killed 30 civilians, including the eight-year-old American daughter of Anwar al-Awlaki, who Obama had whacked with an illegal drone strike in 2011 (an assassination of an American citizen for which he should have been impeached).
Impeachment is the most under-utilized, but politically potent check on executive power in the Constitution. It’s there for a reason and the authors of our organizational parchment surely envisioned it being used more frequently than once every 60 years. Indeed, impeachment may well be the only defense we have against the rising authoritarian powers of a presidency which seeks to impose its will under the cover of the Unified Theory of the Executive. And let us not forget that impeachment is a more democratic form of deposing of a ruler than the process that put him or her into power, since both the congressional prosecutors and senatorial jurors are actually elected by popular vote and members of the electoral college aren’t. Regime changes should start at home. Impeachment is nutritious. Dare to take a bite.
Still impeachment comes with risks, the kind of risks that make our democracy, such as it is, exciting and meaningful. A key lesson from the failed impeachments is that if you strike at the king, you’d better kill him. Consider the case of Russ Feingold, one of the few (if not the only) Democrats to vote for a full senate trial of Clinton and for the public disclosure of videotaped depositions, although he ultimately voted Not Guilty. Still, the Clinton machine held those votes against Feingold and worked covertly to undermine his two senate campaigns after the failed impeachment vote.
If Trump consults the Clinton playbook for how to distract from impeachment trial, we’ll soon be seeing cruise missile strikes on Caracas, Tehran and, who knows, maybe Copenhagen (unless they agree to turn over Greenland).
If You Plant ICE, You’re Gonna Harvest Wind…(Thanks Ramsay!)
What I’m reading this week…
Living in a World That Can’t be Fixed: Reimagining Counterculture Today
This Land is Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving
Daniel J. Silverman
(Finishing Line Press)
What I’m listening to this week…
Thanks for the Dance
Hometown: Detroit Sessions, 1990-2014
Images in the Stream
What I’m streaming this week…
Director: Scott Z. Burns
Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator
Director: Eva Orner
What Do You Call It?
“Your own Benjamin Tucker wrote of the Land League,” a young man was saying in an unmistakably Irish voice, “in such glowing terms–the closest the world has ever come to perfect Anarchist organization.”
“Were the phrase not self-contradictory,” commented “Dope” Breedlove.
“Yet I’ve noticed the same thing when your band plays — the most amazing social coherence, as if you all shared the same brain.”
“Sure,” agreed “Dope,” “but you can’t call that organization.”
“What do you call it?”
(Thomas Pynchon, Against the Day)