by Patrick J. Buchanan – November 6, 1998
According to the pundits and exit polls, the American people want it over with. They are fed up with hearing about Monica and Bill and Kathleen and Ken. “Enough already!” they are saying. What normal person does not share that sentiment?
But while the desire to have this squalid episode brought to a swift conclusion is understandable and can be accommodated, the matter cannot end here and now. We must go onto the finish. For this is no longer about President Clinton; it is about America.
Are we people of the Constitution? Are we a nation of laws? Do Americans believe that perjury, obstruction of justice and lying to a federal grand jury — all felonies for a private citizen — are not felonies when done by a president? Is a president above the laws that bind other men?
Those are the questions that nervous assemblage which calls itself a Congress must answer: What kind of country is this? What is tolerable behavior for a man who holds the magisterial office of president of the United States?
For many on Capitol Hill, avoidance of painful and politically costly votes is a career obsession. These are the hollow men whose conditioned reflex is to split the difference, put the vote off, bury it in committee, accept half a loaf, be “bipartisan,” cut a deal. “He who fights and runs away, lives to fight another day” should be emblazoned onto the facade of the Rayburn Building.
Some issues, however, such as votes on war or peace, or the impeachment of presidents, cannot be compromised. They are up or down. One lives with them forever and with the consequences.
John F. Kennedy declared Edmund Ross a profile in courage for refusing to convict Andrew Johnson of high crimes when that brave president’s only offense was to have been faithful to Abraham Lincoln’s policy of “with malice toward none” in the occupied South. But that vote was also the death knell of Ross’ Senate career. “I looked down into my own political grave,” he said, before casting it.
The chalice of compromise being offered in the impeachment of William Clinton is to have Congress vote to “censure” him but not to impeach or remove him from office. What is wrong with this? Does such a solution not comport with the will of the people as expressed in the November elections? Are we not a democracy? Should not the people decide?
So the soothing arguments of the tempter run. But the decision as to the gravity of Clinton’s offenses, and his guilt or innocence, is not one to be made by popular ballot. It is a decision the Constitution of this republic lodges solely with the Congress.
Congressmen are jurors here, and they are to decide based on evidence, not election returns. And any member of Congress who, believing Clinton’s offenses are felonies, votes not to impeach or not to convict would be guilty of exactly what the jurors did in the trial of O.J. Simpson.
Though some surely must have known in their hearts that he murdered those two people, the O.J. jurors voted to release him. Why did they let him off? Because they were afraid to go back to their neighborhoods and say they sent the great O.J. Simpson to prison for life.
So, today, many Democrats and Republicans are fearful of having to go back to their districts and tell their constituents they voted to impeach, or convict and remove, so popular a president. This vote is thus a test of the character of Congress, and how it is received will test the character of the American people.
As for the censure option, it is a cop-out for congressmen desperate that this cup pass away. Better nothing than that. For there is no constitutional provision for the censure of a president, and Congress should not create a precedent.
Had we had such a provision, Harry Truman might have been censured for firing Gen. MacArthur and Gerald Ford for pardoning Richard Nixon — though neither exceeded his constitutional authority.
The work of the Judiciary Committee should be to answer two questions: What conduct, admitted by Clinton or alleged against him, would constitute a high crime, and is the evidence amassed by Kenneth Starr sufficient to merit a trial? For impeachment is not conviction; it is only an indictment, a formal statement that grave charges have been made, and enough evidence is there to warrant a trial.
So, let us drop the censure business. If the House is unwilling to impeach the president for perjury and obstruction of justice or says it just cannot find any evidence of such offenses, fine. That will tell us all we need to know about our Congress, for we already know all we need to know about the president.