God save the president?

An anti-impeachment gathering of New York's intellectual hotshots may not do much for the country, but at least it made them feel good about themselves.

Published December 16, 1998 3:36PM (EST)

I couldn't figure out how they'd done it. There it was in Monday's New York Times A section -- an article announcing that New York University law professor Stephen Holmes had organized a rally against impeachment to be held that evening at NYU Law School's Tishman Auditorium. The piece was striking because nothing yet had happened. That a few writers and politicians were planning to get together and incite voter involvement is the kind of raw information that editors give reporters so they may attend an event and write it up after it has occurred, but, oddly, there was no follow-up article in Tuesday's paper. Presumably, once the event was promoted on Monday -- thereby drawing the attention of the producers at MSNBC and CNN, who joined other news crews -- there was no need for print coverage the next day. So successfully had this free publicity permeated the city that when I called the university and asked to speak to Stephen Holmes, the NYU switchboard operator said, "Oooh, everybody's going to be out there tonight for that rally. Wow." To cross the radar screen of a university switchboard operator is not something accomplished by halls papered with photocopied announcements. These |ber elites needed no phone or e-mail trees to raise money for a full page ad the way most progressive coalitions must. They just placed a few phone calls to some well-connected contacts and the rally got national exposure.

Featuring a head-turning assortment of scholars, politicians, activists, writers and Alec Baldwin, the Citizens' Campaign to Preserve the Elected Presidency convened Monday night to sound an alarm about President Clinton's pending indictment. Despite its populist name, the event, which was bracketed by two Nobel Prize winners, was not easily accessible to most citizens. The 700-seat auditorium filled up early and I only made it in because my friend Elizabeth led me through a back entrance, away from the cordon of police who were turning people away 30 minutes before show time. Though many of the speakers invoked the '60s as an incitement to contemporary activism to save the president, the analogy baffled me. In the '60s, the universities were taken over by the students; in the '90s, the faculty, politicians and some celebrities took over the auditorium and invited the students, most of whom were then turned away. In this crowd of anti-authoritarians struggling to preserve their chief military officer, I mingled with some of my colleagues, trying to figure out just why we were there.

"You don't have to have tanks to have a coup," George Shulman, a political theorist at NYU, told me, anticipating one of the themes that evening. A few minutes later Gloria Steinem was behind the podium declaiming, "They are using the law to peacefully assassinate the president." (The moderator had introduced her following a speech from Holocaust memorialist Elie Wiesel, asking in Casey Casem tones: "How do you follow that? How about with Gloria Steinem?") Wiesel's presence lent some force to the observations of Philip Green, professor emeritus at Smith College, that the formalities of the impeachment process overlay more nefarious anti-democratic impulses: "It's like Hitler's parliament," he offered.

But ultimately these arguments are as unpersuasive as those of former Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman, who argued that "in the end it has been the president's policies that have triggered the vehemence of the response in the House." Clinton is the most right-wing Democratic president this country has ever had. Baldwin speculated that the tobacco industry was financing the right-wing conspiracy, yet the Republican-controlled Congress has proved that it can block legislation unfriendly to its corporate allies with no assistance at all from the White House. Further, it's questionable that Republicans would pursue policy goals in this way. It is difficult to imagine a right-wing coup that would install Al Gore as president. Since impeachment requires a two-thirds vote in the Senate and this will never happen, the current debacle in the House may hobble the next year's legislative activity, but it won't put the Christian Coalition in the White House.

Whereas the radicals and policy wonks had substantive concerns about Republican motivations, there were also liberals who claimed an interest in no less a lofty goal than preserving the Constitution. Yet what troubled them about the impeachment proceedings was equally difficult to discern. Many have pointed out how out-of-step Congress is with the American public on the issue of impeachment, but this is nothing new. Why would liberals become more exercised about a discrepancy between polling results and the House votes about this matter than about those pertaining to health-care reform, anti-tobacco legislation or campaign reform? Clear majorities of the public seek government protection in these areas, but are thwarted by a Republican-dominated Congress. Organizer Holmes opened the evening by lambasting the anti-democratic qualities of the lame-duck Congress: "This is a legislative body that will never again face the American people. It is an unaccountable body. They act as though they are not obliged to listen to the American people." But surely this body is no more lame when it comes to impeachment than to other matters they consider. Moreover, only 39 members will not return. Many of these may seek higher office at some point. And many of them are Democrats who are similarly unaccountable and will oppose impeachment.

All this is not to say that there are not strong reasons for the fears voiced Monday night. The prospect of Chief Justice William Rehnquist and the Senate wasting their time with Lucianne Goldberg is a sobering one. Moreover, the $40 million prosecution and public humiliation of Clinton and Monica Lewinsky reflects a sex panic that has overcome the normal checks and balances of interest-group liberalism. Novelist Mary Gordon explained that the radical right has a "phobic hatred" of Clinton because "he has reminded us that we are libidinal creatures." Various speakers pointed out the witch-hunting rhetoric that urges Clinton to confess and atone for his sins, a discourse out of place in U.S. politics. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., a member of the House Judiciary Committee, observed the parallels between the Puritanical rhetoric of his colleagues and the writings of Cotton and Increase Mather. NYU moral philosopher Thomas Nagel concluded his speech by observing, "This is about the separation of sex and state."

The question of Clinton's impeachment goes to the heart of our government. The problem is not this particular discrepancy between the public will and the impending congressional vote, but the fact that democratic processes have never truly dominated our representative government. To the extent that American taxpayers subsidize an economic entity that methodically strips them of their voting power, corporate welfare is a far graver threat to this country than President Gore, and the reforms that would eliminate this were precisely those barely mentioned Monday. Eleanor Roosevelt biographer Blanche Wiesen-Cook was one of the rare exceptions. As the moderator fidgeted and rolled his eyes, she said, "There is no reason to be here unless it is to reignite democratic social activism." But such sentiments didn't blend well with the Rotary Club civic spirit cultivated by the organizers who had placed an American flag in the middle of their podium insignia, which read "Americans Against Impeachment."

One of the most perplexing concessions to the right was just this invocation of God and country. Gordon made it clear: "We must not allow them to do as they did in the Vietnam War and take the flag. We are the American people." But is there any difference between their flag and the one gracing the offices of the conservative Southern Judiciary Committee members whose accents Baldwin caricatured in his speech? Likewise, what is the difference between Mathers' religious piety and Jerrold Nadler's plea that we must "pray for the safety of our country"? Or historian Sean Wilentz -- fresh from testifying before Henry Hyde -- urging people to gather in their churches and hold candlelight vigils? The ultimate evangelical touch was at the end, when opera star Jessye Norman lead a pompous mass rendering of "God Bless America" that gave the gathering one more touch of theatricality and even self-parody. Despite Toni Morrison's closing warning to Americans to pay attention and preserve "our Constitution that is the envy of people around the world," despite her advice that "this is not entertainment; this not a little play," the indictment and potential removal of Clinton may be just that.

This democracy has been a sham since its inception in 1787, when the framers ignored the sentiments of the majority and voted to establish a federal government. Most people know that their government tends not to follow their will, and until last night I thought Morrison knew that, too. The sad truth about these hearings is not that they defy our history but that they continue it. The only serious challenge to this would not be the salvation of Clinton's presidency, but the seizing of the government by the people so that their priorities were reflected in government policies. And you can bet that any movement in this direction would not be organized by NYU law professors or receive advance notice in the Times.

By Jackie Stevens

Jackie Stevens is a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at the New School University. Her book "Reproducing the State" will be published by Princeton University Press in 1999.

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