How "low" crimes and misdemeanors become "high"

The president's conduct might be excusable anywhere else, but in the Oval Office, it is grounds for impeachment.

Published December 21, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Let's begin with an unexpected concession to both sides: It's not about
partisan politics. If the Republicans were acting from a desire to
advance their party's interests, they would long ago have embraced the
censure option and joined Democrats in condemning (and forever
disgracing) the White House incumbent, earning themselves universal
praise as "statesmen" in the process. Instead, they have defied 65-percent
majorities in the polls, disapproval from the media, vitriolic scorn
from their Democratic opponents and the prospect of defeat in the
Senate in order to stand up for a principle -- that this president is
unfit for office and should be removed.

Democrats, who are themselves proposing the formal condemnation of their
leader, and who readily describe him as a reprehensible sinner and
irresponsible cad, are nonetheless engaged in a desperate battle to
prevent removal. From a purely partisan political view, however,
impeachment is surely their most desirable option: Get Clinton out of
the way as quickly as possible and bring in Al Gore, the heir apparent.
This would position the party for the best possible shot at the White
House in 2000. Instead, the congressional Democrats have shown a
fierce and inexplicable loyalty to a man who has had no loyalty to them.
In the course of his administration, Clinton has showed no hesitation in
betraying some of their most cherished programs (welfare), cutting
crucial deals (NAFTA, balanced budget) with their enemies and generally
pursuing policies that can best be described as Republican lite.

Despite the offensive and often preposterous moral arrogance with which
the Democrats have flayed their political opponents, it is difficult to
pinpoint any clear principle that would explain their position. Of late,
the flatulent rantings of party myrmidons Barney Frank, John Conyers and
Maxine Waters have been distilled into the accusation that House
Republicans are conducting a "political coup d'état." It is a phrase
meant to convey the impression that the Republican House is seeking to
overthrow the will of the voters and reverse the effects of two popular
elections. Well, on such grounds no president could ever be impeached.
But it is an even stranger charge coming from left-wingers who have
never had a second thought about their impeachment of Richard Nixon,
which reversed the elections of 1968 and 1972. The latter, by the way,
was won by a larger majority than any Democrat has ever received. It is
stranger still that people who fought on principle to reverse the will
of a majority who supported the Vietnam War should have so little
respect for Republicans trying to assert a moral principle in the face
of adverse polls.

But this is only the beginning of what might be generously termed the
Democratic hypocrisies in the current debates. Opponents of impeachment,
like Elizabeth Holtzman, stress the harm that the process might inflict
on the country. Excuse me? Wasn't it the Holtzman Democrats who launched
the impeachment process over a third-rate burglary in the midst of a
war? Is there any Democrat who has voiced second thoughts about the
Watergate inquiries? Wasn't it an extreme step to terminate a president who had run the country well for six years and remained popular with the majority of the voting public until the moment his own party turned against him? Suppose that a few honorable Democrats were to step forward now to provide the concrete evidence of Clinton's obstructions of justice (as White House counsel John Dean did then) and to raise a nonpartisan voice in support of his removal (as Howard Baker and others did then) -- what do you think that would do to the current poll numbers?

Even more hypocritical are the Democrats' current attacks on
Republicans as "sexual McCarthyists" invading the privacy of the
president, supporting a prurient witch hunt by a special prosecutor not
limited by budgetary constraints. But it was the Democrats who invented
the special prosecutor in the first place to criminalize their
political opponent. And it was the Democratic majority that recently
reauthorized the enabling legislation when it expired. Who among the
Democrats complained when Lawrence Walsh went on his fishing expeditions
during the Reagan administration, dropping an indictment on Defense
Secretary Caspar Weinberger days before the 1988 presidential elections
and lynching dedicated civil servants in such a clumsy fashion that most
of his important convictions were reversed?

Who invented "sexual McCarthyism," moreover, if not Democrats? The feminist left and the Democratic majority were architects of the very
sexual harassment legislation that allows the court discovery of
personal histories and prior acts, the innovation that ensnared
Clinton and resulted in the outing of Monica Lewinsky. What Democrat has
publicly apologized to Clarence Thomas for the actions of the Democratic
Judiciary Committee that agreed to a public hearing of charges that
could never be substantiated, about private words allegedly exchanged
10 years in the past, when the only effect would be the tarnishing of
the reputation of a perfectly decent human being who had 20
unblemished years of public service under his belt?

Far from being contrite, feminist leaders and Clinton supporters such as
Betty Friedan have the shamelessness to describe the current
investigation of Clinton's harassment of female employees as the
activity of "dirty old white men" amounting to "no big deal." Tell that
to the six career admirals and hundreds of enlisted men who were
dishonorably demoted or retired for attending a convention in Las Vegas
where, as far as they or any court were aware (with one questionable
exception) only consensual sex took place between of-age adults.

Equally unattractive has been the spectacle of an emerging strict
constructionism among people whose only prior interest in the
Constitution was to rewrite it. "These offenses do not rise to the level
of impeachment" has become a familiar mantra for people who couldn't be
less concerned as to whether a "right to privacy" (and thus a
constitutional basis for Roe vs. Wade) could be found in the document. Yet now they insist with every pious fiber of their being that the
Constitution does not permit impeachment for these acts of Clinton's.

How intriguing it is to watch a Sheila Jackson Lee or a Jerry Nadler
declare in the most solemn tones that the bar must be raised suitably
high, that Congress can only impeach for "high crimes and
misdemeanors." It is a joy to behold the multiple inflections on that
particular term. Misdemeanors. Obviously, if the founders employed a
term generally applied to acts that from a criminal perspective are
minor, they had something else in mind than limiting impeachable
offenses to treason and similar high crimes against the state.

In fact, there was some pretty learned testimony before the House
committee to this effect. A high misdemeanor, as one could have guessed,
is an act akin to "conduct unbecoming" a public leader, the
commander in chief. Such conduct could be, for example, running up
Pennsylvania Avenue in the buff. If a sitting president were caught committing such an act, it would surely impinge on his ability to
be entrusted with the welfare and security of 300 million souls. And
this would be true even though indecent exposure is not a high crime,
and no matter what his current standing in the polls.

In Federalist Papers No. 65, Alexander Hamilton explained the object of
impeachment as "those offenses which proceed from the misconduct of
public men" that violate the "public trust." According to Hamilton, such
offenses are "political" in nature, "as they relate chiefly to injuries
done immediately to the society itself." Examples might include
engaging in private behavior that makes one vulnerable to political
blackmail, or deliberately lying to the public and the government in
such a way as to derail national policy for eight months in order to
protect oneself from the embarrassment of a personal fault. They might
also include injuring the credibility of the office to such an extent
that even when the president makes a proper decision to commit American
military forces, significant audiences at home and abroad necessarily
suspect his motives, a fact that diminishes the effectiveness of
American power and the security of the United States.

A terse summary of impeachable behavior can be found even in sources
opposed to impeachment, such as the New York Times editorial on
Dec. 12. It was written a few days before the first scheduled
impeachment vote and just before air strikes were launched against
Iraq. Moderates who wanted to oppose the impeachment vote had asked the
president for a frank admission that he had lied under oath. In their
eyes, such an admission would constitute a crucial step toward
restoring the integrity of his office (assuming, of course, that it
could be restored). Clinton refused. Faced with the choice of continuing
to lie to save his own skin and coming clean for the sake of his
country, he chose to lie again. Commented the Times: "Whatever happens
in Congress, Mr. Clinton's defiance and his willingness to gamble on a
Senate showdown look a lot like the behavior that got him into this mess
-- irresponsible, self-destructive and dangerously out of place in the
Oval Office."

The phrase "dangerously out of place in the Oval Office" is what
Republicans have been trying to communicate to their Democratic
colleagues on the Judiciary Committee, and the nation at large, as a
working definition of impeachable acts. Mr. Clinton has committed acts
that, in other contexts, might be viewed as merely crude,
irresponsible or dishonorable -- mere misdemeanors. But in the Oval
Office they may constitute a danger to untold individuals and ultimately
to the nation itself. In short, they become "high" misdemeanors, and therefore
impeachable offenses.

In fact, somewhere deep in their hearts, the Democrats understand this.
The censure motion they have drafted is drawn almost verbatim from
Hamilton's paper and charges that the president "violated the trust of
the American people" and "dishonored the office which they have
entrusted to him."

By David Horowitz

David Horowitz is a conservative writer and activist.

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