As I write, Congress has just voted the first article of impeachment against President Clinton. Unless he resigns, he will be the second President to be tried in the Senate on impeachment charges.
Last March, I called for the President's resignation if it proved to be true that he had perjured himself and suborned perjury with regard to Monica Lewinsky. Revelations since then have confirmed that the President lied under oath, but have left some doubt as to whether he urged Monica Lewinsky, Betty Currie or others to lie. Assuming that he did--most people who would lie under oath would ask a friend or acquaintance to back them up by doing the same--I still do not believe the Congress has acted constitutionally in voting for impeachment.
The Constitution provides that the House may vote impeachment charges and the Senate will then conduct a trial upon evidence of "high crimes and misdemeanors". Judicial interpretation, of any law and of the Constitution in particular, assumes that there are no misplaced or meaningless words. If the Framers saw fit to add the word "high" as a modifier, this clearly means that there are crimes and misdeameanors which do not qualify as "high" and therefore do not provide grounds for impeachment.
The acts which most clearly qualify as "high crimes and misdeameanors" would be those which constitute a gross misuse of office, such as the acceptance of bribes in return for executive acts, similarly motivated violations of campaign finance laws, or the misuse of executive law enforcement staff to intimidate or harm political enemies as in the Nixon era. At the other end of the spectrum, crimes such as driving under the influence or throwing a punch at a political adversary, while calling the President's status as a role model into question, should not be considered impeachable offenses. If they are, the word "high" doesn't mean anything.
Lying is pervasive in government, as it is in human life in general. History has caught almost every American president in a convenient public lie to the American people. Clinton's lies, about never having had relations with Monica Lewinsky and never being alone with her, pertained to his private affairs. Most presidents are never put under oath and called to account for either a public or private lie. Presumably a large number of them would have perjured themselves if given the opportunity, especially on private matters which they considered nobody's business but their own. It is interesting to imagine the consequences of Thomas Jefferson under oath about Sally Hemmings or John Kennedy under oath about Marilyn Monroe.
In his speech calling for President Clinton's impeachment, Robert Livingston, incoming House speaker, shocked his audience today by announcing that he would not take the Speaker's role and would resign from the House next year, due to his four extramarital affairs about to be revealed by Penthouse Magazine. Congressman Henry Hyde, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, is another sanctimonious former marital cheat, and so it appears is Newt Gingrich.
I have a modest proposal. The current political environment clearly calls for a McCarthy-style loyalty oath. Let's invite Chief Justice Rehnquist to the well of the House, and ask him to bring a Bible. Let's then line up the entire Congress--- house and senate--to take an oath, one by one, that they have been loyal to their spouses and never committed an act of marital infidelity. For good measure, let's also have them swear that they have never cheated on their taxes, driven under the influence, shoplifted anything, or accepted a bribe or an inappropriate campaign contribution.
The results will be fascinating. Those who are truthful will largely give us insights into their humanity. As for those who perjure themselves, lets keep Kenneth Starr on the public payroll another five years, at a cost of another forty or fifty millions of our tax money, to root them out. If we play our cards right, the loyalty oath could help us clean out the whole nest of scorpions.
I am heartily sorry that Henry Hyde, Newt Gingrich, Robert Livingston, Helen Chenoweth and Dan Burton were never asked in the course of a grand jury investigation or civil deposition about their marital infidelities, as I have no doubt that each of them would have lied just as the President did.
I still think Bill Clinton isn't Presidential material. I didn't vote for him in the last election, and I regard him as an obsessive fuck-up and an embarassment to his party. But if I were Bill Clinton, I would hang in defiantly right now, because the Republican warping of the Constitution to carry out a partisan vendetta isn't right either. If the governing party can interpret "high crimes and misdemeanors" to mean anything it damn pleases, then the legislature has free reign to fire the executive---something the Framers never intended.
The Republicans have as much as admitted that in going against public opinion and impeaching the President they are assuming that the electorate are jackasses. They believe that the public will have long forgotten their hypocrisy and disregard of the Constitution before the 2000 elections. Personally I don't think public memory is that short; the scorpions currently stinging the President will drown themselves as well when he goes down.