The Republican Revenge Crusade

by Jonathan Wallace

On a recent episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, someone commented that truly modern vampires don't get involved in revenge crusades. The vampires in the House of Representatives apparently weren't watching.

The Senate impeachment trial ended unsurprisingly, with the failure to muster a simple majority on either the perjury or obstruction of justice charges. It had been clear from the day the House filed the charges that sixty seven senators would not vote to convict. It was not always clear that not even fifty-one would back either charge.

In the end-game, Democrats and Republicans alike stepped forward to propose alternatives to a straight up-and-down vote on the impeachment charges. Democrats, apparently fearing they would be tarred as the party of complacency when it came to adultery and perjury, suggested censure. One respected Republican senator wrote an op-ed piece in the Times suggesting that the Senate should simply drop the proceedings without coming to any resolution. His fear was a vote validating that perjury is not an impeachable offense. This is now exactly what has occurred.

Impeachment is a strange hybrid, a political process which is disguised as a judicial one. Press reports referred to "prosecutors" and meant Congressmen. The ambiguous nature of the proceedings led to a lot of spin. In general, the House managers wanted us to think it was a simple judicial process, not the slightest bit political.

If this is true, then what they did was shocking. A prosecutor should never indict a suspect unless he or she believes that there is sufficient evidence for a jury to find the suspect guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. When a prosecutor indicts someone on lesser evidence, to harass him or to send a message to the public about his behavior, this is typically a sign of politics interfering in the judicial process. The destruction of the comedian Lenny Bruce by his indictment everywhere, or Kenneth Starr's serial indictments of Webster Hubbell, are two notorious examples of the politicized prosecutor's tactic of "piling on." Prosecutors know that even if the defendant is acquitted every time, they can destroy his reputation, financial security and even his health.

Indictment with perfect foreknowledge that the jury---the Senate---lacked the votes to convict is the ultimate proof of what most of us already know: that the process was a purely political one. When the framers considered the question of whether the president could be removed for abuse of his office, they decided that they would place this authority in the legislative and not in the judicial branch. Although the dangers of dictatorship were probably greater had they gone the other way---imagine if Chief Justice Rehnquist alone could render a removal decision---the framers risked a profound weakening of the executive branch, if Congress ever decided to define "high crimes and misdemeanors" to mean that "the President serves at the pleasure of the Congress".

One strange aspect of the impeachment melodrama is the tendency of the supposedly liberal press to assume bipartisanship, statesmanship and balance where none exists. Anyone who followed Henry Hyde's disgraceful performance in the Communications Decency Act debacle---he introduced the House's Internet censorship language through a back-door tactic, flouting Speaker Gingrich's announcement that the House wouldn't cesnor the Net---could easily have predicted Hyde's behavior on impeachment. The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee is a social conservative, beholden to the religious right. He is a member of that faction which believes it knows the right moral answers for everyone and has an obligation to dictate them. And worse still, he is a hypocrite; his own adultery, in his mid-forties, he now dismisses as a "youthful indiscretion"! I am 44 years old and have no maturity problems when it comes to staying faithful to my wife.

If I didn't have to work for a living, and had the opportunity for more day-time, in person activism, I would have hired a court stenographer and sat for days on end on the steps of Congress. Everytime Congressman Hyde or one of the other House managers passed by, I would have invited them to be sworn in by the stenographer and answer a few simple questions under oath. Have you ever been unfaithful to your spouse? Under what circumstances? Have you ever testified under oath before in a civil or criminal proceeding? Did you tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?

Another interesting endeavor would be to search court records and locate proceedings in which various sitting members of Congress have testified. One example alone came to light, though there must be many more. Congressman Tom DeLay, the House majority whip, denied under oath that he was still a director of a corporation, though his House financial disclosure form for that same year recited that he was.

The moral punchline of Howards' End was Margaret Schlegel's speech to her husband, in defense of her adulterous sister: "What she has done, you have done." The impeachment spectacle we have just witnessed, in the last analysis, involved a group of adulterous liars with a holier-than-thou attitude, piling on an adulterous liar in the White House.

The Senate alone comes cleanly out of this debacle---though it is likely that the courage of the Senate actually consisted of taking the line of least resistance. Once the House "prosecutors" got the impeachment juggernaut moving, the Senate had an obligation to put it to an up or down vote, no matter what the consequences. The President had a right to a verdict, and only he could have waived that right, by way of the equivalent of a plea bargain. Attempts by Senators, whether Republican or Democrat, to short-circuit the process would have been tantamount to the despicable tactic of indicting a suspect, then adjourning the trial permanently without reaching a verdict.

Now we have one more spectacle: the Republicans, whose revenge crusade failed, urging the President and the Democrats not to embark on one of their own in the 2000 elections. In my life, I have repeatedly discovered that most bullies are cowards. They are the ones who decided to bring a proceeding they could not win. Today, instead of taking responsibility, they are blaming everyone else, including the voters.

Some of the House managers have claimed that, in bringing an unpopular impeachment proceeding, they were following a moral imperative down a lonely high road. But the true sign that a person is adhering to an unpopular moral insight is his willingness to take the consequences. Protestors who went to prison for refusing the draft took the high road, those who lied to the draft board did not.

The House managers likely relied on the perception that voters are children, who will have forgotten the revenge crusade long before the next election. Let's all answer this cynical lack of faith at the polling booth in 2000.