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Jewish World Review /September 11, 1998 / 20 Elul, 5758

Mona Charen

Mona Charen

Are we in crisis?

BY THE TIME THIS COLUMN IS READ, the contents of the voluminous Starr report should be out. It is possible that the details will be so damning that all brow-mopping about the awfulness of impeachment will abruptly cease.

But if the report provides simply chapter and verse about things we already know, it is worth pausing over the often-expressed worry that impeaching a president amounts to a "constitutional crisis."

The founders provided for impeachment as part of the governing apparatus of the nation. We have used it twice before (Richard Nixon counts, even though he resigned before trial in the Senate) without suffering civil war, revolution or even the slightest disorder. In fact, most of those now sniffling that "elections should not be trifled with" were cheering lustily for President Nixon's removal. The same people who now wonder aloud whether lying is really so serious have forgotten that lying to the American people was the first article of impeachment against Richard Nixon.

Some of the commentators on television have been blathering that "of course, no one knows what 'high crimes and misdemeanors' means."

Yes, we do. The phrase has occasioned debate among scholars, but as Jason Vicente argues in a policy analysis for the Cato Institute, there is near unanimity among those who study these matters that indictable offenses are impeachable. In her book High Crimes and Misdemeanors, lawyer Ann Coulter notes that the phrase was first used in England in 1380. Since then, the words have been used exclusively in connection with impeachments.

Historically, the phrase seems to have been used most often to connote not criminal conduct but rather moral turpitude. For example, in 1666, Viscount John Mordaunt was impeached for the high crime and misdemeanor of "making uncivil advances to a woman." In 1701, Edward, earl of Oxford, was impeached for procuring an office for someone "known to be person of ill fame and reputation."

Coulter explains: "So a 'high misdemeanor' refers not ... to a criminal offense just short of a felony but to simple misbehavior ... (As James Madison put it, the impeachment power was) 'for keeping them virtuous whilst they continue to hold their public trust.'"

Yes, impeachment is an extreme remedy. It cannot be the refuge of every defeated candidate or humiliated opposition party. But as Madison so wisely envisioned, there must be some sanction readily available against public corruption. Impeachment is the solitary confinement of democratic government. Just as the threat of solitary is necessary to keep order within a prison, impeachment serves to remind the high and mighty that they are not beyond democratic control.

The words "public trust" have an antique flavor in these days of extreme cynicism. At least part of President Clinton's continuing support among the public grows out of a misplaced sense that he is no different from any other politician. In the days and weeks to come, it will be the job of members of Congress, Republicans and Democrats alike, to comport themselves honorably -- to remind all of us and perhaps themselves that "public trust" need not be an oxymoron.

The threat that Clinton presents to the nation is not of a criminal running loose at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (though he has broken the law). The threat he represents is the loss of honor for the presidency and for the country. The "I don't care what he does so long as the economy is strong" point of view signals that Americans have abandoned the idea of America as a moral enterprise.

For nine months, Americans have been responding to the Clinton scandals by asking, "Who are we to judge?" It was a morally flaccid response, a failure of nerve and an abandonment of principle. Perhaps the president deserved the benefit of the doubt -- though his history of mendacity and his evasive, lawyerly early responses suggest otherwise. But the American people, and their leaders, seemed to seize on benefit of the doubt as an excuse to avoid their duty. That fig leaf is gone, and we will now see whether the nation and its leaders can shake off complacency and moral myopia.

Impeachment is not a crisis --- but the lack of it may well be.


9/09/98: Does Burton's sin let Clinton off the hook?
9/07/98: Liar's Poker
9/01/98: One, two, three
8/28/98: Fat and folly
8/25/98: When homework is a dirty word
8/21/98: The unravelling
8/18/98: The wages of dishonesty
8/17/98: Sex, honor and the presidency
8/12/98: Pro-choice extremist
8/10/98: Switch illuminates biology's role
8/05/98: The presumption of innocence and the American way
8/03/98: An American hero
7/29/98: Lock up those who need psychiatric care
7/24/98: Making the military more like us
7/22/98: The 'Net sex hoax... and us
7/20/98: Disappointed by Cosbys
7/15/98: Feelings, not morality, rule
7/10/98: Guns as the solution?
7/8/98: Teacher preacher
7/6/98: The China behind the headlines
7/1/98: What is the First Amendment for?
6/26/98: The Republican city
6/24/98: Poison pen
6/22/98: Clinton: inventing his own reality?
6/16/98: Senator mom?
6/12/98: Wisconsin: a trail blazer?
6/9/98: These girls say no to sex, yes to excellence
6/5/98: Lewinsky's ex-lawyer would feel right at home as Springer guest
6/2/98: English? Si; Republican? No!
5/29/98: The truth about women and work
5/27/98: Romance in the '90s
5/25/98:Taxing smokers for fun and profit
5/19/98: China's friend in the White House
5/15/98: Look out feminists: here comes the true backlash
5/12/98: The war process?
5/8/98: Where's daddy?
5/5/98: The joys of boys
5/1/98: Republicans move on education reform
4/28/98: Reagan was right
4/24/98: The key to Pol Pot
4/21/98: The patriot's channel
4/19/98: Child-care day can't replace mom
4/15/98: Tax time
4/10/98: Armey states obvious, gets clobbered
4/7/98: A nation complacent?
4/1/98: Bill Clinton's African adventure
3/27/98: Understanding Arkansas
3/24/98: Jerry Springer's America
3/20/98: A small step for persecuted minorities
3/17/98: Skeletons in every closet?
3/13/98: Clinton's idea of a fine judge
3/10/98: Better than nothing?
3/6/98: Of fingernails and freedom
3/3/98: Read JWR! :0)
2/27/98: Dumb and Dumber
2/24/98: Reagan reduced poverty more than Clinton
2/20/98: Rally Round the United Nations?
2/17/98: In Denial
2/13/98: Reconsidering Theism
2/10/98: Waiting for the facts?
2/8/98: Cat got the GOP's tongue?
2/2/98: Does America care about immorality?
1/30/98: How to judge Clinton's denials
1/27/98: What If It's Just the Sex?
1/23/98: Bill Clinton, Acting Guilty
1/20/98: Arafat and the Holocaust Museum
1/16/98: Child Care or Feminist Agenda?
1/13/98: What We Really Think of Abortion
1/9/98: The Dead Era of Budget Deficits Rises Again?
1/6/98: "Understandable" Murder and Child Custody
1/2/98: Majoring in Sex
12/30/97: The Spirit of Kwanzaa
12/26/97: Food fights (Games children play)
12/23/97: Does Clinton's race panel listen to facts?
12/19/97: Welcome to the Judgeocracy, where the law school elite overrules majority rule
12/16/97: Do America's Jews support Netanyahu?

©1998, Creators Syndicate, Inc.