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Jewish World Review / Dec. 22, 1998 /3 Teves, 5759

Paul Greenberg

Paul Greenberg The surreal impeachment

THE PUNDITS AND POLS kept describing the proceedings in Washington as surreal. They were right. What made it surreal as a Dali painting wasn't just the tumult on television, but the complete calm in the country. While the politicians politicked and the commentators commentated, the Republic went on, unruffled. It was as if the whole show were taking place in a little corner of an enormous, continental room in which the people who had lives were living them.

Compared to the professionalism of the armed forces (yes, there was a war on, too) and the calm in mainstream, bedrock America, the high-decibel cries about a constitutional crisis seemed part of another TV spectacular, complete with a theatrical speeches and stagey settings ---- the Nation's Capitol! The Rose Garden!

Sorry, Bubba, it ain't gonna help!
While the people's house seemed all agog, the people seemed preternaturally calm, as if they knew this was no Constitutional Crisis. A crisis for a president, maybe, and even for the uncomfortable politicians who must now sit in judgment on his case (who, after all, ever really wants to serve on a jury?), but not a crisis for the Constitution. Its very function is to prevent crises, and it does, ticking magisterially on, constitutional process by constitutional process, section and clause after section and clause, impeachment and trial.

Just as every four years, the antique Electoral College is taken out of its constitutional wraps and put into action like an old Mixmaster, churning a jumble of votes into a clear popular mandate, so, every generation or so, when a Dick Nixon or Bill Clinton comes along, it's time for Article II, Section 4 to be uncased, brushed off and set into motion. And dawgone if the old, 18th-century mechanism called Impeachment doesn't start ticking like a metronome, and the whole, legislative band begins to play.

Yes, it's surreal, how the past sets the present in order, and the notes fall into constitutional place once again. On television and in The Nation's Capital, all may be hurly-burly as congressmen walk out, board buses to the White House, mill about the Rose Garden, deliver Articles of Impeachment ... but the country remains serene, the people's faith in their Constitution undisturbed.

The best commentary on this little bump in the constitutional road may not be Federalist Paper 65, after all, but F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. As the articles of impeachment were read and approved or rejected, just as any grand jury might sift through the evidence and deliver a true bill, one thought of Arkansas' own Gatsby in his mansion on Pennsylvania Avenue: "He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.'' Any crisis had occurred long before, when a fateful turn was taken on a fast road. This is just the result, the cleanup, the inevitable conclusion.

Calm as the country was, the scenes in Washington were grand opera. Unhappy congressmen walked out of the House to show their displeasure, a theatrical technique that hasn't grown any more attractive since Andrei Gromyko used to pull it regularly at the Security Council. We half expected one of the louder Voices of Reason and Compromise, a Wexler or Nadler, to take off his shoe and bang it on the rostrum in the best Nikita Khrushchev style.

Then every Democratic congressman who had just argued, in a proposed resolution of censure, that this president had disgraced his office, violated his oath and sought to cover up his reprehensible behavior ... boarded the bus for the White House to lend him moral support. Yes, surreal. But only if you take the words of their Resolution of Censure seriously, and nothing is harder to take seriously in this Age of Clinton than words.

Patriotism being the last refuge of those who oppose impeachment, the president's supporters urged Congress to put off its duty while the men and women of the armed forces were doing theirs. As if a B-52 pilot high above Baghdad might be distracted by thoughts of whether a motion to recommit the articles of impeachment was germane. Our troops had more relevant things on their minds, like accomplishing their mission. The House did well to concentrate on its.

The big story of the day wasn't even impeachment -- that had been expected -- but the resignation of the speaker-elect. Hearing him urge the president to resign, Bob Livingston's Democratic hecklers shouted: "You resign!'' And he did. Whereupon they said he shouldn't. Yes, surreal.

All are now agreed that Bob Livingston is an honorable man. I would go further: The man is positively et up with honor. Is this the second or third time he's announced his retirement from the House for honorable reasons? His latest and worst resignation now has further blurred the line between his private indiscretions, which are no one's business but his own and his family's, and perjury and obstruction -- which are crimes. Even and especially when the country's chief law enforcement officer is accused of them.

It's as if the now universally esteemed gentleman from Louisiana was determined to follow every honorable rule in the book, except one that the humblest worker and even the inkiest wretch on a newspaper knows: When you take on an assignment, you stick with it till it's finished. But in the name of honor, Bob Livingston has skipped out on his job ---- while Bill Clinton is holding on to his. Yes, surreal.

Masters of spin, the White House immediately used Congressman Livingston's resignation to argue against "the politics of personal destruction,'' as if the issue were Bill Clinton's private lapses rather than whether he committed perjury and obstructed justice to cover them up. But that tack is scarcely surreal; it's been standard operating procedure for quite a while. It now takes a Henry Hyde to point out the simplest distinctions. Of course, he's from a different age.

It was an earlier Democratic president, Andrew Jackson, who once told Congress that, while it was free to censure its own members, it had no right to censure the head of another, co-equal branch of government. When he was censured, Old Hickory dared the Whigs to impeach him so he could defend himself at trial like a man. He denounced censure as a weak, diluted, impudent, extra-constitutional substitute for impeachment. (When Andy Jackson denounced something, he denounced it.) Now we have a Democratic president who wants Congress to censure him, pretty please, so he can avoid trial. Yes, surreal. Is this still the Republic of Jefferson and Jackson, of Washington and Hamilton, or of P.T. Barnum and Bill Clinton?


12/17/98: Another moment of truth approaches
12/15/98: The President's defenders: witnesses for the prosecution
12/10/98:The latest miracle cure: CensurePlus
12/03/98: Sentences at an airport Sentences at an airport
12/03/98: Games lawyers play
12/01/98: Ms. Magoo strikes again, or: Janet Reno and the law
11/26/98: The most American holiday
11/23/98: Same game, another round
11/18/98: Guide to the perplexed
11/09/98: A vote for apathy
11/03/98: Global village goes Clintonesque
11/02/98: Farewell to all that
10/30/98: New budget, same swollen government
10/26/98: Of life on the old plantation -- and death in the Middle East
10/22/98: Starr Wars (CONT'D)
10/19/98:Another retreat: weakness invites aggression
10/16/98: Profile in courage
10/14/98: A new voice out of Arkansas
10/09/98: Gerald Ford, Mr. Fix-It?
10/07/98: Impeachment Journal: Dept. of Doublespeak
10/01/98: The new tradition
9/25/98: Mr. President, PLEASE don't resign
9/23/98: The demolition of meaning
9/18/98: So help us G-d; The nature of the crisis
9/17/98: First impressions: on reading the Starr Report
9/15/98: George Wallace: All the South in one man
9/10/98: Here comes the judge
9/07/98: Toward impeachment
9/03/98: The politics of impeachment
9/01/98: The eagle can still soar
8/28/98: Boris Yeltsin's mind: a riddle pickled in an enigma
8/26/98: Clinton agonistes, or: Twisting in the wind
8/25/98: The rise of the English murder
8/24/98: Confess and attack: Slick comes semi-clean
8/19/98: Little Rock perspectives
8/14/98: Department of deja vu
8/12/98: The French would understand
8/10/98: A fable: The Rat in the Corner
8/07/98: Welcome to the roaring 90s
8/06/98: No surprises dept. -- promotion denied
8/03/98: Quotes of and for the week: take your pick
7/29/98: A subpoena for the president:
so what else is new?
7/27/98: Forget about Bubba, it's time to investigate Reno
7/23/98: Ghosts on the roof, 1998
7/21/98: The new elegance
7/16/98: In defense of manners
7/13/98: Another day, another delay: what's missing from the scandal news
7/9/98:The language-wars continue
7/7/98:The new Detente
7/2/98: Bubba in Beijing: history does occur twice
6/30/98: Hurry back, Mr. President -- to freedom
6/24/98: When Clinton follows Quayle's lead
6/22/98: Independence Day, 2002
6/18/98: Adventures in poli-speke

©1998, Los Angeles Times Syndicate