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The threshold for impeachment

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March 14, 2006

By JOHN M. CRISP

During our history’s most prominent presidential dalliance, Monica Lewinski gave Bill Clinton a copy of Nicholson Baker’s "Vox," a fictional erotic phone conversation between two strangers. Baker’s new book, "Checkpoint," is another extended dialogue, this time between two old friends, Ben, a historian, and Jay, who’s so outraged by the deaths of innocent Iraqi civilians at a Marine checkpoint that he decides to assassinate President Bush.

Assassination? Let’s not get carried away. Of course, Baker isn’t actually advocating assassination — that’s against the law and, besides, Jay is a fictional character who’s clearly deranged. The First Amendment permits this sort of attention-getting hyperbole in fiction. But Jay’s irrational reaction to the state of affairs in his fictional world is credible only if a reasonable case can be made that things are going very, very wrong in real life.

Some of our country’s missteps are the result of differences of opinion and the weaknesses inherent in human governance. For example, our administration and Congress support tax cuts that favor the rich at the expense of the rest of us, as well as energy policies that are blind to the pitfalls of a hydrocarbon-based future. The administration’s foreign policy has alienated us from much of the rest of the world. Incompetence abounds, from Louisiana to Iraq.

But of much greater significance are the administration’s very long steps in very strange directions in at least three areas: torture, wiretapping without a warrant, and pre-emptive war. Issues like these involve much more than just differences of opinion; they go a long way toward defining who we are.

When any administration begins to alter our country’s most basic fabric, the citizenry must take notice and resist. Should resistance take the form of impeachment proceedings before our country has changed beyond repair? I’m no particular fan of the Bush administration, but the suggestion of impeachment makes me a bit queasy. Impeachment is a legitimate constitutional remedy, but it’s drastic step, one that, like a vote of no confidence, should be taken infrequently, perhaps once a century or so. Use it much more often than that and it quickly becomes a divisive political tool that’s trotted out against trivial targets.

And yet the circumstances that permit Baker to broach credibly the subject of assassination in fiction have encouraged politicians and journalists to consider the I-word in real life. For example, columnist Bonnie Erbe, who says that she called for President Clinton to step down in the late ’90s, openly advocates the impeachment of George W. Bush. So does former Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman, D-N.Y., in the Jan. 30 issue of The Nation.

And consider the credible case for impeachment made by Lewis Lapham in the March issue of Harper’s. Lapham reviews a report developed during the last half of 2005 by the staff of Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., titled "The Constitution in Crisis: The Downing Street Minutes and Deception, Manipulation, Torture, Retribution, and Coverups in the Iraq War." (This 182-page report can be found at http://rawstory.com/other/conyersreportrawstory.pdf.)

Much of the Conyers report is familiar material, but it’s impressive to find in one place a detailed and highly documented account of the circumstances and actions that led to our deadly war in Iraq and its proliferation of instability around the world. Besides the incompetence and hubris of the Bush administration, the central theme of the report is that the intention to go to war in Iraq was hatched well before 9/11, which served as a handy excuse rather than as the cause of the war, and that subsequent justifications for our "pre-emptive" attack were devised to serve a pre-determined goal. That Bush came to office with the intention of invading Iraq is, as Lapham says, "a fact not open to dispute." Now we are in a grim mess, in a number of different ways.

Clearly, the conventional processes of elections and legislation are preferable to the drastic measure of impeachment. But the country is changing quickly in ways that will be difficult to revoke. Conyers is asking for the formation of a bipartisan committee to investigate the premises that supported the war in Iraq. Given the partisan makeup of Congress, an investigation is unlikely without the interest and support of an informed electorate.

Newfane, Vt., however, isn’t hesitating. It called for Bush’s impeachment at its annual town-hall meeting, making a small but courageous gesture that sends a message: Impeachment isn’t strictly about who’s president. It’s also about who we are and what we want to be.

 

(John M. Crisp is an English professor at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas.)