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Will voters remember that Republicans went after Clinton?

Impeachment Fallout


In 1998, a host of constitutional scholars marched up the Capitol steps to declare - there's just no more accurate term for it — the idiocy of impeachment proceedings. Among them was Princeton University history Professor Sean Wilentz, who predicted that for those voting "yea" out of political motivation, "history would track [them] down," for they "will have done far more to subvert respect for ... the rule of law than any crime that has been alleged against President Clinton."

With sniffish arrogance the Right ignored Wilentz and mauled the Constitution in exchange for short-term political vengeance. Such an act in a politically accountable world should not be overlooked or forgiven: not by Democrats, not by Republicans. Yet the electorate — at least on the surface, it seems — has dismissed the Right's playpen mentality of toying with constitutionalism as just another ho-hum, there-they-go-again affair.

The Right demonstrated contempt less in what it did than why. Obviously it catered to its most conservative base while exploiting general voter apathy — and frankly made no secret of the strategy's latter component. Numerous impeachment architects predicted voters wouldn't care by 2000, that the party's deeds would be a thing of the past, of little concern to anyone. In short, the Right believed it could get away with it.

But the less publicized, more furtive, and most honest explanation for its actions came unexpectedly from House Judiciary Committee member Bob Barr. In a 1998 interview with Chris Matthews, Barr slipped out of rehearsed comments and into a sort of right-wing stream of consciousness — a fiery-eyed, resentment-filled exposition of the naked truth at last. It seemed Mr. Barr didn't like - didn't like at all - a "radical" occupying the Oval Office. Indeed, the White House was crawling with radicals, according to Barr. The president's wife was a radical. His advisors were radicals. Not only did they think like radicals, but they "read" other radicals. (I'm not making this up.) Yes, hippie radicals straight out of the 1960s, and Barr wouldn't abide it.

Implicit in his comments was that since Americans couldn't tell a dangerous radical from a three-piece suit, Barr and his Congressional cohorts were there, thankfully, to nip things in the bud for us — even if it that meant unconstitutional measures like ousting the little Leftist for non-impeachable offenses. His performance was reminiscent of Captain Queeg exposing all his demons on the witness stand. Queeg realized belatedly that he had only exposed his true self, however, while Barr gave no indication of this. And the irony of his bemoaning "radicals" in office nearly dripped off the screen.

Because the economy has been doing handsprings and so many politicians made comical fools of themselves throughout the impeachment fiasco, the public was slow to anger and Democrats, sensing public weariness, have downplayed the coup proclivities of the radical Right and its broader party acquiescence. The possibility looms, though, that voters took mental notes and are merely biding time until a bloodletting November. That scenario is not without precedent. Voters did just that with Ford in '76 over his '74 pardon of Nixon and with Bush in '92 over his '88 tax pledge. Years of electoral quietude separated each election from political misdeeds, yet voters remembered.

No doubt right-wing apologists would rationalize voter backlash in 2000 as partisan-instigated, but such a backlash would not derive from partisan appeals. Today's electorate counts as many wrong-headed Democrats as Republicans. Rather, it would come from a reverence for the Constitution and the witnessing of an attempted national hijacking by a relentlessly irresponsible party. Political thugs too often entrench themselves in power through hypocritical pronouncements of "rule of law." One hopes we don't add to that record.

Perhaps it's wishful thinking on my part, but voters' mindfulness may prove Sean Wilentz correct, sooner than later, thereby staving off other radical attempts at subverting the Constitution.

P. M. Carpenter is now concluding a one-year fellowship in the Department of History at the University of Illinois.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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