Impeachment: An American History

Impeachment: An American History
by Jeffrey A. Engel, Jon Meacham, Timothy Naftali, and Peter Baker
Modern Library, 2018


Last summer, 42 percent of respondents to a CNN poll said they would welcome the impeachment of President Donald Trump. The result raised eyebrows not only because he had been in office less than a year and a half, but also because it was eerily reminiscent of the 43 percent who favored impeaching Richard Nixon in March 1974, five months before Air Force One whisked Tricky Dick into history. Predictably, Trump's defenders screamed and countered that the poll really proved a majority opposed impeachment. No doubt they hoped the president's numbers would improve as his accomplishments mounted. So in September, CNN repeated the poll and 47 percent were ready to send him packing.

Trump plays only a minor role in Jeffrey A. Engel, Jon Meacham, Timothy Naftali, and Peter Baker's examination of presidential removal, Impeachment: An American History. Yet his presence looms over every sentence. The book breaks no new ground – that's not its purpose – but it reminds readers, from the perspective of 2018, what the nation's three prior flirtations with mid-term forced retirement entailed. In doing so, it sounds a note of caution for the 47 percent who have lost patience – not so much "be careful what you wish for" as "know what the hell that is."

Each author tells a different part of the story. Engel recounts the framers' debates about impeachment; Meacham narrates the travails of Andrew Johnson; Naftali explores the near-impeachment of Richard Nixon (cut short only by his resignation); and Peter Baker wades into Bill Clinton's tacky L'Affair Lewinsky. They all emphasize that impeachment is a political rather than a legal process, but they don't mean by that what Gerald Ford did when he skeptically remarked that "an impeachable offense is whatever the majority of the House of Representatives think it is at the time." Rather, they mean impeachment tries not just a president, but in a sense, the whole political system. Impeachment represents the republic itself – therefore the people – standing up to the head of state and deciding whether or not he breached the trust placed in him by an election.

Not surprisingly, then, Johnson, Nixon, and Clinton almost slide into the background throughout the book's four brisk essays. Barricaded in the White House, they spin the proceedings as best they can, but mostly they look on nervously as Capitol Hill decides their fate. Meantime, Congressmen – and in Johnson's and Clinton's cases, Senators – gaze nervously at the rest of the country since they are forced to shoulder one of the greatest burdens the Constitution places on anyone, and they are offered maddeningly few guidelines about how to do it.

They did it best when Nixon was in the dock. As chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, New Jersey Democrat Peter Rodino oversaw both the House investigation of the president and, eventually, the drafting of articles of impeachment. He knew if his efforts looked partisan they would founder, so he selected a general counsel known for bipartisanship and took as many pains to ward off hardliners in his own party as he did pro-Nixon Republicans. As a result, when the time came in the summer of 1974, he was able to coax enough Republicans to cross party lines, and enough conservatives to cross their constituents, that he could move the articles out of committee.

By contrast, the partisanship of the men who tried Andrew Johnson was obvious and grotesque. For one thing, they tried to impeach him repeatedly. They threw anything at him they could – including assertions he was involved in Lincoln's murder – and only on the fourth attempt succeeded with his violation of the almost-certainly-unconstitutional Tenure of Office Act. A hundred and thirty years later, Clinton's impeachers were no craftier in masking their partisan rancor. What the House managers insisted was a question of honesty, and the press treated as a matter of sex, was in fact just a brawl. As one of Texas Congressman Tom DeLay's aides charmingly quipped, "This whole thing about not kicking someone [Clinton] when they are down is BS. Not only do you kick him – you kick him until he passes out – then beat him over the head with a baseball bat – then roll him up in an old rug – and throw him off a cliff into the pound surf below!!!"

As the authors of Impeachment make clear, that is precisely not what the framers had in mind when they hesitatingly inserted an extra-electoral way to remove the president. But in the book's conclusion, Engel worries whether Americans in the age of Trump have any of the founders' caution.

The process for legislatively removing a chief executive outlined in the Constitution was never designed as a partisan tool or campaign talking point. It was instead the framers' safeguard, a nuclear option provided to halt tyranny and corruption at the top, to employ a term they would neither have employed nor understood. That election of either candidate in 2016 generated talk of its use demonstrates the opposite. Rather than accept the will of their fellow voters, Americans on both sides of the aisle today are instead ready as never before to reject the legitimacy of an election day's verdict before their opponent even swears their oath of office.

In the next two years – not without justification – Americans again will hear cries for the "nuclear option" to be launched. Impeachment reminds us that the most important question when that happens will not be whether Donald Trump's administration falls apart. It will be whether the rest of us hold our republic together.

Kip Wedel is an associate professor of History and Politics at Bethel College in North Newton, Kansas.