Lessons from the Clinton Impeachment

It was February 8, 2000, one year after the conclusion of the impeachment trial of Bill Clinton, and I was in the office of Congressman Henry Hyde, the man who had led the House Managers over to the Senate to argue for Clinton’s removal from office. From one perspective, the attempt had been an exercise in futility, but I was there to interview Hyde about the experience and why he had chosen to participate. This was the first of thirteen interviews I conducted, seeking to know why all of these Republican congressmen thought it was wise to go forward with something the public seemed to disapprove.

The silver-haired figure sitting behind his desk sighed and paused. He seemed to be contemplating the portion of the Capitol visible from his office window. The question posed to him was “Do you regret having been involved with all this?”

The answer finally came—slowly, deliberately, cautiously—as he searched for just the right words to express how he felt. “In one way, I regret it profoundly,” he began. “It drained a lot of the joy. And that’s the word that I felt as a Member of Congress. I have always literally loved my work, coming to work, participating in the cut and the thrust of legislation, helping constituents. It’s all been a glorious adventure. The personal attacks that I had to undergo that were very harmful to me divested this enterprise of a lot of that sunshine and joy that I previously experienced.”

Yet, despite the pain his involvement caused, Hyde believed he really had no choice.

I viewed my role as Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and the recipient of all this evidence as one of doing my duty, onerous though it was. We all want to be loved. We all want to be liked. We all want to be respected. And going against public opinion is not anything you do lightly.

But I could not see any honorable way to evade proceeding with hearings in our committee and letting them go where the facts led us, being true to my oath of office, to my concept of why I was in Congress. . . .

Knowing what I know, I would have no other course but to do what we did. And I’d do it again.

“I’m in a position where I’m contending with the president of the United States, and I must be destroyed.” That’s how Hyde characterized his situation prior to opening the Judiciary Committee’s investigation into President Clinton’s alleged wrongdoing. Neither was he eager to enter into the fray: “God, I’d like to forget all of this. I mean, who needs it?” But, in the end, he could not look the other way. “I’m frightened for the rule of law,” he said. “I really believe that notion that no man is above the law.”

He appealed to his Democratic colleagues to rise above partisanship, reminding them of the sacredness of an oath, which meant “a solemn calling on God to witness to the truth of what you are saying.” He quoted Sir Thomas More who was beheaded by Henry VIII for refusing to ignore his conscience: “When you take an oath, you hold your soul in your hands, and if you break that oath, you open up your fingers and your soul runs through them and is lost.”

The rule of law is essential to a free society, Hyde argued, and he challenged his fellow congressmen to take it more seriously:

We are, sometimes, too cavalier in our attitude toward the rule of law. It is something we take for granted. Yet we live in a century which, in blood and tears, in pain and sorrow, has vindicated the contention of the Founders of this Republic and the Framers of its Constitution, that the rule of law is the only alternative to tyranny, or to the anarchy that eventually leads to tyranny.

When it came time to go to the Senate to make the case for removal, Hyde knew how much of an uphill battle it was going to be. Opinion polls gave Clinton high job approval ratings, the Democrats were planning to vote as a block regardless of the evidence, and the Republican senators were, by and a large, skittish about how it all looked. They would have preferred to move on to other business. One Republican senator even told Hyde, “Henry, come on. You want to put all this stuff in, you want to spend all this time, you want to go through this dog and pony show—there’s no way you’re going to get sixty-seven votes no matter what you do.” The clincher, in this senator’s mind, was “Henry, I don’t care if you prove he raped a woman and then stood up and shot her dead—you are not going to get sixty-seven votes.”

That senator’s analysis was accurate, unfortunately, but that didn’t deter Hyde, as he remarked on the Senate floor, “Our work here is not an ongoing plebiscite. We are elected to bring our judgment, our experience, and our consciences here with us.” He believed firmly that “there are issues of transcendent importance that you have to be willing to lose your office over.” For him, the issues of abortion, national defense, and equal justice under the law were worth such a cost.

Equal justice under the law is what moves me and animates me and consumes me, and I’m willing to lose my seat any day in the week rather than sell out on those issues.

Despite all the polls and all the hostile editorials, America is hungry for people who believe in something. You may disagree with us, but we believe in something.

Hyde’s final words in the impeachment trial sound a warning that stretches into our day and are just as applicable to the impeachment trial that ended a short time ago:

If you agree that perjury and obstruction of justice have been committed, and yet you vote down the conviction, you are extending and expanding the boundaries of permissible Presidential conduct.

You are saying a perjurer and obstructer of justice can be President. In the face of no less than three precedents for conviction of Federal judges for perjury. You shred those precedents and you raise the most serious questions of whether the President is in fact subject to the law or whether we are beginning a restoration of the divine right of kings.

The issues we are concerned with have consequences far into the future because the real damage is not to the individuals involved, but to the American system of justice and especially the principle that no one is above the law.

Following that appeal, not one Democrat voted for removal from office.

Move ahead twenty years and what do we find? The arguments are reversed and the parties are reversed. Where has principle gone? I honor those Republicans who stood for the rule of law twenty years ago. Where can one witness that kind of principle in Republicans today?

I’ll give Henry Hyde the last word. When I asked him what he hoped Americans could learn from the impeachment experience, his answer started again with a sigh and a pause. Then he said,

I think respect for the rule of law and understanding that honor and integrity are at the heart of our democracy and that leaders ought to hold fast to principle.

Our democracy has to prove itself again and again. It’s just as good as the people who govern.

Cynicism is self-defeating. We need our best people to be attracted to public service. If we continue to demean them, for whatever purposes, we’re damaging self-government.