Paul Kengor: Impeaching a president: 20 years ago (and today)
Twenty years ago, America experienced the impeachment of a president.
The vote occurred Dec. 19, 1998, with two articles approved by the House of Representatives, on the grounds that President Bill Clinton lied to a grand jury and obstructed justice.
The Senate trial began Jan. 7, 1999. A two-thirds vote was required to remove Clinton from office. It wasn’t even close, as not a single Democrat voted for removal.
How did it come about? What lessons can we learn today, especially as members of the incoming Democrat- controlled House look to impeach Donald Trump?
The path to Clinton’s impeachment began Jan. 17, 1998, with Clinton giving a six-hour, sworn deposition denying a “sexual relationship” with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Among the curiosities was his striking amnesia over seven women listed as various Jane Does. All were women that Clinton, retroactive Father of the #MeToo movement, employed as sexual playthings — usually on company time. The deposition included complex discourses over what the master of the parsed word considered “sexual relations.”
What Clinton told Judge Susan Webber Wright was a rehearsal of what he soon tried to shovel to a larger audience.
That came to pass when, on Jan. 26, speaking in the Roosevelt Room at the White House, Clinton doubled down. Standing between his wife and vice president, joining him in announcing their new after-school initiative, Clinton looked at the press and glared: “I want you to listen to me. … I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky. I never told anybody to lie, not a single time — never. These allegations are false.”
With that, Clinton stomped away. His performance was impressive, calling to mind a trenchant assessment by fellow Democrat, Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey: “Clinton’s an unusually good liar. Unusually good.”
Clinton would be forced to fess up only when it was later learned that that woman, Lewinsky, had a blue dress with stains on it — the distinctive DNA of William Jefferson Clinton.
Bill was busted. As liberal pundit Chris Matthews put it, he “didn’t decide to tell the truth, he got caught.”
Lewinsky would later tell all. She now concedes that her 50-something boss had engaged in a “gross abuse of power.” What sort?
There were 18 months of gifts and at least a half-dozen sexual encounters between Clinton and Lewinsky, one with him maneuvering a cigar. They occurred between Nov. 15, 1995, and March 29, 1997, the peak of Clinton’s re-election campaign. The first took place the day Clinton signed a “Family Week” proclamation. One of the most infamous, while the president was on the phone with a congressman, occurred Easter Sunday 1996, after he returned from church.
What to make of the whole sordid mess?
The most respected voice in the impeachment proceedings was Congressman Henry Hyde. “It’s not a question of sex,” said Hyde in his historic floor speech. “It’s a question of lying under oath. The issue is perjury … obstruction of justice.”
Actually, it was all those things. Clinton had a sexual problem as well as a legal problem.
Nonetheless, when it comes to impeachment, the terms are subjective, and easily succumb to partisan lines. That was precisely what happened in this case 20 years ago. And, it is likely to happen again with President Trump.
Paul Kengor is professor of political science and executive director of The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. His column appears twice a month.