Don't Dump a President for Petty Politics

In the opinion-page article "It Ought To Be Easier To Change Presidents" (Jan. 28), Kent Weaver offers the opinion that "If the US had a parliamentary system, the Clinton presidency would already have been consigned to ... history." He argues that we should be able to remove a president for lesser shortcomings, such as being a political embarrassment or being viewed as ineffective. This view is a classic case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, or more specifically, throwing the presidency out with a president.

The Founding Fathers wanted a system that would outlast temporary political differences while still giving the people the final voice. They wanted a government answerable to the people but also strong and stable - capable of making difficult, unpopular decisions. They recognized that often the "right thing" might not be popular until hindsight could observe its results. So, those who wielded power must be free to exercise it without short-term fear of retribution.

To give the author's proposal a fair hearing, we can look at nations with parliamentary systems like Mr. Weaver describes. In Japan, Italy, and Great Britain, for example, a party comes to power with a legislative majority. That party selects a prime minister from among its own, who governs until that majority is lost or until a lack of confidence stimulates a call for a new election, which can happen at any time.

The results? Japan had the second strongest economy in the world with growing power and influence, until a scandal quickly brought down the prime minister. Several years of political instability led to increased inflation, a reduction in productivity, a decline in profits, and a significant loss of worldwide influence.

Italy, the most frightening example, has seen a new government take office and fall from power almost 60 times since World War II - one loses count. That nation has not had a major impact on the world stage since the rise of Mussolini.

The example of Great Britain is more subtle. While it has not experienced dramatic internal traumas, what once was a gigantic empire has shrunk monumentally.

These systems do not provide attractive models for America to emulate.

The second test is to evaluate our nation's response to presidents in trouble. Hindsight reveals that the attempt to remove Andrew Johnson from the White House was a shameful episode, in which anti-reconstructionists strove to punish the South for the Civil War. Mr. Johnson wanted to continue Lincoln's policy to reunite the country. But in the moral and political vacuum left by Lincoln's death, Johnson did not have the clout to lead the country in that unpopular effort. He escaped removal from office by one vote.

A horrible precedent might have been set, had Congress been able to remove a president for any reason for which it had the votes. Would the South ever have risen above the status of a conquered territory? Would the US be the strong nation it is today? Americans can be forever thankful that it was not easier to remove the president in the 1860s.

The more recent experience of Richard Nixon makes the point another way. When faced with clear evidence of abuse of power, the system worked.

These two experiences serve as ringing endorsements of the wisdom of a difficult process for removing a president. If the author's approach had made its way into the constitution, many disasters would have been possible in our history. Had Thomas Jefferson not spent $15 million on the Louisiana Purchase without the approval of Congress, for which he was unmercifully criticized, North America might still be owned by several European nations.

It must remain difficult to remove a president from office. We must not throw away our great national heritage to satisfy the petty political arguments that will always plague our presidents in the day-to-day struggle of American politics.

Dan Sapone

Pleasanton, Calif.

Your letters are welcome. All letters are subject to editing. Mail to "Readers Write," One Norway St., Boston, MA 02115, fax to 617-450-2317, or e-mail to oped@csps.com

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