When a Presidency Is Squeezed

As House panel casts key vote, historians analyze shards of past impeachment efforts

Barely audible above the partisan din of the Lewinsky matter is the creak of the wheels of history, carrying Bill Clinton down a road only two other American presidents have traveled.

With today's vote by the House Judiciary Committee, which is expected to recommend a formal impeachment inquiry, President Clinton will join Richard Nixon and Andrew Johnson as the chief executives who have faced the ultimate congressional punishment: removal from office.

The committee vote starts in motion a process that is likely to be open-ended - and perhaps broader than just the perjury and obstruction issues surrounding the Lewinsky probe. Next stop is the House floor on Friday, where lawmakers are expected to approve the committee's recommendation.

The impeachment process, once under way, is almost certain to have a profound effect on the institution of the presidency. More broadly, it may alter the balance of power between the executive and legislative branches, not to mention Americans' trust in their government.

As difficult as this moment may be for the president personally, "I don't think he's the issue," said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah at a recent Monitor breakfast.

For clues to how the Clinton scandal will reverberate through America's system of governance, today's historians are avidly searching the past. Many see Clinton's plight as less wide-ranging and serious than were President Nixon's troubles, but neither is it as purely political and contrived as the impeachment proceeding against President Johnson.

Still, some find today's climate to be most analogous to that of 130 years ago. Like Clinton, Johnson was a Southerner of humble roots, and he faced a Congress dominated by a strong opposition party. And like the Congress of 1868, today's lawmakers may eventually decide that removal from office is too harsh a punishment.

The Johnson crisis started when the president unilaterally sacked his war secretary - an infraction of a new law requiring Senate approval for the removal of a Cabinet appointee. Shortly thereafter, a majority of the House voted to impeach him.

The case then moved to the Senate for trial. So sure was Senate president pro tem Benjamin Wade of becoming the next leader of the United States (under the succession rules of the time), that he began building his Cabinet before Johnson's Senate trial was over. But Wade was to be disappointed. Johnson escaped conviction in the Senate by just one vote and remained in office.

Historians view the Johnson impeachment as a purely partisan effort by a post-Civil-War Congress bent on ousting a president who favored a forgive-and-forget policy toward the South over one of crushing punishment.

For the executive branch, it was a close call with a Congress that endeavored to shift the balance of power and get the upper hand in ruling the country. "If Johnson had been removed," says presidential historian Henry Graff, "we would have had the gain of a congressional government."

Essentially, it would have meant the removal of a president not for an outrageous crime, but simply because he was unpopular with lawmakers - an action more akin to a parliamentary system in which legislators, not the public, determine who leads the country.

The impeachment process disabled the Johnson presidency for the remaining nine months of his term, but more important, it contributed to a succession of weak presidents for the next 30 years, says impeachment expert and historian Buckner Melton Jr. of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

After Johnson, "you see a lot of weak presidents with a laissez-faire attitude. They're afraid to cross Congress. They're afraid they're going to get what Johnson got," says Mr. Melton.

But the Johnson saga also taught an important lesson - that impeachment is not the appropriate tool for political retribution. Indeed, it wasn't used against a president again until 1974.

By that time, presidents had grown powerful, and, some say, abused the public trust. There was John Kennedy and the Bay of Pigs, Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam, and then Nixon and a covert war in Cambodia, Melton says. Watergate was the last straw.

Historians agree that Nixon's abuse of power was far more serious than Clinton's alleged lying under oath and his misleading the country and investigators about a sexual affair.

The Nixon case, involving burglary of the Democratic headquarters and a subsequent coverup, included misuse of the CIA, FBI, and IRS. Both Watergate and the Clinton case, however, raise questions about presidential trustworthiness and judgment.

Nixon resigned before the House voted on the articles of impeachment handed down by its Judiciary Committee. But lawmakers had a bipartisan understanding that he should go - a contrast to the mood in Congress today.

Still, despite the bipartisanship, the Nixon case "left scars" on the American political system, says George Edwards, director of the Center for Presidential Studies at Texas A&M University.

The damage exacerbated the polarization between the political parties, illustrated, for example, in the rejection of each other's judicial and political appointees. It led to unprecedented scrutiny of public officials' lives by the media and special-interest groups. And it diminished trust in the president, as seen in the creation of the office of independent counsel - which has empowered Kenneth Starr in his four-year investigation of the Clinton White House.

On the positive side, Watergate renewed a desire for ethics and character in government, and left a sense that - in this case - the impeachment process was appropriate and it worked.

But where does all this leave Clinton, the country, and its institutions?

Historians see the likely outcome as a mixture of the Johnson and Nixon cases, as well as something that may emerge that reflects the peculiarity of Clinton's misdeeds.

"One of the things the Clinton case raises is the relevance of his private misconduct to his public duties," says Michael Gerhardt, a law professor at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., who has written a book on impeachment.

Many see Clinton surviving, but, like Johnson, virtually powerless for the remainder of his term in office. His punishment could be some sort of censure, rebuke, or the humiliation of history.

Beyond that, they predict that voters in the next presidential election will demand a leader of greater ethical stature - but perhaps will get a more hesitant and isolated chief executive who cannot confide in aides for fear of independent counsels and who is afraid of congressional rebuke for some presidential misstep.

Meanwhile, many foresee all-out political warfare, as Democrats pay back Republicans for what they see as a partisan pursuit of Clinton. And then there's the public's view of Washington, which is expected to further deteriorate.

Still, says Melton, it's worth remembering that while the past can provide clues, this case is also making history. "Whenever you have a new wild card, anything - a great many things - can happen."

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