Below the Beltway and beyond the borders:
a conversation on impeachment

Eric Foner, Joan Hoff, Richard Pious

21stC: The Watergate period in American history, particularly the impeachment process, had a number of lasting impacts on our political institutions. I'd like our panelists to reflect on whether they see something comparable resulting from the Clinton impeachment.

Hoff: The first thing to remember about Watergate and its aftermath was the dominance in Congress at that time of the Democratic party. There were a number of rather hastily passed pieces of legislation coming out of the Democratic Congress related to Watergate: campaign finance reform, primary reform, the Independent Counsel Act, the War Powers Act, the Federal Election Commission, and later on the Ethics Act--all kinds of legislation designed to reform the democratic process and increase participation, especially voting. What's ironic about all of this is that since that time, voting on the part of the American people has decreased. Many of these reforms coming out of Watergate have had unintended negative consequences. (Congress attempted through the War Powers Act, for example, to control the actions of presidents in going to war, or committing our troops without Congressional approval. It has had absolutely no impact on the activities of presidents since then to get us involved in military interventions.) So I don't see, given the fact that Congress is so much more closely divided (and that the Republicans are so divided even though they dominate Congress), the same kind of attempts at reform as after Watergate. Congress is simply too paralyzed, and has been for some time, to take on that kind of significant legislation.

Pious: I agree, and I think it will go even further though the other way: If you look at Watergate, you see a president who resigns in disgrace, public opinion having deserted him, his own party having deserted him, the Democrats solidifying, Republicans fragmenting. You get legislation before, during, and after and extending all the way to 1978, that you might say consolidates the lessons (so-called) learned about Watergate. Now the legislation may not have worked, but it's consonant with the idea of a president who has done various things that are wrong, and now by legislation we'll fix it up. What you're getting with the Clinton caper is the reverse: a president who has won the battle of public opinion, who has united his own party for instrumental purposes. None of them gives a damn about Clinton himself, but they see the symbolic impact of an attack on Clinton as being an attack on themselves, so they've united around him. You see the Republicans in complete disarray, and what you see in the sort of interstices of Congressional committees now are attempts to, pardon the expression, clean up after the elephants. It gives you a sense--very much unlike the Johnson impeachment or the Nixon resignation, but a little bit like Reagan in Iran-Contra--that the ebb and flow seem to be going the other way. The president gets in trouble; the president slips the noose and, having done that, manages with his Congressional allies to take away some of the parts of the game that have made it so difficult for him. So in that sense I think it's the opposite of Watergate, not even neutral.

Foner: Another way of looking at this is not so much in terms of Congressional legislation, although that's important, but maybe some other enduring consequences. Historians don't like to predict the future; I don't know if political scientists do or not--

Pious: Recreationally.

Foner: --because almost everything that's interesting in history is a big surprise when it first happens. But I might predict a couple of consequences, and I'm happy to be proved wrong down the road, if that's the way it is. First of all, I think this will actually exacerbate the long-running war within the Republican party, which goes back to the '60s, anyway. Remember Barry Goldwater and Nelson Rockefeller at the convention in 1964? I would not be at all surprised to see a kind of internal debate within the Republican party, sort of like the "Who lost China?" debate in the late '40s, but this time it's "Who lost impeachment?" I don't see a peace treaty in the Republican party any time soon, and I think the impeachment process may have actually exacerbated that.

Second of all, it's a cliché, but I think true, that the whole Nixon episode provoked a kind of cynicism about politicians and fed into a long period (which we're still in) in which politicians are held in rather low esteem. I think that despite having slipped the noose, Clinton's behavior has further increased the sense that really politicians are not the kind of people one would like to have over for dinner. They may serve some function in this political process, but do people really want to become president now? Is that your ideal?

I got a personal taste of this at home. My 11-year-old daughter, who was much younger when Clinton was first elected, actually sat down and wrote a letter to President Clinton saying, "I wish you would do something about the plight of the homeless." And she got back a letter signed by Bill Clinton, which said it was very nice that young people have an interest in politics and government and everything, and this was framed on her wall. Just the other day she was rearranging her room and said, "Let's get rid of this. I don't really want it around here anymore." I feel that's unfortunate, actually. In a democratic system, I think we have to hope that there are some elected officials whom people can actually look up to and have some confidence in.

Pious: When we were going down to Washington this past spring after all this scandal broke, my daughter and my son were very scared; they said, "Isn't it true that the president hurts people?" That's a legacy that makes you chill in your bones, when you think about it.

Hail to the Celebrity-in-Chief

21stC: I'd like to pick up on that theme of the presidency as distinct from the one president. It may be possible that the presidency is being fused with the entertainment industry in surprising ways: the president as celebrity. That role is no longer protected. I wonder if perhaps no significant detail about any president could be kept secret as Woodrow Wilson's stroke was, or FDR's paralysis. What comments would you have about the pressures on the office, the president becoming a different kind of cultural figure? We don't revere them. We put them in the tabloids now.

Pious: John Travolta in 1981 or 1982 in some Hollywood magazine was asked what he thought of Reagan as an actor. And he said, "I could do a better job. I'd do what Reagan does every day. I'm better at it and I get paid more." It's a no-win game for presidents to try to become media figures. They look ridiculous. Clinton, 50-year-old guy, is thinking of becoming some kind of Harrison Ford. It's absurd. Harrison Ford does it ten times better and gets paid more. It's like the guys my age who go down to the Village in their leather jackets. They look absurd. Or go play basketball on 6th Street. And the young guys always say something which is absolutely true: "The old guys hold you. The old guys bump you. The old guys foul you." Why? Because they don't have the speed to keep up.

A president is a politician and should act like a politician. It's not supposed to be entertaining. It's not supposed to be telegenic. It's not supposed to be the movies. If you want that, you go to the movies. They're better at it.

Hoff: There has been a personalization of the presidency since Kennedy, really. In the early 1960s, families were brought into campaigns; that's just increased--and increased the action on the part of the media to investigate private life. It gets down to such a ludicrous level that Clinton could get away with explaining on MTV what kind of underwear he wore, without much criticism at all. Instead of an imperial presidency, we have the intimate presidency. I'm not sure we're going to be able to back away from that easily, partly because of a dysfunction in our political system that we're not facing up to: Fewer and fewer people are voting. In the last mid-term election, fewer people voted than ever before in the last 50 years. In the '96 election, 49 percent of 49 percent of the eligible voters voted for Bill Clinton, which meant that he got about 24 percent of the eligible-voter vote. It's almost as though we're touting our system abroad, but we're actively participating in it less and less. The participatory democracy of the '60s looks dead, and that reinforces another aspect of this popular presidency, which we've seen since Reagan--and it's really why Reagan escaped any serious investigation for the Iran-Contra affair, which was a much worse violation of the Constitution than Watergate--and that is this whole idea that Americans don't need to vote to be represented. What do they need to do? It seems that they need to be polled. We're governing by polls and focus groups. Now that's a two-edged sword. It can allow a president to a degree, in times of crisis, to manipulate public opinion and maintain his own popularity, when in fact he's doing things that perhaps popular opinion should question rather than condone. It almost turns the president into a kind of cheerleader, a revivalist, a talk-show host, to maintain this kind of popularity at the expense of policy--and at the expense, I think, of far-sightedness and governance. Yet we're stuck with that, because Clinton has been so incredibly successful with it. I think his successor in office, unless there is serious campaign reform, is going to have to do the same thing.

Pious: I see the collapse of the political party as a real functioning element in our government, whether this is cause or effect of the degradation of the presidency, or both. It's not that long ago that the president was assumed to be the head of a party, and you voted for the president not only because he was personable, but because he represented that party. Nowadays, it's almost unknown for presidents or other candidates to even mention their parties. Now with the parties in disarray, with the position as leader of the party gone for the president, it exacerbates this point that Joan made about the president just being an individual, and individual popularity being far more important. Clinton doesn't say, I'm now going to implement the Democratic platform on x, y, or z. He looks at the polls, as you said, and says, "What is popular?" Maybe that's democratic, but it's democratic in a very peculiar sort of way.

Comparative scandalology

21stC: I'd like to rewind a bit to a comment that Dr. Hoff made comparing Iran-Contra and Watergate, and tie this in perhaps to the question of presidential gravitas. You had mentioned at one point, I believe, that Iran-Contra was worse than Watergate. Were we hearing you accurately, or was it "worse than Monica-gate"?

Hoff: Well, Monica-gate doesn't even compare, if you're talking about constitutionality. I think the Reagan situation with Iran-Contra presaged this: You can't impeach a popular president, and I'm not sure that's good for the future of democracy. But if you look at the shadow government created during the Iran-Contra affair out of the National Security Council with Poindexter, Oliver North, Bill Casey, and the rest of them, it was not properly investigated. It also showed the limits of so-called investigative reporting, which was so touted coming out of Watergate. Investigative reporters couldn't do a damn thing against Reagan, because you can stonewall successfully if you are popular. You're going to have more rats deserting the ship if you're unpopular. Consequently, there was no way that investigative reporting even got near the issue on Iran-Contra. I think Reagan walked away from an issue that he should never have.

Pious: I wouldn't want to weigh Watergate against Iran-Contra. I think Watergate, though, was serious. The break-in was a third-rate burglary, the tip of the iceberg; there was a lot more going on. I think Nixon got one thing right on the Watergate tapes. These are compiled by Stanley Kutler. I've been listening to them. Nixon said, "It wasn't a close election. [If it had] been a close election and we had stolen it because of Watergate: well, that would have been one thing. You know, we're winning anyway. So what's the big deal?" So in that sense it wasn't all that serious, because he didn't actually steal an election. The American democracy had decided in its infinite wisdom to give him a second term. All right. But there were an awful lot of things going on which involved the institutional presidency and also the CIA, the FBI, even the Secret Service. There's some wonderful tapes where Ted Kennedy has just asked for Secret Service protection, and Nixon says, "Well, we're going to give him Secret Service protection, and it's going to be 24-hour protection, you know what I mean? Hey, hey, hey." And Haldemann says, "Yeah, yeah, 24 hours. We're not going to get away from him at all. We're going to follow him"--and Nixon then says, "Yeah, and when we get him on that, then we'll bring him in and ask him about Chappaquiddick." You listen to this stuff, and it really makes you want to throw up. Joan is right that Iran-Contra was more serious, because Iran-Contra involved the hijacking of American foreign policy and Congressional appropriations powers, and creating a kind of parallel Central Intelligence Agency funded by private sources. The comparison with Watergate is Nixon kept saying, "How could these people be so stupid? Who are they?" Each time, he kind of wakes up and says, "My God, they did what?" And he can't believe the things that people were doing. You get into Iran-Contra and it makes the Watergate guys look like summa cum laude from an Ivy League university. Ollie--or, as I refer to him, Ali North--selling arms to the Iranians. It just boggles your mind when you think that clowns like that would be able to run things. But I'm willing to have a real debate on the seriousness of Watergate.

Foner: I will not try to weigh the two. I'm a 19th-century historian. The impeachment of the 19th century was also over a fairly serious issue, although it never quite came before the Senate, which suggests that impeachment isn't necessarily the right mechanism for dealing with problems like this. Andrew Johnson was impeached over violating a fairly minor act of Congress, whereas his real crime was trying to deprive 4 million American citizens of all their rights--the black Americans--which certainly is a fairly serious problem in a democracy. But that was somehow never brought before the Senate for impeachment.

Hoff: Another thing that sometimes isn't mentioned is that these three impeachment processes we've gone through are all inherently partisan. The American public this time around was misled into believing that somehow this one wasn't going to be partisan. What happened in '74 was partisan as well, and of course the Johnson one in the 1860s was even more partisan. Really, impeachment processes are virtual political assassinations of the given president. Regardless of whether you are supporting him or not supporting him, they are attempts to get at this particular president for whatever reason, good or bad, that might prevail at the time.

I also think they were diversions from real issues. In the 1860s we couldn't figure out Radical Republicanism or Reconstruction. In the 1970s we couldn't figure out what to do in the wake of the end of the war in Vietnam and a lot of other issues that we had domestically to face, and now we're here in the post-Cold War period, not knowing what to do at home and especially abroad. Sometimes, then, presidents make mistakes. Obviously they have to do something so that you can attempt to get them in this fashion. But after they make the mistake, I think impeachment proceedings function as a cover-up sometimes, or a diversion from facing real problems by the Congress.

The warp and woof of foreign policy

21stC: It's often been observed that foreign policy reflects domestic politics, and partisan events at home can have a great deal to do with how we define our national interest abroad. Presidential decisions to take action overseas may involve these domestic variables, and I wonder whether the current president's reactions to developments in Iraq or Kosovo are consistent with precedents from previous Presidencies. Do we have a domestically embattled president wagging the dog, as the phrase now goes, or are presidents always embattled, and the actions of this president might not differ so much from his predecessors'?

Pious: I think there's a similarity and a difference. Nixon near the end in '73-'74 was looking to wag his tongue. In other words, he was looking to go to summit meetings, conclude arms control agreements, etc. The critique is made that Nixon perhaps gave too much of the store away; I think that's somewhat unfair, and by and large the agreements were reasonable and in our national interest, but they involved summitry and diplomacy. With Clinton, for whatever reason--and you can take either the "wag the dog" scenario or a more benign thought that these really are national security issues--there really is a conjunction between throwing the missile and Clinton's crisis. There is probably a relationship, but it seems to play out very differently with different presidents and crises. With Clinton you just don't have the summit-level diplomacy, and in any event the talking diplomacy really has failed in several different areas, probably for lack of preparation.

Hoff: We've had a real dry spell in foreign policy, not simply with Clinton but since the end of the Cold War under Bush as well. People are talking about a conceptual vacuum on foreign policy, so that there really isn't any foreign policy in the last ten years that isn't just reactive. And consequently when you are in that type of a situation, and then you get a president who lied to the public on other issues having nothing to do with foreign policy, unfortunately, it would almost be better if he had lied about foreign policy, but then it's bound to come into question when he takes somewhat erratic action, in terms of the use of cruise missiles and bombings that were timed in December just before the impeachment vote and earlier in August after the public apology, when we went into Sudan and Afghanistan. It raises these questions. It's not unique, however, to Clinton. It appears a little more blatant than with some other presidents. Back in 1975 when we were in the height of the post-Vietnam syndrome, Kissinger and Ford decided to take dramatic action over the Mayaguez incident, the capture of an American ship, and consequently overreacted in that case; Ford's polls went up as a result. After the killing of our Marines in Beirut, Reagan of course went into Grenada, for reasons that still escape a lot of people, and his polls went up. And Bush into Panama. Presidents have used these military interventions--which they can do with impunity, regardless of the War Powers Act, since '74--to bump up their popularity. It isn't unique. It's just that in Clinton's case, it was seemingly so exclusively tied to his domestic problems, whereas the Mayaguez, Grenada, and Panama were not necessarily tied to particular personal problems that the president was facing domestically. It's a way presidents get out of trouble. I don't think we need to fear that it will usually be used in any way to get us seriously involved; they are usually tiny, tiny operations where we lose very few lives and look good in the aftermath, and there's no long-term significance--unfortunately--to these events.

The upshot for scholars

21stC: It seems that the role of researchers as public figures, the role of historians and political scientists and commentators from the university sphere, is becoming more important. What effects would these events have on how researchers view our political institutions?

Pious: I would like to think that it would lead to a resurgence of historical studies, a resurgence of research into documentary sources, and I would like to think that we would get back to constitutional law studies, public law studies of all kinds. Do I believe that will happen? Absolutely not. What's happening in political science is it's all becoming mathematical. It's all being developed in terms of the theory of rational choice. Why is that? A, the money is there; the support is there from Washington and foundations, and forward-looking provosts in American higher education believe in this stuff, and therefore we are going to get it. These people have absolutely nothing to say about these kinds of issues that any intelligent person would want to listen to. What is really happening in my field, as opposed to what I think should be happening, is like night and day.

Hoff: As historians we always wait around. We don't ever want to comment on contemporary events. We need this mammoth amount of documentation, which you don't have on contemporary events. But I do think it's incumbent on historians to try to comment on current events and their future significance, even though in the case of this impeachment process and this presidency, again, it's going to be like the Nixon or Reagan presidency. It takes about 30 years for the documents to be opened up, and it depends initially on how the president goes out of office. Nixon went out with very low public opinion polls, and with a number of intellectuals and journals and scholars absolutely hating him. And I count myself among those. I don't have a single personal positive memory of Richard Nixon. But I did change my mind on his domestic policies after I researched them. Initially all the literature was negative. It took until the first part of this decade to get even-handed accounts of his presidency. My prediction is that the initial accounts of Clinton will be more positive, more defensive of him; then, in this 30-year process, they will be more critical. I think his real weakness to date--and I think he recognizes it as his problem--is this "legacy thing," as he would say. He doesn't have at the moment a legacy to fall back on in either foreign or domestic policy. Consequently, I think that will ensure a more negative evaluation of him as time goes by in the next quarter century. In contrast, Nixon did have these strong actions in both foreign and domestic policy, and although I will disagree with most of his foreign policy, Nixon's domestic policy looks good in retrospect. He seems much more liberal than any president that came after him in terms of domestic policy. It's a sad thing to say.

Foner: I fully agree that historians need to get involved in public discourse about history. We are at the Journalism School, so I guess I can say that in my opinion as a historian, the journalistic treatment of impeachment, in terms of its history or its constitutional bearing, was appalling, truly appalling.

Pious: You shouldn't be so generous.

Foner: All right. I'm trying to be nice. Most journalists, I believe, have college degrees; It's unbelievable how ignorant of American history they are. Where did they go to college? As a scholar of Reconstruction, I was completely shocked to see the Dunning School, which no historian has believed in for 30 years, resurrected as the standard journalistic account of Andrew Johnson's impeachment. Andrew Johnson was a guy hounded by radicals, fanatics, because he wanted to be lenient to the South. They got in their mind the idea that well, Clinton's a good guy who a bunch of fanatics in Congress were trying to get rid of, so that's what happened to Andrew Johnson, and a good analogy. It was appalling, as a scholar of that period, to see how all our scholarly work of 30 years had made no impact whatsoever on journalists' thinking about American history. I blame ourselves to some degree, but I think the journalists are mostly to blame for never actually cracking a book when they want to write about history. They just remember what they learned in high school. But on the other hand, I don't think that a lot of historians covered themselves with glory, either, in this episode. I should ask Joan, before I say any more, whether she was one of the 400 who signed the historians' statement against impeachment.

Hoff: No, I did not.

Foner: You did not. Neither did I.

Hoff: Because I read it--the statement, and it was inaccurate historically.

Foner: Well, that's exactly my point. Thank you. Historians have as much right as any citizen to comment on public events. When they wear the mantle of history and claim to be speaking for history, or in the famous words of one of our colleagues, speak as if "history will track you down," they invoke a particular vision of history for transparently partisan purposes. I did not in any way support the impeachment of Clinton, but I did not think history tells us that Clinton ought not to be impeached, or that there is a single meaning of the impeachment clause in the Constitution. So I think we as scholars have to be very careful. I don't think anyone came out of this whole episode looking good from top to bottom.

Hoff: It didn't do any good for constitutional history in the sense that constitutional specialists became hired guns in their testimony before Congress. The Republicans testified one way and the Democrats testified the other way. And then--

Foner: People who never have believed in original intent suddenly started scouring the Federalist Papers to discover that Alexander Hamilton, whom they would never invoke for any other purpose, thought that impeachment ought not to be used for a purpose like this.

Hoff: And people who weren't constitutional specialists suddenly were.

Pious: There's a long history, though, of 180-degree turns. Take the debate between Hamilton and Madison, for 10 years or so after the Republic was founded. They just switched every time. What drove their constitutional law analysis at all points was their economic program or their political position. Then you look in the 1960s. My favorite example is Sen. William Fulbright, Cornell Law Quarterly, in 1960: The president has to have absolute authority to make war, because we're in an atomic age and Congress is outdated. Four years, five years later, he turns on a dime. Arthur Schlesinger: same thing. All of what they used to call the high-flying-prerogative men changed around in the middle of the Vietnam War.

Foner: Well, one might say in their defense, perhaps, that they changed their mind because conditions changed and they realized they had been wrong. And one does not have to hold the same idea throughout life. Professor Hoff has changed her mind on Nixon, which is fair enough. That's what historians are supposed to do if they encounter new evidence. But when historians go and speak for History with a capital H, as if there is a single historical perspective which is correct about impeachment--that's when I think they are not doing the study of history good service.

Historians like to wait awhile before making judgments, not only because more documents become available, but because we like to see how things turn out. If you were judging Millard Fillmore's administration at the end of his presidency in 1852, you'd say, "Look, this guy settled the slavery issue, the Compromise of 1850: fantastic, what a leader!" Well, it turned out it wasn't really settled. We will have to see: Have we settled the Middle East question? Have we settled the Bosnia question? Twenty years from now maybe we'll say, "My God, Clinton settled those issues with those agreements, fantastic; everybody is living in peace and harmony." Or maybe there will be a war in the Middle East four years from now and people will say, "Clinton was just deluded in thinking..." So that's why historians like to know how the story turns out before making their judgment. Maybe this is unfair, but before we make our judgment, we'd like to see what happens with the accomplishments of the president.

Related links . . .

  • U.S. Diplomatic History Resources Index, Nick Sarantakes, Texas A&M Dept. of History

  • Office of Independent Counsel Kenneth W. Starr

  • Guide to Pres. Clinton's political crisis, Court TV

  • Washington Post special report "Clinton Accused"

  • Eric Foner on the Fugitive Slave Law, "Africans in America," PBS

  • The Impeachment of Andrew Johnson: Harper's Weekly coverage, 1865-1869

  • Reconstruction timeline and bibliography assembled by independent history buff Jim Klann, Glendale Hts., Ill.

  • American Bar Association's impeachment resources

  • Michael Les Benedict, "A New Look at the Impeachment of Andrew Johnson," Political Science Quarterly v. 113, no.3 (Fall 1998)

  • "Secrets of an Independent Counsel," PBS Frontline

  • Joan Hoff, Michael Beschloss, Haynes Johnson, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Margaret Warner (moderator), "Impact on the Presidency," Online NewsHour, August 13, 1998

  • Peter Kornbluh and Malcolm Byrne, eds., The Iran-Contra Scandal: The Declassified History (A National Security Archive Documents Reader) (NY: New Press/Norton, 1993)

  • The Nixon Center, foreign policy think tank founded by the former president

  • ERIC FONER, Ph.D., is DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia and author, most recently, of The Story of American Freedom (NY: Norton, 1998).

    JOAN HOFF, Ph.D., is professor of history and director of the Contemporary History Institute at Ohio University, author of Nixon Reconsidered (NY: Basic Books, 1994), and a regular commentator on The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, PBS.

    RICHARD PIOUS, Ph.D., is Adolph S. and Effie Ochs Professor of Political Science at Barnard and the author most recently of The Presidency (NY: Allyn & Bacon, 1996).

    Photo Credits Computer Illustration: Howard R. Roberts
    Clinton, Nixon: Wide World Photos
    A. Johnson: Dover Books
    Poindexter: AP / Wide World Photos
    Conference Photos: Lena Lakoma