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Impeachment Has A Long History In The U.S. And Abroad

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If someone were born in 1870 and lived to be 100, they would never have experienced a presidential impeachment. Many of us are now going through our second, third if you count Richard Nixon who resigned before he was actually impeached. “The full house was clearly going to vote for (Nixon’s) impeachment.”

Dr. David Kaiser is a historian who has taught at Harvard, Carnegie Mellon, the Naval War College and Williams College. He says that if the Nixon impeachment had gone to trial he would certainly have been removed from office. “Nixon lost a case in the Supreme Court (and) had to release more tapes. One of those tapes showed that at a very early stage he had been trying to use the CIA to stop the FBI investigation of Watergate. That was a literal smoking gun. At that point, nobody could argue for his innocence anymore. He was definitely going to be removed and Barry Goldwater had told him so.”

The concept of impeachment, like much or early American laws and customs, came from the British. “Impeachment had been used for centuries in Britain by Parliament as a way to get at ministers who Parliament thought were behaving corruptly or in a disastrous manner or not doing their job. The big difference was of course was that you could not impeach the king. And in fact the phrase ‘high crimes and misdemeanors’ was a phrase from British usage where the meaning of it was actually quite well-established.”

Dr. Kaiser says that impeached ministers in the U-K were subject to harsh penalties, including death. In the New World the only penalty for impeachment is removal from office. However it would be almost 87 years after the ratification of the constitution before the process would be put to the test with the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson. Even though he was the vice president of Abraham Lincoln, who was a Republican, Johnson belonged to a different party. “He was selected as Lincoln’s vice presidential candidate in 1864 for a classic, big-tent political reason: to help get the broadest possible support for the re-election of Lincoln by choosing someone who was not even a Republican. But, as has happened more than once in our history, this was a great vice presidential selection until the unthinkable happens and he actually becomes president.”

Andrew Johnson was a senator from Tennessee at the time the Civil War broke out.  He was the only U.S. Senator from a state that seceded from the union to remain loyal to the union.  When he assumed the presidency, his relationship with Congress was strained. “Johnson was characteristic of a certain type of Southern white. He was a hill country white from east Tennessee. I don’t believe he ever owned any slaves himself, he’s from very modest origins. He hated the planter class and the southern aristocracy, as many Appalachian white southerners did. But that didn’t mean that he was the least bit sympathetic to freed slaves. He did not want them to get the vote, and had had been totally at odds with the Republican Congress about Reconstruction. They had passed all the major Reconstruction acts, and the constitutional amendments for that matter, (over) his opposition.”

Things came to ahead when Congress passed the Tenure of Office Act, which prevented Johnson from firing any members of Lincoln’s Cabinet. “Now clearly we have acknowledged the right of presidents to remove and replace Cabinet officers from the beginning of the republic and this was a real overreach on the part of the Congress. He defied them and tried to remove (Secretary of War Edwin) Stanton and those were the grounds on which he was impeached.”

Johnson survived his senate trial by one vote, however he was not nominated by either party for election to his own term and went home to Tennessee where he eventually returned to the US Senate.

The only other presidential impeachment that went to trial was the case against Bill Clinton. “That was very unfortunate. It reflected the whole Republican response to the election of Bill Clinton which they seemed to think was against the course of history and shouldn’t have happened. It grew out of the Special Counsel Law which has now been repealed. There was an initial special counsel to investigate Whitewater, and apparently Jesse Helms, who at that point was a leading Republican senator, I believe talked the supervisory authorities into appointing a new one who became Ken Starr."

Kaiser says he believes Kenn Starr went way beyond his mandate when he began to investigate allegations to do with sex with Paula Jones and, eventually, Monica Lewinsky. "And then you have the way that the president decided to handle it. I thought it would have been a step forward for us if both he and Monica Lewinsky had simply refused to answer any questions about what had gone on between them on the grounds that they were none of anybody’s business. But instead, Clinton tried to lie about it and that became grounds for impeachment. Although, in my opinion, that sort of offense, if you regard it as an offense, has nothing to do with the kind of thing that the founders put the provision into the Constitution to deal with.” Bill Clinton was acquitted by a wide margin on both perjury and obstruction of justice charges.

Since the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, there have been a total of 20 impeachments by the House of Representatives. In addition to the three presidents, 15 federal judges, one Cabinet secretary and one US Senator have been impeached. Two of those cases did not come to trial because the individuals had left office, seven were acquitted, and eight officials were convicted and removed from office, all of whom were judges. And yes, there is life after impeachment and removal.  One of those judges, Alcee Hastings of West Palm Beach, was later elected to Congress after being removed from office. Last year, Hastings became the dean, or longest-serving member, of Florida's congressional delegation. 

Bob Barrett has been a radio broadcaster since the mid 1970s and has worked at stations from northern New York to south Florida and, oddly, has been able to make a living that way. He began work in public radio in 2001. Over the years he has produced nationally syndicated programs such as The Environment Show and The Health Show for Northeast Public Radio's National Productions.