It’s a red-letter day about a blue dress, the day the House of Representatives voted 15 years ago to impeach President Bill Clinton.
“Impeach” means only to charge with or accuse of — in Clinton’s case, perjury and obstruction of justice over the Monica Lewinsky affair. The Senate has the power to execute the second step — to remove from office — and in Clinton’s case, it did not.
Since then, even more than before, the word “impeach” has been bandied about on Capitol Hill almost as much as the phrase “nuclear option,” and with even less effect. It’s become almost as predictable as the guy who’s peeved that he didn’t get his speeding ticket thrown out and pledges to take it “all the way to the Supreme Court.”
Until Clinton was impeached on a pretty much party-line vote in the Republican House, the only presidential precedents were Andrew Johnson and Richard Nixon. Johnson, Abraham Lincoln’s successor, was impeached by a faction of his own party for Cabinet shifts and Reconstruction policies, but not booted out of office by the Senate. Nixon resigned before the House voted — as it would have — to impeach him.
Impeach is such a short, satisfying word, no wonder it’s getting tossed around so, well, liberally. In 2008, liberal Democratic Ohio congressman and sometime presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich introduced articles of impeachment against President George W. Bush over the Iraq war. They went nowhere.
Since President Obama was elected, the word’s definitely been trending.
Republicans in and out of Congress, like Reps. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Trey Raydel or Florida, invoked the “I-word.” (Raydel, who suggested indicting Obama over his gun policies, recently pleaded guilty to misdemeanor cocaine possession and is under House ethics investigation.) Georgia Republican Rep. Doug Collins says his constituents keep telling him, “You got to go up there, and you just impeach him.”
Members of Congress have done themselves no favors by conflating their disagreements with duly passed legislation from a twice-elected president — like Obamacare — with a palpable personal dislike of the chief executive, and with meatier questions about his executive policies.
The word has been used more and more boldly — obviously in the hope of scoring political points and the expectation that just using the word is a goal in itself — but overuse has rendered it less potent. In fact, some among the GOP may remember how the Clinton impeachment backfired on them in the 1998 midterm elections and kneecapped them in the polls.
Maybe that’s why congressional Democrats haven’t turned a hair over it now.
The word’s been used more about sitting Supreme Court justices. In 1970, Michigan Republican Rep. Gerald Ford, who became president because of the looming impeachment action against Nixon, wanted to impeach Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, partly over the dubious sources of Douglas’ income (he was paying alimony to two exes) as well as his being paid for writing for an avant-garde magazine. One member of Congress asked whether his colleagues had “read the article” or were “just looking at the pictures.” Douglas’ unorthodox life and his liberal opinions did not sit well with Capitol Hill Republicans.
In the 1950s, Southerners who objected to Supreme Court desegregation rulings raised up billboards across Dixie demanding “Impeach Earl Warren,” the chief justice and the former governor of California who presided over Brown vs. Board of Education.
Only a few federal judges have ever been impeached and removed from office, among them Florida District Judge Alcee Hastings. In 1988, he was convicted almost unanimously by Congress — an institution his constituents sent him to four years later as a Democratic member. There, in 2009, he voted to impeach Samuel B. Kent, a federal judge who faced sex crime charges, and who resigned before serving more than two years behind bars.
In a couple of weeks it’ll be 2014, and I’m nominating “impeach” as the soon-to-be “word of the year.” If I had a nickel for every time someone will be using it, I could probably finance a whole congressional campaign.
Follow Patt Morrison on Twitter @pattmlatimesCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun