THE Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee have made it clear that the impeachment action against President Clinton is a payback for the impeachment articles drawn up against Richard Nixon. Nothing more, nothing less.
Committee member Rep. Howard Coble, a North Carolina Republican, gleefully pointed this out Friday in his reference to the Nixon impeachment when the Democrats were in the majority in Congress: "It's a lot easier to throw grenades than to catch them."
The GOP's need for revenge was going to corner a Democratic president, any Democratic president -- when the GOP controlled Congress and the time was right. It happened to be Mr. Clinton -- for his foolish liaison and for being so embarrassed by it when it was discovered that he couldn't be forthright in admitting his sexual escapade.
And so for only the third time in this nation's history, articles of impeachment were drawn up against a president -- Andrew Johnson in 1868, Richard Nixon in 1974 and now Mr. Clinton.
The committee's action embroils America in a serious constitutional crisis. Unless the U.S. House votes against the articles of impeachment, Mr. Clinton's trial in the Senate will end up degrading the prestige of the office of the president and tilting the balance of powers toward an imperial Congress.
A key question rang out all week long during the judiciary committee's hearings: Does Mr. Clinton's sexual infidelity and his lying about it constitute what the Constitution calls "other high crimes and misdemeanors"? No, say the committee Democrats, constitutional scholars and a majority of the U.S. public. Yes, shout the GOP committee members. Republicans outnumber the Democrats on the committee 21 to 16.
Rep. Henry Hyde, an Illinois Republican, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, has a ticklish situation. He was involved with a married woman 30 years ago and broke up the woman's marriage. Undoubtedly, he must have lied many times about and during that lengthy affair.
Mr. Hyde, too, was married at the time. The woman's husband has neither forgotten nor forgiven Mr. Hyde -- for what Mr. Hyde glibly calls a youthful indiscretion. And now Mr. Hyde sits in judgment of a man who also had an affair. Apparently, Mr. Hyde doesn't mind throwing the first stone.
Many of the charges outlined in the articles of impeachment sound serious, but federal prosecutors who testified before the Judiciary Committee stated that the evidence of perjury presented by independent counsel Kenneth Starr would not be sufficient to seek a criminal indictment. The other charges are merely high-sounding fluff.
If Congress were to begin impeachment hearings against every president who had illicit sexual affairs while in office and lied about it, easily a third of all our presidents would have faced impeachment. If every president who lied to the American people about foreign and domestic policies and federal actions were to face impeachment, no president would finish a term in office.
Consider the lying behind the Iran-contra, drugs-for-weapons affair, the presidential lies to cover up our bungling in the Vietnam War, the misleading statements about why we were involved in the Persian Gulf war, the lies about the accuracy of our weaponry in that war.
The Founding Fathers intended impeachment for only the greatest offenses -- treason, bribery, misapplication of funds, abuse of official power and neglect of duty -- not for covering up an adulterous affair. They did not intend the impeachment power to be used to overturn the results of an election -- unless the president's actions were destroying the very foundation of our democracy.
The House Judiciary Committee has significantly lowered the impeachment standard. If upheld, these articles of impeachment will imperil every president who faces a Congress dominated by the opposing party. The new standard weakens the presidency -- and throws the checks and balances among the three branches of government into disarray.
History will not be kind to those who engineered this dangerous political revenge -- neither should the American voters.
Charles Levendosky, editorial page editor of the Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune, has a national reputation for First Amendment commentary. His e-mail address: levendorib.com.
Pub Date: 12/15/98