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Commentary | PERSPECTIVES ON THE CLINTON SCANDAL

Don't Short-Circuit the System

Resignation offers Congress power without accountabilty, and empowers the media even more.

September 14, 1998|STANLEY I. KUTLER | Stanley I. Kutler is the author of "Abuse of Power: the New Tapes of Richard Nixon" (Simon and Schuster, 1998) and "The Wars of Watergate" (Norton, 1992)

Resignation was Richard Nixon's final act of violence to our constitutional system. That self-described man of firsts, Nixon became the first president to resign the office rather than allow the constitutional process of impeachment to run. Perhaps his act was one of desperation; perhaps he sought to save himself from further disgrace and preserve his benefits. We must remember that pressure for his resignation came from Congress itself, particularly from Republicans anxious to salvage the party's fortunes. But across party lines, Congress had little desire for a long, tedious and politically risky process of impeachment and trial. Demands for President Clinton's resignation have the same self-serving quality.

For Democrats now, the appeal of resignation is simple; it saves them the risk of defending the president. But the Republicans are equally transparent. Tom DeLay, the House Republican whip, bluntly has called for Clinton's resignation. Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) called on the president to "do the right thing for our country, and resign voluntarily." Speaker Newt Gingrich was his usual orotund self. Asked about resignation, he replied that "only the president can answer that. He knows in his heart what the facts are and I think it should be clear to him by now that in the end, all of the facts will come out." Is impeachment the real objective for Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde when he said impeachment should proceed with "all deliberate speed?" Or does Hyde prefer that the president do his thing and resign, thus freeing Congress from what it might be loath to do? After all, resignation is easier and it has the virtue of being risk-free; Bill Clinton will be gone.

The American Constitution's reference to presidential resignation served as a way to deal with an ill or physically incapacitated president; most assuredly, it had little to do with the process of accountability. Impeachment was the chosen instrument for ensuring that important feature of free government.

The aberration of Nixon's resignation now threatens to become a process in the United States, a form of parliamentary no-confidence that conveniently enables Congress to avoid its constitutional duty of impeachment. It is a bastard parliamentarianism--parliamentary government without a parliamentary system. Pressures for resignation, from Congress and without, seek to abort the constitutional process of impeachment--a process that affords the president a full and fair opportunity to defend himself in a proper forum. Resignation offers Congress power of sorts, power without any accountability; furthermore, it empowers the media even more. There is no room for what James Madison called the "second sense of the community."

Andrew Johnson's acquittal in 1868 had the unintended consequence of making impeachment and senatorial trial an object of derision, even unthinkable. Prominent congressmen who had supported impeachment later recanted in their public memoirs. James G. Blaine, a Speaker of the House and a GOP presidential candidate, wrote: "The sober reflection of after years has persuaded many who favored impeachment that it was not justifiable on the charges made, and that its success would have resulted in greater injury to free institutions than Andrew Johnson in his utmost endeavor was able to inflict." Shelby Cullom, another prominent Republican supporter of impeachment, hoped that Johnson's acquittal "ended for the first time, and I hope the last time, the trial of a president . . . for high crimes and misdemeanors."

No wonder, then, that in June 1973, when the first impeachment resolutions were filed in the House against Nixon, New York Times columnist James Reston drily remarked that it must be "silly season." But five months later, the House launched its impeachment inquiry and began a serious effort to invigorate and dignify the constitutional dictate. Once seemingly destined to go the way of the passenger pigeon, impeachment proved alive and well. Despite collateral or earlier efforts of investigating the president by the Senate Select Committee, the U. S. attorney, and the special prosecutor, the House properly pursued its own constitutional obligation.

Impeachment did not run its full course. The House Judiciary Committee approved three articles of impeachment, and undoubtedly, the full House would have preferred charges against Nixon. That by no means ensured his conviction in the Senate, which required a two-thirds vote for conviction. If Richard Nixon--for a change--had secured able counsel and provided them with the authority to manage his case without the handicaps and limitations he had imposed, he might have been found not guilty.

His own defenders and leaders in Congress visited on Aug. 7, urging him to resign. Sen. Barry Goldwater had told his colleagues that "the best thing he [Nixon] can do for the country is to get the hell out of the White House, and get out this afternoon." Congressional leaders were reluctant warriors. Most decisively, and before the Republicans visited the president, Judiciary Committee Chairman Peter Rodino communicated to the White House that he had "absolutely no interest in pursuing any kind of criminal action against the President should he elect to resign." That was the offer the president chose not to refuse.

Richard Nixon's resignation spared him and his party whether he did the best thing for the constitutional system is another matter.

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