Thursday, December 19, 2013

A Shameful Anniversary

On December 19, 1998, the House of Representatives voted to impeach President Bill Clinton. It was an ugly display of partisanship that both reflected and further helped set and harden the tone of our public life, with consequences both tragic and farcical which we as a society now live with as the political normal. (Clinton himself, as everyone expected, was acquitted in the Senate. He completed his term and went on to be one of our most popular and successful ex-presidents. So much for the House of Representatives' blatant attempt to nullify the national will as recently expressed in a presidential election!)
The way history was taught when I was in school in the 1950s and 1960s, the  infamous impeachment and trial of Andrew Johnson was presented as a partisan power-grab that, if successful, might have turned the U.S. into a parliamentary system. America was, we were taught, saved by one vote from the disgrace of having had a president removed from office. (Whether Andrew Johnson was in any way, a worthy occupant of the office is another issue.) 
Then came Watergate, and history was revised. We rediscovered impeachment as a legitimate - if extreme - political remedy. But I fear we learned the wrong lesson in both cases. From the first, we went further down the road of not trusting our established constitutional procedures to be still serviceable in the modern world. (The most obvious example is that of the congressional war power.) From the second, we went further down the road that leads to the quasi-criminalization of political differences.
There may be a point of no return beyond which a political culture has so degenerated that civility and decency can no longer be recovered. If we are not there yet, we are certainly getting perilously close. It's certainly a good thing that the Congress has finally managed to pass a budget. But all the inside-the-Beltway self-congratulation for accomplishing what used to be a normal expectation is equally certainly overdone. I am old enough to remember when such normal behavior as passing a budget was part of a larger process of actually legislating. Dare I hope to live long enough to see that again?

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