The movement is afoot — despite Pelosi’s claim that impeachment is not on the agenda, the rank and file is beginning to call for Bush’s impeachment (posts about this trend are here and here). It’s easy enough to lay the blame on Bush Derangement Syndrome, but I think the problem goes much deeper than that. I think the genesis for the drive to disenfranchise voters by impeaching presidents goes back to Watergate, when impeachment suddenly went from being a dry Constitutional doctrine to a very real possibility. After all the mere threat of impeachment was enough to drive Nixon voluntarily out of office.
Think back in time. Before Nixon, the last impeachment trial involved Andrew Johnson, in 1868. Although a technical rationale was found for the trial (his alleged violation of the Tenure of Office Act), the trial, occurring a mere three years after the Civil War ended, was in effect an indictment of the entire Reconstruction era. The bitter upheaval of that time must have soured Americans on the impeachment option, since they didn’t try it again for 105 years — and that’s where we get to Watergate.
There is no doubt that Richard Nixon, while a surprisingly effect President, was also an extremely corrupt one. When Woodward and Bernstein exposed Watergate, American voters got a chance to see into the belly of a criminal act aimed at derailing the election process. Given the turmoil of that era, it’s no surprise that impeachment proceedings began. And given Nixon’s undoubted involvement in dirty, dirty politics, it’s no surprise that he left office rather than face charges.
What’s also no surprise is that today’s political generation came of age believing (a) all politicians are corrupt and (b) if the corruption doesn’t favor your side of the political divide, you should do the bloodless American equivalent of killing the king* — you should demand presidential impeachment. The same generation, viewing Woodward’s and Bernstein’s heroic stature and fame with awe, concluded that a reporter reaches his professional pinnacle when he exposes a Presidency so as to result in impeachment (or threatened impeachment).
This belief system — that a good way to get rid of a politician against whom you voted is through impeachment, and that the greatest reporter is the one who sets the stage for impeachment — infects both sides of the political divide. After all, it was Republicans who were able to have an impeachment trial for Bill Clinton based on charges that he lied about sex. Now, I know that, back then, everybody on the Right kept explaining that “it’s not about the sex, it’s about the lying.” I also know that Clinton was a pathological liar, a possible rapist, and the keeper of a corrupt White House, but let’s not kid ourselves. That impeachment trial was an excuse to get around an unsatisfying election result. It’s no surprise, therefore, that Democrats, now that they have the power, should try to do precisely the same thing. Since Watergate, impeachment is considered a viable means to undermine votes.
Incidentally, that impulse plays out at the State level too. I happen to like Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, and I voted for him in the recent election. Certainly I think he’s a much more effective politician than Gray Davis was, and better for California. I wasn’t sad to see Davis go. Nevertheless, when the vote to recall Davis came on the ballot, I gave it a decided thumbs down. I strongly disliked the fact that 10% of unhappy voters (and that’s all it takes for a California recall) could undermine the electoral process — a belief I hold to regardless of the fact that I also believe that those who voted Davis into office in the first place were completely wrong to do so. After all, that’s life in a Democracy — the majority of voters can make what you think is a bad decision, just as I think that this election reflected that dumb Democracy outcome.
The Watergate legacy plays out a bit differently amongst reporters because of the fact that the majority of reporters are liberal. While they were happy to go after Clinton if someone else got the ball rolling (no one can accuse the reporters of holding back in retelling Clinton’s sex scandals), I don’t think anyone can seriously deny they reserve their energy, creativity, and advocacy for going after Republican presidents. When there’s a Republican in the White House, reporters don’t simply wait for a private interest to bring something to light; they aggressively try to create opportunities to set the impeachment ball in motion, even if that means making up things (I’m thinking Rathergate here). Still, biases aside, it was Watergate that made them think that they earn their stripes by setting the stage for impeachment.
I’ve got to turn my attention back to work, but I do think that Americans, on either side of the spectrum, have to address the profoundly anti-Democratic impulses that Watergate created. Unless we do so, politics will never again be about governing, and reporting will never again be about keeping the system honest. Instead, politics and reporting will always be about an elaborate “Gotcha” game, with the end goal being the overthrow, not just of the President, but of the American voter.
*By the way, the “checkmate” in my post title comes from the popular belief that the word “checkmate” comes from the Persian phrase “shah mat,” meaning the king has dead. From this comes the belief that the word “checkmate” means “kill the king.” In fact, the most it probably means is that the king is about to be compromised, which is an equally useful definition in the context of this post.