Nixon and the Clinton impeachment: half a motive

Henry Hyde’s comments about the failed GOP effort to impeach Clinton have gotten a lot of publicity. On the verge of retiring, last Thursday Rep. Hyde (R-Ill.) made some attention-garnering and relatively frank statements.


Interviewed by ABC, Hyde suggested that he has had “second thoughts about leading the impeachment of President Bill Clinton in 1998 on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice in connection to the Monica Lewinsky affair because the process led to the embarrassing disclosure of Hyde’s own extramarital affair in the 1960s . . .”


“Would you do it again?” asked ABC7’s political reporter Andy Shaw. “That is a very good question. I’m not sure. I’m not sure. I might not,” said Hyde . . . admitting for the first time that the impeachment of Clinton may have been in part political revenge against the democrats for the impeachment proceedings against GOP President Richard Nixon 25 years earlier.”

            “Was this pay back?” asked Andy Shaw. “I can’t say it wasn’t. [Hyde] But I also thought that the Republican Party should stand for something, and if we walked away from this, no matter how difficult, we could be accused of shirking our duty,” said Hyde.”


The comments generated some embarrassment and wrath among conservatives and consequent pressure on ABC, or at least perceived as such by ABC, so that it actually removed the offending material from its web site temporarily:


No surprise there. Anyone who watched the Oscars either this year or last year – the most frightened broadcasts ever, for Hollywood’s annual celebration of itself – already knows the extent of ABC timidity, apparently born out of some delusion that there is a nationwide groundswell of populist adoration for George W. Bush. But alarm over Hyde’s remarks, from any political angle, is giving them more than their due.


Candid though he may have been, Hyde at 81 is still one of the most senior members of Congress, and well able to remember Nixon’s downfall. Nixon gave his resignation speech in August, 1974, when Hyde was in the prime of life and more pertinently was running for Congress, which he entered in 1975. I personally remember where I was at the time, because that was the summer I spent in beautiful Bread Loaf, Vermont, at the Bread Loaf School of English. It was my first trip to Vermont and my first stay in New England, and I took a course in Renaissance drama from Bart Giamatti; any one of those factors would have made the time memorable for me. Television was not allowed, but a set was brought in for Nixon’s resignation – only the second time in the history of the school that that had happened.


The point here is that Nixon’s fate is a less green memory for younger members of Congress and their allies in rightwing media, think tanks, and interest groups. It happened in the childhood of the fortyish, before the formative years of thirtysomethings, and before the birth of twentysomethings. It’s not necessarily the burning issue for them that it was for Hyde and some of his peers.


A more pressing and immediate issue than Nixon, in the late 1990s, was that Clinton was in the White House for a second term after 1996, Al Gore looked like a good candidate for 2000, and it was beginning to be known that George W. Bush wanted to run for the GOP nomination.


Anyone who can read should know that George Walker Bush was putting his White House campaign in place from 1996, and more importantly that the shapers and powers around him were also doing their job from 1996 on. Regardless of the quietness with which he began his presidential campaign efforts, Bush was a very good bet to win the nomination by default if he tried seriously for it – even with his comparative lack of resume, shortness of political career, and closet of individual and family skeletons.


But that scenario still left the aforementioned skimpiness of merit and abundance of problems that would have to be dealt with, for the Republican Party to win the White House with Bush at the top of the ticket. I’ll treat those bogus accusations of “murder” against Mrs. Clinton some other time. For now, it is not a given that Clinton alone was the object of the impeachment strategy. That cannot be assumed. If you’re soon going to nominate a man whom you must secretly suspect to have potential for impeachment himself, then what you need more than anything else is – I hate to say this – a preemptive strike.


And surely every figure in Washington informed about the younger George Bush must have been at least slightly acquainted with his shadowy resume: the special treatment in re Vietnam, the years of problem drinking and highly credible rumors of other substance abuse, the rumors of at least one drug arrest with an out arranged for him by his father (then ambassador to the U.N.) through community service, the years of drift in his personal and professional life, the series of favors and special deals that made him rich and gave him his resume as a businessman in spite of companies that foundered – the list of major problems could be, and undoubtedly was, subdivided into richly detailed branches.


In short, literally nothing in Bush’s history could cause party supporters or sympathetic interest groups to assume that he would be immune to the pressures and temptations of high office. What to do? – Why, strike first, on the chance that it might help and couldn’t hurt. (Not that preemptive strike was the only tactic employed, but we can revisit some of the other tactics later.)

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