I can’t find it in my files, but I vividly remember a cartoon in The Sydney Morning Herald of 1998, on the impeachment of President Clinton.
A series of black-robed figures, representing the Republican
impeachment managers, solemnly intoned their reasons – impartial
justice, probity of government, and so on – until the last two, who
said “But most of all … We’re doing it for Richard Nixon.”
No-one who lived through Watergate will forget the drama of a president
being forced from office. But the interpretation of it is more than
ever a partisan matter.
Without Watergate, the Clinton impeachment would have been unthinkable.
Although Nixon was brought down by a bipartisan majority, the
Republican Party suffers from collective amnesia about its role, and
has come to regard his fall as a Democrat political assassination.
Hence much of the bitterness of the Clinton era.
But the failure of Clinton’s impeachment in turn made future
impeachments less likely. No president will be at risk for a long time
unless they actually deliver their opponents a smoking gun.
Yet that is what George W Bush seems to have done. His unapologetic
admission to wiretaps of US citizens without warrants, in apparently
clear violation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, has put
impeachment back on the agenda, however tentatively. As John Dean,
Watergate conspirator and whistleblower, put it before Christmas, he is “the first president to actually admit to an impeachable offence.”
This week, The Nation
carries a long article by Elizabeth Holtzman, who was a Democrat member
of the Judiciary Committee that voted Nixon’s impeachment, presenting
the case for impeaching Bush. Yesterday former vice-president Al Gore called for the appointment of an independent counsel to investigate the wiretapping affair. And Sunday’s New York Timeseditorial, without mentioning the “i” word, used unusually strong language to condemn the president:
The administration’s behaviour shows … how urgent it is
for Congress to curtail Mr. Bush’s expansion of power. Nothing in the
national consensus to combat terrorism after 9/11 envisioned the
unilateral rewriting of more than 200 years of tradition and law by one
president embarked on an ideological crusade.
So why is Bush so set on a course that has revived a previously taboo
subject? It’s not as if FISA warrants were hard to get; they can be
applied for retrospectively, and it’s said that out of many thousands
of applications only four have ever been turned down. Maybe Bush is
using the wiretaps to spy on political opponents, although as yet there
is no evidence of that.
More likely, the administration just wants power for its own sake.
That, after all, is what governments do. As Holtzman says, “it may well
be that the warrantless wiretap program has had much more to do with
restoring the trappings of the Nixon imperial presidency than it ever
had to do with protecting national security.”