Impeachable Character?

Lucas Morel

January 1, 1999

Once again we are told “it’s about sex.” This time it came from former Sen. Dale Bumpers, who wrapped up President Clinton’s defense by asserting that the Senate impeachment trial concerned only “a marital infidelity” and “not a crime against society.” But he misunderstands the nature of the presidential office and the character required to exercise its discretionary powers. In short, character matters in the Senate’s trial of President Clinton, but not the way most have discussed it.

Lead defense lawyer Charles Ruff downplayed the severity of Clinton’s actions in the Lewinsky affair and cover-up by suggesting that Clinton did not think he was lying when he answered the grand jury’s questions. And if the president technically did lie, Ruff added, it was over a private matter and therefore Clinton should not be removed from public office. Sen. Leiberman’s impassioned speech back in September, along with Bob Livingston’s resignation as House Speaker, also gave credence to this interpretation by focusing on the immorality of Clinton’s affair and not his attempt to cover it up during the Paula Corbin Jones sexual harassment case. Unfortunately, the wrongness of the adultery has overshadowed the wrongness of his lying about it before a federal grand jury. And it’s the lying, as Henry Hyde has reiterated, that truly raises the question of fitness for presidential office.

In lying to the grand jury, which was to decide if a wrong had been committed against Paula Corbin Jones, Clinton showed that he lacks the character to fulfill his constitutional responsibilities. These are no light duties for the president. Unlike Congress, with its powers expressly listed in 18 clauses and exercised by 535 diverse representatives and senators, the “executive power” is vested in one president and is only sketched out, leaving much to be determined by the actual occupant in a given scenario. This was the Founders’ intention. They understood that the powers of the president could not be detailed in advance without hindering his ability to respond to specific situations.

Sure, he is charged with the role of Commander-in-Chief, and with the advice and consent of the Senate to makes appointments and form treaties. But to carry out these duties, the president has tremendous discretion, especially as the sole holder of the office. The Constitution sums up his general responsibility by saying, “he shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” How he carries out this charge is left to his own judgment.

In addition, his four-year term of office gives him time to implement national policy before the watchful eyes of the American people. If he abuses his power, the citizenry can remove the president from office through an impeachment process that reflects popular will–a majority vote in the House–while protecting the president against mere disagreement with Congress–a 2/3 vote in the Senate. And so, what the Constitution giveth, the Constitution can taketh away. If a president violates the trust of the people, they are able to act before further damage occurs by removing the president from office before the next election.

One of the glories of our constitutional system of government is precisely this ability of the people, through their elected representatives, to remove a rogue executive without subverting the entire edifice of government. Without impeachment, the nation would have to wait until the next election before removing a miscreant president. Bumpers asserted, “if you vote to convict, you can’t be sure what’s going to happen.” Actually, it’s quite clear what would happen. According to the Constitution, the 25th Amendment to be exact, “In case of the removal of the President from office . . . the Vice President shall become President.” The Constitution Americans hold so dear provides for the smoothest transition of power the world has ever known.

But Bumpers insists, “A decision to convict holds the potential for destabilizing the office of the presidency.” No, what would destabilize the presidency and our constitutional system of government is maintaining in office a man who has demonstrated that he thinks he is too important for the American people to do without. The fact that he put his own personal interest above the civil rights of at least one American citizen, Paula Corbin Jones, showed just how little he respects the American people.

Of William Jefferson Clinton, the now all-but-canonized former senator concluded, “He is not the issue.” Respectfully, Senator, if the president of the United States did not lie to a federal grand jury, we certainly would not be here trying him for the offense. Why else do you think that the “people’s alienation,” in your words, “is at an all-time high toward their government”? How can the president’s duplicity towards his family, friends, cabinet members, Congress, and the American people not heighten this alienation?

It’s not “the sex,” but “the perjury and obstruction of justice” that brought us here. It’s all about Clinton, that most stubborn fact of our political life.

Lucas Morel is an adjunct fellow at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University and an assistant professor of Political Science and History at John Brown University in Siloam Springs, Arkansas.