How History Will Judge Him

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ARTHUR SCHLESINGER JR.The republic has survived what is perhaps the weirdest episode in our political history. Many of us tuned out before the surreal drama came to its predestined end. Yet the impeachment of Bill Clinton was not a dream; it actually happened, and its reverberations will echo well into the future. The song is over, but the melody--a discordant one in this case--lingers on.What will historians make of it? Predicting the verdict of generations to come is always risky. But of one outcome we can be reasonably certain. The first thing future textbooks will say about Bill Clinton is that he is the only elected President ever to be impeached. (Andrew Johnson was not elected. Richard Nixon resigned to avoid impeachment.) This simple, singular fact will overpower other things for which Clinton might take credit: half a dozen years of unexampled prosperity; a balanced budget; a capture of the political middle from the Republicans; and persistent efforts to stop the killing in Northern Ireland, the Middle East, Bosnia and Kosovo.For a President uncommonly sensitive about his place in history, this must be a staggering blow. There are some who fear that Clinton is getting off, as they say, scot-free. Scot-free? He is already a man hopelessly damaged in the eyes of his wife, his daughter, his friends, his supporters and the nation itself, as well as in the judgment of history. However much he may pride himself on supernatural skills as an escape artist, he can never escape the stain of presidential misbehavior and personal betrayal.His actions may in addition have weakened the office confided to his care. One notes certain parallels with the impeachment 131 years ago of Andrew Johnson. Each President was vulnerable: Johnson because of wretched public actions, Clinton because of wretched private ones. In each case the Senate, after due deliberation, refused to lower the bar to conviction--a bar raised high by the framers in order to confine impeachment to great and dangerous offenses and attempts to subvert the Constitution. In each case the Senate thereby saved the constitutional separation of powers by declining to make impeachment so easy that, as James Madison had warned at the Constitutional Convention, the presidential term would be equivalent to a tenure during the pleasure of the Senate.Yet the impeachment of Andrew Johnson, even though it failed, left a wounded presidency. Congress became, in the words of a promising young political scientist at Johns Hopkins University, the central and predominant power of the system: Woodrow Wilson went on to call his influential 1885 book Congressional Government. Presidential leadership languished in the more than 30 years between Lincoln's assassination in 1865 and the (accidental) accession of Theodore Roosevelt to the White House in 1901. These years of a diminished presidency led James Bryce to write the famous chapter in The American Commonwealth (1888) titled Why Great Men Are Not Chosen Presidents.PAGE 1  |    |  
 
Could this happen again? Congressional government made little difference when the U.S. was a bit player on the world stage. But the very nature of the problems facing 21st century American Presidents calls for strong executive leadership. One must hope that such leadership will be forthcoming, but it will have to overcome obstacles thrown in its path by post-Watergate legislation and fortified by the Clinton impeachment.In particular, the impeachment has given new energy to a far-reaching, and largely unnoticed, structural change in the American polity: the institutionalization of the prosecutorial culture. This rests on two laws Congress passed in 1978 in a well-intentioned but misguided effort to immunize the republic against another Watergate.One is the independent counsel act, the law that permits Kenneth Starr to conduct dragnet investigations into private lives, taking as much time as he wants, spending as much money as he wants, inquiring into whatever excites his prurient curiosity--and all without visible accountability. Starr usurped congressional prerogatives when instead of following Leon Jaworski's Watergate precedent of submitting his findings in a neutral form and allowing the House of Representatives to make its own judgment, he shaped them into a demand for impeachment. From compliant judges he obtained rulings that turn White House lawyers, aides and even Secret Service personnel into potential informers for any independent counsel. There is no one in the White House with whom Presidents will be able to discuss confidential problems without fear of subpoena (except for their spouses, who presumably cannot be required to testify).The second statute is the Inspector General Act, which gives autonomy to the inspectors general of Executive departments and agencies, enables them to effectively abridge due process in their investigations, and makes them more answerable to Congress than to their nominal superiors. They too do their dirty work without serious accountability.Under the Inspector General Act, anonymous denunciations thrive in Washington as they have rarely done since the Council of Ten in the Venice of the doges. Like road-company Kenneth Starrs, inspectors general and their flatfoots roam through the private lives of public officials. The idiotic pursuit of the diplomat Richard Holbrooke, our proposed ambassador to the United Nations, a man who has spent most of the past 40 years working for the government only to have his whole life investigated anew, is the latest dismal consequence of uninhibited and unaccountable prosecutorial authority.  |  2  |  
 
These two laws were passed with benign intent. The independent counsel act was designed to facilitate the appointment of impartial special prosecutors. The Inspector General Act was designed to protect patriotic whistle-blowers who seek to reveal malversation in government. But what these laws have in fact done is to create a fourth branch of government--powerful, unaccountable and wonderfully designed to make it hard to recruit people for public service and easy to intimidate them once they are serving. A priority for the 106th Congress should be the dismemberment of these institutional manifestations of our prosecutorial culture. Abolishing the fourth branch of government would benefit future Republican as well as Democratic administrations.In the meantime, what can the first elected President to be impeached do to improve his chances before the bar of history? Clinton continues to be lucky in his enemies--first Newt Gingrich, then Kenneth Starr, today a Republican Party nearing the brink of incoherence. Senate Republicans and House Republicans detest each other; Republican Governors detest the Republican Congress; Northern Republicans detest the Southernization of the G.O.P.; economic and cultural conservatives are forever at sword's point. Maybe young George Bush will have the Reaganesque legerdemain to bring them all together, but that won't happen much before 2001.Faced with an opposition in morose disarray, the reprieved President has two choices. He can play it safe or go for broke. Playing it safe means a minimalist program, doing this small thing for one group, that small thing for another, generally following the quasi-Republican line of the Democratic Leadership Council. This course may build a record of minor legislative accomplishment. It is unlikely to make a great impression on future historians.Clinton must have noticed that when the wolf pack was after him, his D.L.C. pals took to the hills; the D.L.C. chairman, the sanctimonious Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, even went to the Senate floor to urge the pack on. Clinton's support, if less for the President than for the presidency, came from liberal Democrats: Senators Harkin, Dodd, Leahy, Kennedy and others in the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.This might incline the President toward an attempt to set larger goals for the century ahead. It takes time for bold new ideas to work their way through Congress--and often they are improved in the process. Recall Medicare, for example. It was introduced by President Kennedy in 1961 and, after a long campaign of popular and congressional education, finally passed under President Johnson in 1965.Let Clinton bring his considerable intelligence to bear on our major national problems and come up with persuasive remedies. Let him try his hand again at extending health coverage. Let him offer a strong national program to improve our schools and combat illiteracy. Let him press on in his search for ways to put Social Security and Medicare on a sound fiscal basis. Even though his initiatives may not achieve the statute books in the remaining months of his term, historians may credit him with establishing the agenda for the future. Make no little plans, said Daniel Burnham, the great Chicago architect. They have no magic to stir men's blood.Arthur Schlesinger Jr. is a historian, writer and former special assistant to President John F. Kennedy.  |    |  3