Every impeachment reinvents what impeachment is for, and what it means, a theory of government itself. Every impeachment also offers a chance to establish a new political settlement in an unruly nation. The impeachment of Samuel Chase steered the United States toward judicial independence, and an accommodation with a party system that had not been anticipated by the Framers. Chase’s acquittal stabilized the Republic and restored the balance of power between the executive and the judicial branches. The failed impeachment of Andrew Johnson steered the United States toward a regime of racial segregation: the era of Jim Crow, which would not be undone until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Acts of 1965 were passed, a century later, in the Administration of another Johnson. Johnson’s acquittal undid the Union’s victory in the Civil War, allowed the Confederacy to win the peace, and nearly destroyed the Republic.
Johnson’s acquittal also elevated the Presidency by making impeachment seem doomed. Jefferson once lamented that impeachment had become a “mere scarecrow.” That’s how it worked for much of the twentieth century: propped up in a field, straw poking out from under its hat. A Republican congressman from Michigan called for the impeachment of F.D.R., after the President tried to pack the Court. Nothing but another scarecrow.
The impeachment of Richard Nixon, in 1974, which, although it never went to trial, succeeded in the sense that it drove Nixon from office, represented a use entirely consistent with the instrument’s medieval origins: it attempted to puncture the swollen power of the Presidency and to reassert the supremacy of the legislature. Nixon’s Presidency began to unravel only after the publication of the Pentagon Papers, in 1971—which indicted not Nixon but Lyndon Johnson, for deceiving the public about Vietnam—and the public anger that made impeachment possible had to do not only with Nixon’s lies and abuses of power but also with Johnson’s. But a new settlement, curtailing the powers of the President, never came. Instead, the nation became divided, and those divisions widened.
The wider those divisions, the duller the blade of impeachment. Only very rarely in American history has one party held more than two-thirds of the seats in the Senate (it hasn’t happened since 1967), and the more partisan American politics the less likely it is that sixty-seven senators can be rounded up to convict anyone, of anything. And yet the wider those divisions the more willing Congress has been to call for impeachment. Since Ronald Reagan’s Inauguration in 1981, members of the House have introduced resolutions for impeachment during every Presidency. And the people, too, have clamored. “Impeach Bush,” the yard signs read. “Impeach Obama.”
Not every impeachment brings about a political settlement, good or bad. The failed impeachment of Bill Clinton, in 1999, for lying about his sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky, settled less than nothing, except that it weakened Americans’ faith in impeachment as anything other than a crudely wrought partisan hatchet, a prisoner’s shiv.
Clinton’s impeachment had one more consequence: it got Donald Trump, self-professed playboy, onto national television, as an authority on the sex lives of ego-mad men. “Paula Jones is a loser,” Trump said on CNBC. “It’s a terrible embarrassment.” Also, “I think his lawyers . . . did a terrible job,” Trump said. “I’m not even sure that he shouldn’t have just gone in and taken the Fifth Amendment.” Because why, after all, should any man have to answer for anything?
“Heaven forbid we should see another impeachment!” an exhausted Republican said at the end of the trial of Samuel Chase. The impeachment of an American President is certain to lead to no end of political mischief and almost certain to fail. Still, worse could happen. Heaven forbid this Republic should become one man’s kingdom.
Jill Lepore, “You’re Fired”, The New Yorker (28 October 2019), 31.