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David Swanson: The Genius of John Nichols

The Genius of John Nichols


By David Swanson

With "The Genius of Impeachment: The Founders' Cure for Royalism," John Nichols has produced a masterpiece that should be required reading in every high school and college in the United States. Unlike several recently published books, this is not an argument for impeaching Bush, not a list of charges, not a rough draft of articles of impeachment. Rather, "Genius" is a history and portrait of the practice of impeachment, a practice that has been used far longer, far more often, and with far greater importance than most of us imagine.

Nichols makes an overwhelming case that the regular use of impeachment is necessary for the survival of our constitutional government, that impeachment proceedings usually have beneficial consequences even if unsuccessful, that promotion of impeachment is not nearly as politically risky as is failure to do so when it is merited, that a move to impeach Bush in the U.S. House would be greeted with enthusiastic public support, and that failure to impeach Bush would contribute to an ongoing dangerous expansion of executive power from which our system of government might not recover.

Did you know that articles of impeachment have been filed against nine U.S. presidents? Did you know that in seven cases, Republicans or Whigs were either the chief sponsors or major supporters of impeachment? Did you know that Republicans, in a minority, concerned about the rule of law and the presidential seizure of wartime powers, launched a major effort to impeach President Truman, an effort that ended only when the Supreme Court took up the same concerns and ruled against Truman (and Congress and the President obeyed the Supreme Court)? Did you know this effort benefited the Republicans in the next election?

Did you know that Republicans who put the Constitution above a Republican president cast the votes that sealed President Nixon's fate? Of course, they did so only after the Democrats had acted.

While Nichols covers the history of impeachment from the 1300s on, including recent efforts to impeach Prime Minister Tony Blair, obsessed with the present as I am, I want to pull out a few of Nichols' remarks on the recent history of the Democratic Party in the United States. These will not mean as much in isolation; you really must read the book.

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But here's a taste of it:

"When the congressional Democrats failed to pursue impeachment as the necessary response to the Iran-Contra revelations of rampant illegality in the Reagan White House – rejecting the advice of Henry B. Gonzalez, the wily Texas congressman who alone introduced the appropriate articles in 1987 – they thought they were positioning the party for victory in the coming presidential election. Instead, Vice President George Herbert Walker Bush, having recovered from the gentle slap on the wrist he received from Congress for his own involvement in the scandal, was elected to the presidency in 1988 by a landslide, and expected Democratic advances in Congress failed to materialize.

"Pulling punches in a political battle usually results in a knockout, with the party that holds back collapsing to the mat and struggling, often for a very long time, to finally get up again. And the Democratic Party of the George Herbert Walker Bush years, with its inexplicable penchant for pulling punches, runs the very real risk of being flattened not once but repeatedly if it fails to confront the issue of rampant wrongdoing on the part of the Bush administration."

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"'I think that we should solve this issue electorally,' Pelosi repeatedly argued, conveniently avoiding mention of the fact that – like Andrew Johnson when he was impeached in 1868, like Harry Truman when Republicans discussed impeaching him in 1952, like Richard Nixon when the House Judiciary Committee voted to impeach him in 1974, and like Bill Clinton when he was impeached in 1998 – George Bush and Dick Cheney were unlikely ever again to face the American electorate."

*********

"'How can we impeach this guy?' [Columnist Harold] Meyerson's answer was 'we can't' – not because Bush is beyond reproach but because 'to dwell on impeachment now would be to drain energy from the election efforts that need to succeed if impeachment is ever truly to be on the agenda.' So the counsel from Meyerson, one of the savvier political writers on the left, was to try a bait-and-switch. Run on health care and education, win the Congress and then, perhaps, begin to entertain questions of impeachment. The problem with such strategies is twofold: First, they misread the politics of impeachment. Second, they make impeachment nothing more than a partisan political act – precisely what House Minority Whip Leslie Arends, an Illinois Republican, termed it in 1974 when, on the eve of the House Judiciary Committee vote on articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon, he declared 'Impeachment is purely a Democratic maneuver. We ought to recognize it as such and we ought to stand up as Republicans and oppose the whole scheme.' Within days, Arends looked very much the fool, as more than a third of the Judiciary Committee's Republican members, including several key conservatives, cast votes in favor of impeachment. Within weeks, Arends no longer looked but indeed was the fool, as voters swept from office dozens of Republicans who had opposed impeachment…."

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