Presidential impeachment is an extremely rare occurrence.
Yet millions upon millions of America’s baby boomers, for the third time in their lifetimes, are now seeing the efforts of certain members of Congress who want to move toward a possible presidential impeachment.
Let’s quickly compare and contrast the three scenarios for clarity and perspective.
President Donald Trump has already weathered several investigations and organized threats against the legitimacy of his position in office.
An impeachment inquiry is now the latest in that string of attacks.
Is there anything we can learn from previous impeachments that may give us guidance as to where this new chapter might lead?
Almost 50 years ago, our country was mired in the Watergate investigation.
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Republican President Richard Nixon was implicated in the obstruction of justice and cover-up pertaining to the Watergate break-in. Actual tape recordings of private conversations in the Oval Office shed light on the president’s authorization of the break-in and his coordinated efforts to hide it. As a result, both houses of Congress voted to impeach the president for his role in that series of transgressions.
The break-in itself was a mere misdemeanor — no property was stolen or damaged. But the cover-up became the crime of the century.
More than a dozen of the president’s White House staff were ultimately convicted and sent to prison, including the attorney general, the White House chief of staff, and the White House legal counsel.
When independent party leaders such as Gov. George Wallace of Alabama and numerous Republicans on Capitol Hill joined with Democrats to demand Nixon’s resignation, the president finally acknowledged he could no longer effectively govern the country. He took the unprecedented step of resigning in disgrace in August 1974 — at which point his vice president, Gerald Ford, stepped into the Oval Office.
Just 26 years later, Congress again voted to impeach the sitting president.
Democrat Bill Clinton had become embroiled in a scandal surrounding sexual affairs he had carried out while in office, including one with young White House intern Monica Lewinsky. His repeated denials were negated when phone recordings and embarrassing DNA evidence proved otherwise.
His crime was that of “lying under oath” — and his guilt was apparent.
This time, however, the impeachment outcome was significantly different than that of Richard Nixon.
Public sentiment was largely with the president. The general consensus was that he had used very poor judgment in his personal life but had actually done nothing to threaten the security of the United States or in any way to go against our country’s Constitution.
Yes, he’d repeatedly lied about his sexual indiscretions.
But a majority of the public — as well as numerous members of Congress — actually agreed they would have done the same thing.
As a result, Clinton chose to make a carefully worded apology to the American people and remain in the White House.
Republicans had assumed incorrectly that his public embarrassment would obligate him to resign from office.
Their personal disdain for the president came up empty — and they lost ground in terms of popularity polls. Their failed efforts were costly.
In the next midterm elections, Republicans lost several seats in Congress. Marital infidelity no longer carried a commensurate degree of shame.
So what lessons for today can be drawn from these two previous impeachment proceedings?
Most Democrats clearly want President Trump out of office — either by way of the ballot box or any means available.
Successful impeachment proceedings could cast enough of a shadow on the integrity and character of the incumbent president to cause doubt in the hearts of voters.
That doubt could tip the scales for the 2020 presidential election.
But a failed attempt at impeachment could do just the opposite. Public sentiment might shift toward increased support for President Trump if it appears that such accusations are rooted in vengeance rather than constitutional law.
There lies the tension for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and her fellow Democrats on Capitol Hill. They know they must be very cautious as they step through a political minefield.
One factor is certain. Unlike with Nixon — Donald Trump will not voluntarily resign from office.
Like President Bill Clinton, he will stay in the White House surrounded by his loyal followers for as long as possible.
Political decisions are often a gamble. This impeachment inquiry will prove to be historic, regardless of the outcome.
Cinch up your seat belt, America, because our political “carnival ride” just moved to a new level of intensity.
And not everyone who got on this ride will be with us when it’s time to get off.
Daniel Forbes Hauser spent four years researching and writing his forthcoming book, “Revolution and Renaissance: 1965-1975” (History Publishing, November 2019). He conducted interviews with more than 100 people to document their observations and experiences. He is a graduate of Boulder High School in Boulder, Colorado, and Trinity College in Deerfield, Illinois, with a B.A. in philosophy and history.
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