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The Impeachment Moment

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Tomgram: David Swanson, The Impeachment Moment

If you've been around long enough, you've lived through moments -- there were a couple of striking ones in the Vietnam era -- when all the collective, practical wisdom of pundits and policy makers about what is possible in this world seems to fall away and suddenly the previously inconceivable enters the mainstream. The next thing you know, it's a commonplace and everybody is proudly ready to take credit for making it so. That was the case when it came to the issue of the impeachment of Richard Nixon back in 1973. Will it, in the near future, be true again when it comes to George W. Bush (and Dick Cheney)?

In the last years, impeachment has been the all-American solution that could not speak its name in the vicinity of Washington DC or anywhere in the mainstream media, even as support for it grew among Americans generally. But we may be at the edge of a new moment, judging by the ever-unfolding Mark Foley affair, the ensuing turmoil in the Republican Party, the muffling of the presidential voice, the latest polls, and even a threatened reversal in oil prices. So it seems the perfect moment at Tomdispatch for David Swanson, who last wrote about "trophy photos" in Iraq, but has put his prodigious energies into the issue of impeachment, to take up the subject. Tom

Impeachment Anyone?
The Case for Taking the Tape Off Our Mouths

By David Swanson

[This piece is based on seven new books on impeachment, all briefly discussed in a final note.]

Never before has the system of government established by the U.S. Constitution been as seriously threatened; never before has the built-in remedy for the sort of threat we face been as badly needed; never before have we had as good an opportunity to use that remedy exactly as it was intended.

Congress has never impeached a President and removed him from office. Once, with Richard M. Nixon, impeachment proceedings forced a resignation. Twice, with Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton, impeachment proceedings led to acquittals. On a few other occasions, Congressional efforts to advance articles of impeachment have had legal and political results. These have always benefited the political party that advanced impeachment. This was even true in the case of the Republicans' unpopular impeachment of Clinton, during which the Republicans lost far fewer seats than the norm for a majority party at that point in its tenure. Two years later, they lost seats in the Senate, which had acquitted, but maintained their strength in the House, with representatives who had led the impeachment charge winning big. (This point -- little noted but important indeed -- was made to me recently by John Nichols, author of the forthcoming book, The Genius of Impeachment.)

In every past case, impeachment efforts were driven by members of Congress or other Washington political players, sometimes with support from the media. The public got behind Nixon's impeachment, but only after the proceedings had revealed massive presidential crimes. The public never got behind Clinton's impeachment, despite saturation news coverage and widespread support among political power players. In the case of George W. Bush's impeachment, with the media and both parties in Congress opposed to it, public support is just about all there is -- so far.

In past cases, impeachment has either focused on trivial offenses or on crimes that were serious but not tied to the administration's major foreign policy decisions or to policies in which Congress was complicit. Clinton was impeached for lying under oath about his sex life -- clearly a crime but not bribery, treason, or a "high crime or misdemeanor" (an old British phrase meaning an abuse of the political system by a high office holder), and so not actually an impeachable offense. Nixon was nearly impeached for obstruction of justice, warrantless spying, refusing to produce information subpoenaed by Congress, lying to the public, and other abuses of power, but not for his secret and illegal bombing of Cambodia.

For all the reasons Nixon was nearly impeached, George W. Bush could be impeached too. He has openly engaged in illegal, unconstitutional, warrantless spying, and -- while Congress has not yet used subpoenas -- Bush has obstructed its investigations, refused to comply with Freedom of Information Act requests, and broken a variety of laws in the course of exacting retribution against whistleblowers, producing false reports, and establishing a regime of secrecy of a sort that Nixon could only dream about.

Bush has lied to the public about the warrantless spying program at the National Security Agency (NSA), the war in Iraq, the kinds of warnings he was given before hurricane Katrina arrived, and numerous other issues. While Nixon made secret audio tapes in the White House which, when discovered, doubled as evidence, this time there is video -- of Bush being warned prior to Katrina and claiming he was not warned, of Bush assuring us he was not engaged in warrantless spying and brazenly asserting that he will continue to spy without warrants, of Bush warning us about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction as well as Saddam's supposed ties to the 9/11 attacks and of Bush claiming he did no such thing, of Bush claiming the U.S. does not condone torture and of the torture victims.

Bush's administration has even bribed journalists and manufactured phony news stories at home as well as in Iraq in order to deceive the public. Congressman John Conyers has introduced bills to censure both the President and Vice President Cheney for their refusal to turn over information, while Senator Russ Feingold has introduced a bill to censure Bush for his illegal spying programs.

But charging Bush with such Nixonian offenses would only scrape the surface of the criminal record that is motivating the popular movement for impeachment -- and impeachment was always meant to be a popular movement. The drafters of the Constitution placed impeachment in the hands of the House of Representatives because they considered that body -- with its members facing reelection every two years -- closest to the people.

In theory, a democratic system with impeachment at its heart creates an obvious conflict in the wake of any (honest and credible) presidential election. How could the people's representatives impeach, and ask the Senate to consider removing from office, a president whom the people have just elected? In practice at present, quite a different conflict takes center stage: How can a Congress complicit in many of this President's criminal acts be asked to impeach him? Perhaps by focusing on crimes Congress was not complicit in, by allowing Congressional representatives to plead ignorance or remorse, and by electing new representatives better tuned to the present will of the people.

And how do we get the media to cover investigations of crimes the media too have been complicit in? Same answer (minus, of course, the elections).

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David Swanson is the author of "When the World Outlawed War," "War Is A Lie" and "Daybreak: Undoing the Imperial Presidency and Forming a More Perfect Union." He blogs at and and works for the online (more...)
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