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Why 42 had to be impeached twenty years ago

The nation should remember with gratitude those like Henry Hyde who, under fierce assault, stood for the rule of law.

Left: Bill Clinton in May 2004; right: Henry Hyde (1924 – 2007) in official government photo. [Wikipedia]

Twenty years ago this month, I found myself seriously double-booked, so to speak.

The editing of the first volume of my John Paul II biography, Witness to Hope, was entering the ninth inning, and I was furiously engaged in exchanging edited and re-edited copy with my editors in New York.  At the same time, the Clinton impeachment drama was cresting. And as I had long done speechwriting for Congressman Henry Hyde, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, I spent week after week of split time, working on John Paul II from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., then switching to impeachment for a couple of hours before returning to Witness to Hope in the evening.

It was not the optimal way to work but it had to be done, even if it seemed likely that the president would be acquitted in a Senate trial. On December 19, 1998, the House of Representatives voted two articles of impeachment and senior House members, including Mr. Hyde, solemnly walked the two articles across the Capitol and presented them to the Senate’s leaders. On toward midnight, Henry Hyde called me and, referring to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, said, “We’re not going to make it. Trent won’t fight; I saw it in his eyes.” After a long moment I replied that, if we were going to lose, we had a duty to lay down a record with which history would have to reckon.

Which is what the great Henry Hyde did during the January 1999 Senate trial, where he bent every effort to prevent the proceedings from descending into farce.

For Hyde, the impeachment of President Bill Clinton was an unavoidable piece of nasty business. It was not a matter of partisan score-settling, nor was it a matter of punishing a president for gross behavior with an intern in the White House. It was a matter of defending the rule of law. As Henry put it to me when it seemed clear that the president had perjured himself and obstructed justice, “There are over a hundred people in federal prisons for these crimes. How can the chief law enforcement officer of the United States be guilty of them and stay in office?”

Impeachment is a political process and it was clear by mid-fall of 1998 that the politics were not breaking toward removing the president from office. They had been pointed that way over the summer, though. And as the pressures built, it seemed as if the Clinton presidency might end as Richard Nixon’s had: Party elders, in this case Democrats, would go to the White House, explain that it was over, and ask the president to resign for the sake of the country. Then around Labor Day that year, Maureen Dowd of the New York Times and other columnists began suggesting that, if Clinton were impeached and convicted, the sexual revolution would be over, the yahoos of reaction would have won, and we’d be back to something resembling Salem, Massachusetts, during the witchcraft insanity.

That was preposterous. It was also effective. And within days, at least in Washington, you could fill the templates shifting: This wasn’t about the rule of law, it was about sex and the yahoos couldn’t be allowed to win. (That Henry Hyde was the leader of the pro-life forces in Congress neatly fit this storyline, of course, abortion being a major plank in the platform of the sexual revolution.)

So once the game was redefined — Are you for or against the puritanical yahoos? — there was little chance to wrench the political process back to what it was really about: the rule of law. In his opening speech during the president’s trial, Henry Hyde tried valiantly to refocus the argument, insisting that high office did not absolve a man from obeying his constitutional oath to faithfully execute the laws of the United States and his oath swearing to tell the truth to a federal grand jury. To suggest that it did was to “break the covenant of trust” between president and people, dissolving “the mortar that binds the foundation stones of our freedom into a secure and solid edifice.”

It wasn’t a winning argument. But it was the right argument. And on this 20th anniversary, the nation should remember with gratitude those like Henry Hyde who, under fierce assault, stood for the rule of law.


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About George Weigel 218 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Fragility of Order: Catholic Reflections on Turbulent Times (Ignatius Press, 2018). He is the recipient of nineteen honorary doctorates in fields including divinity, philosophy, law, and social science.

8 Comments

  1. That Henry Hyde was not exactly squeaky clean. He was involved in a savings and loan scandal and admitted to having an affair when he was youngetZ

  2. all i know is that Weigl was dead wrong on Trump. Trump has done more for pro life and all religion than any Catholic i can think of.. them’s the facts. what say you now George?

    • He’d probably say you have little faith, if at all, if you consider Trump the best thing to ever happen to Catholics. This is what happens when you supplant American politics as your new idol.

      Well maybe not him, but I’ll say it.

  3. It only helped to make Clinton even more popular. Regardless of the ‘lack of fight’ concerning Trent Lott, the votes weren’t even remotely there. A political disaster for the Republicans.

    As a strictly necessary action for justice and for legal accountability, impeachment was, technically, necessary. Maybe.

    Noble?

    Perhaps for those with a now extinct understanding of the traditional sense of the presidency and the Constitution.

  4. Clinton only got caught with his pants down while The Donald is in his birthday suit. Why we Catholics continue to support Trump mainly because of his “stand” on abortion when it has been proven that he cares only about one person, not Stormy Daniels not Karen McDougal not Millennia… himself.

    • Morgan B;
      I’m not a fan of Trump and never will be, but given the alternative – there we are. IMO the choice we had to make in November 2016 was the worst in my lifetime, and probably in the lifetime of the country. Unfortunately it’s what we deserve.

      Trump’s carrying on prior to running for President is nothing to brag about, even though he did during the campaign, but to me getting oral sex in the White House from an intern only 4 years older than his own daughter is much worse, besides which Clinton has had the reputation of a serial adulterer for decades.

      This takes me back to the 1992 interview with Bill and the Hill when Hillary made that snarky comment about Tammy Wynette.

      And let us not forget Jack Kennedy.

  5. While Clinton’s conduct in respect of the Lewinsky Affair is despicable the GOP leadership did create the impression they wanted to get red of him regardless of cost or reason. The Whitewater investigation by Kenneth Starr was originally intended to uncover real estate fraud and after nothing in this respect came was uncovered, Starr refocused on the Lewinsky affair. Regardless of his and Hyde true motives it is easy to see how the American public could see how this was less about morality and more about removing the first Democrat since Roosevelt to be reelected.

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