I was a college student almost forty years ago when the U.S. House Judiciary Committee voted to impeach President Richard Nixon. I watched those proceedings and hung on every word.
Many, perhaps even most people did. I remember crowds clustered around television sets in department stores at particularly dramatic points in the testimony. When the members finally voted to recommend impeachment, many of them did in voices breaking with emotion. They knew this was an almost unimaginably huge step.
The congressmen knew that only one other President had been impeached in history – Andrew Johnson, more than a century before. They also knew that history had judged very harshly those congressmen and senators who supported removing that president, and praised those who managed to stop his conviction.
Impeachment, those congressmen knew, was the nuclear option in American constitutional democracy. In the end, President Nixon resigned before he could be impeached, convicted, and removed from office, as he surely would have been.
I thought that would be the only attempt at impeaching a president I would ever see, and I was, of course, wrong. Twenty-five years later, the house actually impeached President Clinton for what really amounted to lying about sex. The senate never came close to convicting him, and the entire episode was seen as low farce.
Those who love this country and understand how representative democracy works know that if impeachment ever becomes one more common partisan tool, our entire system will fall apart. Former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi understands that. When Democrats won back Congress in 2006, Detroit’s John Conyers was in line to be chair of the House Judiciary Committee. Conyers had been saying President Bush deserved impeachment. Pelosi told him in no uncertain terms not to do that.
Had he refused, I think he would have been removed as chair. Freshmen Congressman Kerry Bentivolio is not a lawyer, and will never chair the judiciary committee. But the former reindeer farmer, who represents parts of Wayne and Oakland counties, is making noises about impeaching the President, just the same.
Bentivolio told one constituent, “If I could write that bill, he would be a dream come true,” meaning a bill to impeach the President. He said he wants to remove Mr. Obama for “everything he’s doing against our Constitution.”
Statements like that are wildly popular with the Tea Party groups who are Bentivolio’s biggest backers. But the new congressman is shrewder than you might think. He admitted that he isn’t about to introduce any impeachment resolution.
That’s because he doesn’t have any evidence of the “high crimes and misdemeanors” needed to remove a President.
“Until we have evidence, you’re going to become a laughing stock if you submitted a bill to impeach the President,” he said.
That’s exactly right. Americans held a referendum on what this president is doing less than a year ago, and he won by five million votes.
Both the nation and our state are facing a lot of issues. You’d think our elected representatives would have their hands full struggling with problems that are real.
If they won’t do that, I think we need to ask ourselves, why are we sending them there?
Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Jack Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee the University of Michigan.