Andrew Johnson enjoyed a dubious honor as the first sitting President of the United States to face an impeachment trial at the hands of his government in 1868. Over a hundred and thirty years later William Jefferson Clinton, better known as Bill Clinton, became the second.
Sexual morality or lack thereof, underpinned the allegations levied against the President according to his accusers (Miller 226). However, considerable speculation in 1998 suggested that Clinton’s impeachment represented a “partisan witch hunt” in much the same way as Johnson’s (Miller 226).
A feeling lingered amongst observers at the time that Clinton’s political rivals inflated proof of Clinton’s “immorality” and applied incendiary terms to his behavior such as “deceit,” “sexual scandal,” and “obstruction of justice” in an attempt to characterize the events as flagrant presidential depravity, sufficient enough to warrant his removal from office.
Members of the Clinton camp classified the event simply and tersely as a conscious and determined political action, an endeavor to remove Clinton from the presidency with the help of scandal since they could not defeat him politically.
This essay analyzes the impeachment of President Bill Clinton from its inception to its conclusion, with emphasis on the political machinations that surrounded the trial and its outcome.
The focus will be on how and why the “Teflon President” not only survived the impeachment but how the trial buoyed his political rating once it concluded (Miller 226).
This paper asserts that Clinton’s impeachment trial relates to a much deeper schism in the collective American psyche: the partisan view of sexuality and monogamy. The Republicans at the time banked on acquiring enough public moral indignation to eject Clinton from office.
However, the fact that the majority of Americans believed that the behavior of the president was, by all means, bad, but it was rather private and did not influence his political competence, so it could not be enough for impeachment thwarted their efforts (Pinkele 422).
The impeachment engendered the surprising revelation that approval ratings, in this case, linked less to moral and ethical considerations and more to job performance, a hale economy and the general affability, popularity and magnetism of Clinton himself, popularity that effectively undermined the evidence, and which remains to this day (Silva et al. 468).
This paper also speculates upon the impact on American history of the impeachment trial that resulted in Clinton’s removal from office as opposed to his acquittal.
The trial over the president
Investigation and charges
The events that led to the investigation of Clinton began when Clinton was still the governor of Arkansas. On January 21, 1998, Kenneth Starr officially launched an investigation of President Clinton on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice (Moran 1).
Starr and the Counsel’s decision to investigate originated in the legal case of Paula Jones, who once worked for Clinton, and who had accused him of harassing her sexually while he was still the Governor of Arkansas (Moran 1).
In late 1997 Paula Jones’s lawyers subpoenaed former White House intern Monica Lewinsky, on the basis of information garnered from government employee Linda Tripp, alleging that Lewinsky and Clinton were engaged in an extramarital affair during his tenure at the White House, and that Lewinsky had asked Tripp to deny that fact under oath (Moran 1).
President Clinton refuted the allegations that he and Lewinsky had been intimate in a deposition. However, President Clinton’s behavior did not support this denial.
Even though Lewinsky also denied both the affair and the obstruction of justice charge in an affidavit, Clinton’s efforts to secure Lewinsky a job and her confiding in Linda Tripp legitimated an investigation by Starr and the independent counsel (Moran 1).
The reaction of supporters and opponents
Clinton, for the most part, took issue with the fact that his private life had generated a “partisan-impregnated impeachment episode,” and refuted the allegations for some time (Pinkele 422). On principle, Clinton argued, what he did with his own time was his own business.
The reactions from Democratic senators at the time varied; many agreed with Clinton, in theory. However, in practice Senator Joe Lieberman, a Democrat characterized Clinton’s behavior as a “graver sense of loss for our country and its moral foundations” (Baker 60).
Clinton drew fire from some of his closest Senators at the time, the understanding being that Clinton’s Achilles heel – women – had given his opponents the weapon they sought to finally oust him. Clinton’s poor political judgment would cost them the next election.
Though Bill Clinton certainly did not represent the first philandering man in public office, he did possess the mantel of President, and this made his personal life public.
Admittedly, at the end of the twentieth century, the president could not have his private life since his life automatically became public when he embraced the high post (Baker 60).
Clinton’s indiscretions offended a paternal understanding of the presidency; in fact, many observers of the office characterize the President as “national role model” who exemplifies the country’s people (Stuckey and Wabshall 518).
The senators who supported Clinton argued that his sex life did not warrant reflection or investigation since it was not related to his job.
The President’s followers contended that this element of the presidential character did not represent an opposite or relevant measure of presidential operation (Stuckey and Wabshall 519).
Senators and the voters that they represented didn’t pay attention to President Clinton’s sex life, but they did care about the well-being of the entire country and every American (Stuckey and Wabshall 519).
For these elected officials, who spoke for the majority of the public at the time, Clinton extramarital relationships did not affect his professionalism and they also claimed that the president did his job and tried to make his country flourish.
Senators who personally may have objected to Clinton’s reckless personal risks, politically speaking, did not regard it as “impeachable” (Stuckey and Wabshall 519).
The outcome of the trial
When President Clinton stood trial in the Senate under impeachment, the historical weight of this moment was not lost on its participants.
Clinton’s impeachment trial represented only the second occurrence in U.S. history that a sitting president faced impeachment under the House of Representatives and brooked a trial under the scrutiny of the Senate, accused of perjury and obstruction of justice (Miller 226).
The impeachment trial lasted for 37 days and ended with a 55 to 45 votes rejecting the perjury charges, and a 50 to 50 rejection in the matter of obstruction of justice (Miller 226).
To be removed from office, Clinton would have had to receive a two-thirds majority vote against him, or 67 votes (Miller 226).
Once the vote was cast and Clinton had been acquitted, he not only survived such a serious scandal but defeated his opponents. During the aftermath of the impeachment trial, Clinton’s approval ratings jumped to “an amazing” 73% (Miller 226).
The American people essentially decided this case, and this fact bears scrutiny. How did Clinton survive the impeachment? What were the key factors that allowed him to dodge a potential political decapitation?
Silva et al. point to one potential reason for Clinton’s buoyancy during the impeachment debacle: lack of public support for Starr (474). Americans, on the whole, approved Bill Clinton’s work in an office, and opponents did not have the opportunity to remove him from the presidency.
Clinton’s work was not that perfect, but it was very good, and the nation was satisfied with the president’s ability to conduct his duties. Thus, the opponents had to seek for some other way to remove Clinton.
For instance, Clinton’s primary investigator, Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr, tried to create a negative image of the president “taking his garbage to the curb outside his house” (Silva et al. 474).
Of course, the image was unpleasant, and many people got disappointed with the morality of their president. However, Clinton’s image of a talented politician and very good president was not obscured by the dirt of sexual scandal.
Moreover, the White House happily manipulated this fortuitous turn of events since it permitted them to extrapolate the impression of Bill Clinton as suitably presidential, and Starr was depicted as “politically motivated” person who was able to do everything to get promotion, namely an appointment to the Supreme Court appointment (Silva et al. 474).
Starr’s bungling of his media image, and subsequent low public opinion, opened the doors for the superior Clinton “image machine” which portrayed Starr as biased investigator who created a network of “partisans” who tried to dig out something which could be used against the president in any way (Silva et al. 474).
This image painted Starr negatively and added fodder to Hilary Clinton’s assertion that he was the lynchpin in a “vast right-wing conspiracy” (Silva et al. 474).
A possible outcome of Clinton’s removal from office
What would have happened if this moment had turned out differently? What would have been the result had Clinton been removed from office and not acquitted? The Republicans would have tasted victory.
However, the impeachment process itself would have created a different environment in public office, specifically in regards to the office of the presidency, and given that office new responsibilities – as the purveyor of moral fortitude.
Had Clinton been impeached, a clear message would have been sent: the President’s role is simply not to govern but to stand for the moral character of the nation he governs, and as such, he or she is subjected to constant unmitigated scrutiny and interpretation of moral behavior for the political ends or his or her opponents.
However, had Clinton been impeached, that would have indicated a deeper more disturbing revelation: namely, that sexual morality and monogamy define the moral character of a president.
The other important result of the impeachment trial, had it been successful, would have been to declare open season on partisan politics.
Had Clinton been impeached for receiving fellatio from a woman that he was not married to, it would have indicated that any partisan attempt to overthrow the opposition could use any means at their disposal and that the private behavior of presidents was fair game in the war to acquire political power in the United States.
This would have opened the door for Democrats and Republicans alike to attack each other’s private lives, and depending on the perception of moral, successfully achieve power through salacious means.
Should a President prove to be a closeted homosexual, or enjoy bondage, or dress up in women’s underwear, or collect pornography, or any of the other myriad expressions of sexuality that humans indulge in, he or she was politically cooked.
Reputedly, the president is a kind of personification of the entire nation and, thus, presidents’ action is often taken symbolically (Stuckey and Wabshall 517). Likewise, the presidents’ actions can become an instrument of political struggle.
In conclusion, the impeachment trial of President Clinton in 1998 speaks to the riven collective American psyche in the arena of sexuality and monogamy. The partisan view at the time trusted public moral indignation to eject Clinton from office.
The Republican faction gambled that Clinton’s private indiscretions would become his downfall, without taking into account the impact of Clinton’s approval ratings, not to mention a healthy economy, coupled with the popularity and charisma of Clinton himself.
Apart from this, the opponents of the president chose the wrong way to remove him from office since the scandal is very peculiar. If Clinton were removed from office because of his private life, it would lead to partisan war in the political arena of the United States.
Thus, the impeachment process was simply a poor attempt to remove Clinton from the office which was to fail due to many reasons.
Baker, Peter. The Breach: Inside the Impeachment and Trial of William Jefferson Clinton. New York: Scribner, 2000.
Miller, John J. “Argument Efficacy: Evaluating the public Argument of President Bill Clinton’s Impeachment Crisis.” Argumentation and Advocacy 40.4 (2004): 226-247.
Moran, Beverly I. Aftermath: The Clinton Impeachment and the Presidency in the Age of Political Spectacle. New York: New York University Press, 2001. Print.
Pinkele, Carl F. “An Affair of State: The Investigation, Impeachment, and Trial of President Clinton.” The Historian 63.2 (2001): 422-424.
Silva, Carol L., Hank C. Jenkins-Smith, and Richard Waterman. “Why Did Clinton Survive the Impeachment Crisis? A Test of Three Explanations.” Presidential Studies Quarterly 37.3 (2007): 468-486.
Stuckey, Mary E., and Shannon Wabshall. “Sex, Lies, and Presidential Leadership: Interpretations of the Office.” Presidential Studies Quarterly 30.3 (2000): 514-534.