No Win Situation

Regardless of how the impeachment trial turns out, say faculty members, it won't produce glory or heroes

By Sean Smith
Staff Writer

Predict the outcome of President Clinton's impeachment trial? To hear Prof. Marc Landy (Political Science), the truncated National Basketball Association season would be easier to divine.

"Forget conventional wisdom - there is no wisdom," quipped Landy. "Like a lot of people, I assumed the election last fall had settled the issue of impeachment. But the so-called mandates from voters can be overrated; the electoral process is not definitive enough, and certainly not in this case.

"So when someone says 'There aren't 67 votes in the Senate to convict him,'" Landy continued, "I almost think that's premature."

While Landy is loath to forecast the results of the trial - scheduled to continue this week with opening statements by Clinton's defense team - he and other Boston College legal and political experts are not reluctant to criticize the course this impeachment process has followed.

Prof. Marc Landy (Political Science), Prof. Robert Bloom (Law) and Asst. Prof. Kent Greenfield (Law), from left, do not see silver linings in the impeachment cloud. (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

The events over the past couple of months represent an excursion into unknown, and possibly dangerous territory for the American political system, faculty say. However the impeachment saga ends, they note, it will be a chapter in US history without much in the way of glory or heroes.

"If someone is expressing either an optimistic or pessimistic view on this too boldly, they're wrong," said Landy. "We'll weather this as a nation. If Clinton is kicked out, sure, we can say that it's wonderful that in the US we get rid of presidents with votes, not bayonets. But one way or another, this shifts some important social and political standards."

The crux of the concerns voiced by Landy and other faculty is that however indefensible or reprehensible Clinton's actions may be - specifically in the matter of his affair with Monica Lewinsky - they do not pass the "high crimes and misdemeanors" test for impeachment. Should Clinton be removed on such dubious grounds, they say, impeachment may become a handy partisan tool for either party to use against a president in the future.

"There was plenty of sound reasoning to consider the impeachment of Richard Nixon, because among other things it could be argued he had engaged in a real effort to undermine the electoral process," said Asst. Prof. Kent Greenfield (Law). "No one is saying that what Bill Clinton has done will mean the end of the republic and it's not even abundantly clear he committed the crimes as has been described."

Greenfield said a successful conviction of Clinton would mean a "ratcheting down" of the criteria for impeachment and would potentially create a chilling environment for both elected officials and candidates.

Yet Clinton's acquittal has its own repercussions, as Landy points out.

"The Lewinsky scandal has raised a lot of issues about sexual harassment, sexual and social relations," he said. "If Clinton escapes punishment, what does that do to this debate?"

For Prof. Robert Bloom (Law), the Clinton case indicates the degree to which the impeachment process is misperceived by the media, the public and even the lawmakers. The constant depiction of the Senate trial in a similar fashion as a criminal proceeding, such as referring to the Senate as a jury or Chief Justice William Rehnquist as the judge, is misleading, he says.

"A jury's exclusive responsibility is to find facts, but the Senate not only finds facts, it makes rulings as to evidence as well as law," Bloom explained. "Jurors also are not supposed to know anything about the case on which they sit. The judge, meanwhile, is acting here largely like a master of ceremonies, taking direction from the party organizers, and any of his rulings have to be supported by the members. It's just not a valid comparison."

Similarly, Bloom and others say, the inevitable recounting of the 1868 impeachment trial of Andrew Johnson is of limited use in grasping the implications of the process. The case against Johnson may have been politically motivated, but did have some merit.

"The grounds for impeaching Johnson were actually clearer," Landy said. "Congress had passed a law, against firing cabinet officials, which reasonable people might say was unconstitutional, and Johnson ignored it. It was a proper test of the Constitution."

"This just doesn't look like the process our founders had in mind," Bloom said, "It reminds me more of a parliament giving the prime minister a 'no confidence' vote."

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