The impeachers are really just wasting their breath

By Ed Gold

The man at the bar turned to me and said: “Isn’t it about time we impeached Bush?”

My immediate response: “It’s a waste of time.”

“But,” the man continued, “he doesn’t deserve to be president.”

“That’s a different issue,” I pointed out.

But the “Impeach Bush” campaign is in full swing, its blog showing this week that more than 850,000 had signed its impeachment petition, and claiming it is heading for a million signatures.

The Internet campaign is sparked by the former attorney general, Ramsey Clark, recently counsel to the late Saddam Hussein.

The impeachment slogan is “Tyranny at Home, Genocide Abroad.” An impeachment resolution was introduced in Congress, not surprisingly, by Cynthia McKinney, who whacked a security guard in Washington late last year and proceeded to lose her seat.

The blog impeachers base their campaign on the “illegal war in Iraq” and the “worldwide network of security prisons.” They are trying at the moment to raise a hundred grand, primarily to finance ads in The New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle. (That’s really sticking your neck out.)

The Founding Fathers, James Madison in particular, set the bar very high on impeachment: treason, bribery, “high crimes and misdemeanors.”

Only twice in our history have presidents been impeached, out of the 43 who have occupied the Oval Office. And only one, Richard Nixon, left office in the face of certain impeachment by the House and removal by the Senate.

In the Bill Clinton impeachment fiasco, a venomous Republican majority in the House, feeling strongly that the White House belonged to them, voted to impeach on the “high crime” of a consensual sexual relationship.

They brought two counts against Clinton but failed to get a majority on either one in the Senate, which requires 67 votes for removal.

The Republicans did succeed in preventing Clinton from functioning for about a year, a time frame that might have helped him work out a deal between the Israelis and Palestinians.

Nixon was a very different case. He committed specific crimes that probably would not have come to light without the “smoking guns” found in the tapes he insisted on keeping.

His crimes were legend. He attempted to interfere with the F.B.I. investigation of the Watergate break-in. He allowed secret payments to influence witnesses to the break-in. He tried to get the C.I.A. to stop a legitimate F.B.I. investigation. And he maintained a secret investigative unit, called the “Plumbers,” inside the White House. Those are crimes impeachment was meant to deal with.

As for Bush, he did mislead us into war and he has played fast and loose with civil liberties with his extensive wiretapping, his secret prisons and his contempt for the Geneva Conventions. But presidents in wartime historically have taken liberties that violate decent behavior or circumvent the Constitution.

Lyndon Johnson’s behavior in getting us into a full-blown war in Vietnam is a case in point. Ben Bradlee, the famous editor of the Washington Post during Watergate, wrote in The Guardian in 1987 about the “Battle of Tonkin Gulf.” The American people had been told that Russian gunboats given to the Vietcong, with 37- and 15-millimeter guns, had fired on U.S. destroyers.

Bradlee writes that later testimony indicated the incident was “a willful deception of the public for political ends and especially under the guise of national security.” It was, Bradlee contended, “justification for the war against Vietnam,” but it was a “nonevent…there was no battle, no gunboats.”

Bush and his W.M.D. charge, plus his insistence that Al Qaeda and Hussein were allies, served the same purpose.

While Johnson became something of a pariah, there was no campaign to impeach him. He wisely decided not to run for another full term.

Even Franklin Roosevelt, one of our great presidents, shamefully ignored the Constitution during wartime and got away with it. He forced more than 100,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry into internment camps during World War II, only because of their race.

Some current impassioned impeachers let their emotions get the best of them. Journalist Jennifer Van Bergen writes in the liberal Tom Paine blog: “The grounds for impeachment are far greater now than when Congress threatened to impeach President Nixon, and there is a tremendous groundswell for impeachment which the newly elected Congress would do well to heed.”

Now Elizabeth Holzman, who served in Congress and voted to impeach Nixon, is calling for a Bush impeachment. She writes in The Nation that the impeachment subject is being promoted “not in hushed whispers, but openly in newspapers, on the Internet, in ordinary conversations, and even in Congress.”

No president, she says, “can be permitted to commit high crimes and misdemeanors with impunity, and these crimes include scorning international treaty obligations, deliberately leading the country into war in Iraq and engaging in illegal wiretapping.”

A Zogby poll shows 52 percent of Americans “would consider impeachment for wiretapping without a judge’s approval.”

The Council in San Francisco — where House Speaker Nancy Pelosi comes from — has passed an impeachment resolution. And Representative John Conyers, now chairperson of the House Judiciary Committee, has talked about holding impeachment hearings.

The Democrats have a two-year window to get things done. Pelosi has it exactly right in dismissing the impeachment issue from her agenda.

The Democrats have a 31-vote margin in the House but could only pick up 17 Republicans in a nonbinding resolution against the Bush surge in Iraq, which is opposed by 70 percent the American people.

In the Senate the Democrats have almost no margin and can’t pass anything without 60 votes. On the resolution on the Bush policy in Iraq they could only pick up seven Republicans. Senator Tim Johnson is still ill and absent and Joe Lieberman is connected at the hip to Bush on foreign policy.

Spending any time on an impeachment process would surely unify the Republicans against any legislation proposed by the Democrats and would make the electorate more cynical and partisan than it already is.

And if impeachment ever succeeded, who would we get in the Oval Office? Dick Cheney!