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The Legacy of Low-Bar Impeachment

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Since the embarrassing impeachment and failed conviction of President Andrew Johnson in 1868, Americans more or less had avoided that ultimate constitutional method of removing a chief executive from power. The Johnson impeachment had been so steeped in personal hatred, political rivalry, and post-war agendas that the failure by one vote in the Senate to remove the impeached Johnson more or less discredited the process for a century.

The 1974 Watergate impeachment inquiry saga was framed in opposition to the way Johnson had been impeached, inasmuch as anyone still remembered the particulars of that long-ago fiasco. That is, a special prosecutor, first Archibald Cox and then Leon Jaworski, was appointed to investigate the break-in and the so-called Watergate cover-up.

Democratic moderates like Representative Peter Rodino (D-N.J.) and Senator Sam Ervin (D-N.C.) gave the impeachment inquiries a patina of bipartisanship, both giving time for the targeted president’s defenders to produce witnesses and conduct cross-examinations. Neither released the phone records of their political counterparts on their respective committees. By the time a now-unpopular Richard Nixon resigned in August 1974 to avoid impeachment by an impending overwhelming vote, he had lost public support and gained bipartisan congressional opposition.


Bill Clinton, unlike Nixon, but like Johnson, was both impeached and acquitted in the Senate. Like Nixon, he had easily won a prior reelection (1996). But, unlike Nixon, Clinton was still reigning over a booming economy and enjoyed relatively high popularity—at least on poll questions other than character and morality. Independent counsel Ken Starr, like Leon Jaworski, found Clinton likely to have committed felonious acts. Indeed, he was impeached on grounds of obstructing justice and perjury by the full House on a mostly partisan vote, which nonetheless saw a handful of both Democrats and Republicans respectively cross party lines.:snip:


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