By Blair Golson
On Wednesday, Sept. 13, former Congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman will hold a discussion at UCLA with former White House aide John Dean, titled ?Bush and the Potential for Impeachment.?
[Click here for info; disclaimer: Truthdig is co-sponsoring the event with The Nation Institute.]
Holtzman, who served in the U.S. House from 1973 to 1981 and later became Brooklyn?s district attorney, co-authored a book this year titled ?The Impeachment of George W. Bush,? which lays out a case that the president has committed high crimes and misdemeanors and should be removed from office.
Holtzman was also a key member of the House Judiciary Committee in 1974 during the Nixon impeachment hearings—the same hearings in which Dean, initially a conspirator in the Watergate coverup, eventually came forward and cooperated with prosecutors to expose the wrongdoings of the White House.
The youngest woman ever to be elected to the U.S. Congress now practices law in New York City, and Truthdig managing editor Blair Golson interviewed her in advance of her Sept. 13 event at UCLA?s Royce Hall. They discussed Bush?s use of signing statements; the congressional abuse of power that was Bill Clinton?s impeachment; and how it will feel to share a stage with the person who was effectively the Alberto Gonzales of his day.
Blair Golson: In your book, you lay out five main issues on which Bush could be impeached [“Deceptions in Taking the Country into War in Iraq”; “Reckless Indifference to Human Life in Katrina and Iraq”; “Illegal Wiretapping and Surveillance of Americans”; “Permitting Torture”; and “Leaking Classified Information.”] Which of these do you feel has the strongest chance of being provable and leading to actual impeachment hearings?
Elizabeth Holtzman: They’re all provable. The issue isn?t whether there are grounds. There are grounds, and they?re overwhelming, in my opinion. And they spring directly from the constitutional standard that was used during Watergate. The issue is whether there?s political will in Congress to use this tool that was designed by the framers of the Constitution to serve our democracy. We see that this Congress, controlled by Republicans, has no interest in holding the president accountable in ordinary kinds of ways—through investigations or inquiries, trying to find out the facts—much less through impeachments. But if control of Congress shifts, there may be an opportunity to hold the president accountable as the Constitution permits.
BG: If the Democrats do retake the house, and Rep. John Conyers takes over the Judiciary Committee, do you foresee him being able to mobilize a groundswell to make this happen?
EH: It doesn?t happen because Congress wants it. Impeachment can only happen when the American people demand it. And we?ve seen two political impeachments: one with Andrew Johnson, which was a failure and highly partisan; and one with Bill Clinton, also highly partisan and contrary to what the American people wanted. During Watergate and the Nixon impeachment proceedings, it was the American people who demanded that Congress act. If the American people don?t support it, it can?t happen. But if people demand it, it will happen, it can happen, and it should happen.
You said impeachment can only happen with a groundswell from the American people. But Bill Clinton was hugely popular before and after the impeachment. What happened there?
President Clinton was not removed from office. When I said ?impeachment,? I meant it as shorthand for removal from office. He was not removed from office.
The impeachment proceeding against Bill Clinton was itself a congressional abuse of power. There were no grounds for impeachment. It was a partisan effort to undo an election. It was not to protect the country from an abuse of power, which is what impeachment is all about. The framers understood—because they had lived through a monarchy—that when you have a president, even though you have a limited four-year term, even though you have checks and balances through the Supreme Court and the Congress, a president can still abuse his power, become a despot, oppress the people, and have to be removed from office. That?s why they created the impeachment power; it?s part of the way of preserving our democracy; but it has to be very carefully used, because it undoes the results of a presidential election. It cannot be used as the Republican majority tried to [with Clinton]. The American people won?t stand for it and shouldn?t stand for it.
Contra-wise, when you have a president who so seriously abuses his power as President Bush does, who signs a bill into law but says that he doesn?t have to obey it; that he doesn?t have to obey 750 bills that became laws because of his signature; that he doesn?t have to obey the explicit terms of the federal wiretapping law…. What happens to a democracy if a president says, “I?m above the law”? We dealt with that in the Nixon impeachment. The Supreme Court dealt with it when President Truman said, “I?m the commander in chief; I can seize steel mills.” [In the famous Youngstown decision] The Supreme Court said no.
Critics are quick to point out during discussions about signing statements, to which you appear to be alluding, that Bush is not the first president to make use of them, that previous presidents have written their own interpretations of bills that they?re signing into law.
No, no president, as far as I know, has ever taken the position that he?s not bound by the law he?s signing.
I?m fairly sure that while Bush has taken this practice to an extreme, signing statements did not start with Bush.
Signing statements are one thing—if a president tries to explain, or give his view of what the law means. What President Bush has done is not give his view of what the law means; what he has done is say, “I am not bound by this law, because Congress and the law cannot bind me.” That?s a very different position. We can?t survive as a democracy if any president gets up there and says, “You have a law on the books? You can?t bind me, I?m president. I?m commander in chief.” As the president is not going to obey the law, the people of this country and the Congress of the United States need to remove that president from power, because what does this tell us about our democracy? It doesn?t exist. If a president can do what he wants, if he?s not bound by the rule of law, he can violate whatever laws he chooses, whenever he chooses, then we?re on the road to dictatorship.
Can you describe the political atmosphere back in ?74 when you were serving on the Judiciary Committee?
We saw a president of the United States who said, in similar ways to President Bush, “Oh, Congress passed a law requiring me to spend money to do x, y, y? Well, I?m not going to do that.” He didn?t have the power to do that, but he wanted to act in a unilateral way. You saw that in regard to revelations about the secret bombing of Cambodia. The president decided that unilaterally and lied to Congress about it. Where?s the power to do that?
Of course there was the obstruction of justice in connection with Watergate itself, and the lying about the payment of hush money, and so forth. And then of course, what ultimately triggered the impeachment itself was when Richard Nixon told the special prosecutor who was investigating Watergate, “Enough is enough. You can?t investigate me. You?re fired.” And the American people said, “Enough is enough with regard to you!? So the American people rose up and demanded that Congress act.
The irony, though, is that Nixon?s reelection had given him a huge mandate, not so unlike Bush.
When Richard Nixon was reelected in 1972 with one of the largest margins in the history of the United States, I don?t think anybody thought he would be subject to impeachment proceedings just nine months later. But revelations about Watergate, coupled with the arrogance of power and the other abuses, forced Congress to act.
You wrote in your book, in relation to Bush, ?High crimes and misdemeanors are not limited to actual crimes.? What do you mean by that?
The president can be removed from office for grave offenses against our democracy. That doesn?t necessarily mean a criminal offense. That was something that we studied very carefully during Watergate. The House Judiciary Committee examined that issue at great length. An abuse of power—a serious and grave abuse of power—provides the grounds for impeachment.
But the precedent for that isn’t in the Constitution?
The Constitution just says that the president can be removed from office ?for high crimes and misdemeanors.? But if you look at the debates on the impeachment clause, you?ll see that the term high crimes and misdemeanors comes from British law and it generally means an abuse of power, not a violation of the criminal code. And during Watergate, we saw a huge abuse of power. For example, the president ordered the IRS to audit tax returns of political enemies of the president—people who were opposed to the war in Vietnam. That may not have been a crime, but it was an abuse of power, a very grave abuse of power; because the government can?t be perverted into spying on and retaliating against political enemies in that kind of way.
And any mere violation of the criminal code doesn?t provide grounds for impeachment. The impeachment clause was mean to protect the country and our democracy. And that?s why it can?t be limited by what the criminal code is at any moment. That?s way, for example, the president?s lying to the American people and Congress about the reasons for going to war in Iraq, that may not be a crime; but it doesn?t need to be a crime to be an impeachable offense. But to pervert the democracy, to subvert it by depriving Congress and the American people of the actual facts, is a huge abuse of power, because it deprives them of the ability to participate in a rational way about one of the gravest decisions that can ever be made in a democracy, namely whether to go to war or not.
Considering John Dean?s role in the Nixon impeachment saga, how does it feel to be sharing the stage with him in such a way?
It?s kind of interesting. It?s an odd feeling. He was part of a White House that was abusing power, and I guess it?s really remarkable to see how level-headed he is about the abuses of power we?re seeing now, and I think having seen them from the inside, he?s very sensitive to the subject. And I?m very impressed that he is.
For people who may not understand his role back then, who is a present-day analogue of his position?
Well, remember, John Dean played a role in the coverup. He was part and parcel of the process. It would be as though Alberto Gonzales came forward and said, “You know, I believe the president and I broke the law when I told him it was OK to do wiretapping in violation of the federal wiretapping law.”
So should we infer from that that you?re a believer in redemption?
[laughs] I don?t want to get into religion here. But I think John Dean, during the Watergate process, he understood, maybe he was participating in the beginning, but then he tried to warn the president. That was the first revelation that the president himself might have been involved in the Watergate coverup. Because he told the Senate Watergate Committee that he warned Nixon that there was ?a cancer on the presidency.? That hush money was being paid, that pardons were being offered to the Watergate burglars. Even at that point, although he had been a participant, he was trying to warn the president and trying to stop the wrongdoing.
So I think at that point, even though he may have engaged in some misconduct, he understood it was wrong, it was bad, it was harming the presidency, it was harming the country. And then he finally did the right thing and talked to the prosecutors. So I think he began to see the light at that time, even during the coverup itself he tried to put an end to it. So I have to respect that. There were a lot of people who never had a twinge of conscience; and I think the important thing is having lived through such a serious abuse of power and such criminality, for him to be speaking the truth now, even though I don?t think he?s a Democrat. And he just wrote a book indicating his close affinity with Barry Goldwater and his views. So I have to respect where he?s coming from very much.
That?s all I have for you. Thanks so much.
Former U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman was a key member of the House Judiciary Committee when it held impeachment hearings on the activities of Richard Nixon.