By Blair Golson
John Dean, the man who famously blew the whistle on the Nixon White House during the Watergate hearings, gives a primer on the discussion he will conduct with former Congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman on Sept. 13 at UCLA, ?Bush and the Potential for Impeachment.?
[disclaimer: Truthdig is co-sponsoring the UCLA event with The Nation Institute.]
A prolific author, most recently of the New York Times bestsellers ?Worse Than Watergate? and ?Conservatives Without Conscience,? Dean discussed with Truthdig managing editor Blair Golson (via e-mail) his view that the Democrats should not initiate impeachment hearings unless they have strong reason to believe the Senate would then vote to remove Bush from office ? or else risk the kind of ?sham? proceedings that characterized the Clinton impeachment saga.
Q: What?s the difference between the political atmosphere in late 1973 and late 2006? Is the only reason that impeachment hearings haven?t started yet because Democrats controlled the House then, and don?t now?
A: The second part of your question clearly identifies the most significant difference between then and now in the context of impeachment. By late 1973 the public had already been educated about the abuses of power in the Nixon White House because the Senate Watergate Committee had held several months of public hearings (during the spring and summer of 1973). In addition, Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox had been appointed and was actively pursuing his investigations. Among other things, Cox was going after Nixon?s secret tape recordings, whose existence had been revealed during the Senate hearings. In late 1973 when Nixon fired Cox for pursuing the tapes ? with his attorney general and deputy attorney resigning and refusing to fire the special prosecutor created by the Department of Justice as a matter of principle ? the rather lackadaisical impeachment inquiry became a top priority of the House, and there was no question the president was in trouble.
Q: If the Democrats retake control of the House in November, do you think John Conyers will press for impeachment right out of the gate? Or do you think he and his ilk will seek to hold hearings to build more public support for impeachment? Or will we see something else?
A: Congressman John Conyers, who would become chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, is a seasoned and savvy professional. He is very aware that when the Republicans controlled the House and Judiciary Committee, they ran the impeachment proceedings against President Clinton like a kangaroo court. They embarrassed themselves, and shamed the committee and House of Representatives. John Conyers will not make that mistake. He sat on the Nixon Impeachment Inquiry, which moved a step at a time, slowly gathering bipartisan support based on the facts. The great difficulty with an impeachment proceeding against President Bush (or any other officials of his administration) is that unlike either the Nixon or Clinton proceeding, there is no special prosecutor (or independent counsel) currently conducting an investigation that the House Judiciary Committee can rely on ? as occurred with both Nixon and Clinton. The House Judiciary Committee would be forced to start from scratch, hiring investigators and legal staff, and then commencing an investigation against a presidency that has made stonewalling into an art form ? and more than likely would fight the committee for every tidbit of information. In fact, unless there is a dramatic change in public attitude ? the latest poll on the subject I have seen was an earlier September 2006 CNN Poll showing 69 percent of American opposed impeaching Bush ? it will be the first responsibility of any impeachment undertaking to educate the public and Congress as to the need for impeachment. Without doing that, and finding bipartisan support for the undertaking, it would be the same sort of sham proceedings that the GOP undertook with Clinton.
Q: If the Dems do retake the House in November, what kind of political considerations will hold Democratic members of Congress from pushing for impeachment?
A: The only political restraint on a Democratic controlled House would be their collective good judgment. There is no question they have a duty to tell Americans what the Bush administration has been up to the past six years ? and I have no doubt they will do that through aggressive oversight by all the committees of the House. But, say the Democrats win the House but not the Senate, meaning there is no chance in the world to convict Bush. Should the House impeach a president who will never be convicted? When the House files articles of impeachment with the Senate, it is acting in a manner analogous to that of a prosecutor. But prosecutors do not indict people they know they cannot convict. Should the House adopt a similar standard? Is it not blatantly political to undertake impeachment when there is no chance of conviction? This, of course, is what the House Republicans did with Clinton: They impeached him because they could, although they knew they did not have the votes in the Senate to convict. Do Democrats want to mimic that sorry exercise? I hope not. Another consideration is that Bush and his administration will be in its final years. Should impeachment be launched when a president is headed for the door, and it could take a year or more to conduct the inquiry? Or should it be pursued regardless of the prospects in the Senate, as a statement of what is unacceptable behavior for a president? Frankly, I think the issue of what is acceptable behavior for a presidency (following Bush and Cheney) should be front and center in the next election, for it is more important that voters address this subject than what could be considered an excessively political act by the House of Representatives.
Q: What lessons can we draw from the Clinton impeachment hearings that can be applied to people seeking to launch impeachment hearings, assuming the Dems retake the House?
A: I?ve anticipated this question in my earlier answers. I would only add that if Democrats were to do what the Republicans did to Clinton ? impeach merely because they had the votes to do so and because they wanted to tarnish him ? it will pretty much make a nullity of the impeachment clause. The founders added this clause to give the people, and their representatives in Congress, a means to control executive (and judicial) branch officials whose conduct threatens the well-being of the Constitution they have sworn to uphold. There may come a day when a president?s conduct demands immediate removal, but the impeachment clause has been so politicized (by partisan impeachments) that a dangerously out-of-control presidency can hold on to office given the damage that has been done from these excessively political impeachments (where there was no bipartisan support). Democracy, and our constitutional machinery, is quite sturdy but they cannot withstand endless incautious political abuses. Nixon resigned rather than face impeachment and removal ? both of which were near certainties for he not only had the Democrats seeking his removal but an overwhelming number of Republicans agreed. In short, no Congress should do again what was done to President Clinton. The Clinton impeachment was even more shameful than that of President Andrew Johnson. If there is not bipartisan support for impeachment, as there was with Nixon, Congress should only in extreme situations consider such proceedings.
Q: Considering your respective roles during the runup to the Nixon impeachment, will it feel odd to be sharing a stage with Liz Holtzman?
A: To the contrary. In fact, I have previously shared the stage with both Liz Holtzman and John Conyers on this subject, and I have learned something every time I do.
AP / Nick Ut
John Dean speaks during an interview in Los Angeles on Friday, July 21, 2006. Dean, the White House lawyer who famously helped blow the whistle on the Watergate scandal that drove Richard Nixon from office, says the country has returned to an “imperial presidency” that is putting the United States and the world at risk.