David James Von Drehle
I was taught in grade school that impeachment is the rarest of political events.
Then, bam: I was 12 years old and the black swan swam into view. On the same public television channel where my classmates and I had discovered “Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood” and “Sesame Street” a few years earlier, we found in the spring of 1973 a select committee of senators solemnly questioning a stream of witnesses in dark suits and white shirts.
Too young to understand much of what was said of the scandal known as Watergate, even we could be drawn into the essential mystery, as framed by the Republican senator from Tennessee Howard Baker: “What did the president know, and when did he know it?”
As the curtain rises on the third presidential impeachment inquiry of my lifetime, the process has become just another swan — or ugly duckling, depending on one’s perspective. Indeed, impeachments are common enough to compare and contrast them, as one might do with Scorsese movies or vintages of French wine. I don’t consider this to be a good thing for the United States; impeachment is a weapon best left sheathed. But this is where we find ourselves.
Nixon’s stock could crash because it had been high to begin with. Trump’s stock, by contrast, already has its negatives priced in. If impeachment hearings should show him to be impulsive, self-serving, vindictive or lawless, would anyone be surprised?
Democrats are hoping that public hearings into President Donald Trump’s alleged hijacking of Ukraine policy will work as the Watergate hearings did. By unmasking the chain of command from the bumbling burglars of Richard Nixon’s reelection campaign all the way to the Oval Office, that gripping drama, 71 per cent of Americans tuned in to all or part of the 1973 hearings, turned the public mood against the president. Eventually, Nixon’s Republican wall in the Senate gave way, and he chose to resign rather than be impeached and expelled from office.
Nixon’s vertiginous plunge from landslide victory to total disgrace in less than two years encourages Trump’s foes to believe that he, too, is vulnerable to collapse. But there are important differences between then and now.
Watergate unfolded like a novel: Clue led to clue and revelation to revelation. As the walls closed in on Nixon, the public discovered that the man in the White House was not the person we thought we knew. The seasoned strategist of Soviet détente grew panicky, nearly decapitating the Justice Department in a single Saturday night.
The cool customer who opened relations with China tossed friends from his lifeboat at the first sign of shark fins. Then came the tapes, and we heard for ourselves that behind closed doors, the prim and proper Nixon connived like a capo and swore like a stevedore.
Nixon’s stock could crash because it had been high to begin with. Trump’s stock, by contrast, already has its negatives priced in. If impeachment hearings should show him to be impulsive, self-serving, vindictive or lawless, would anyone be surprised? At a news conference, he once invited Russia to investigate an opponent’s personal emails. Will it feel like a revelation if the hearings prove that he asked Ukraine to investigate an opponent’s son?
I’m not excusing Trump’s traits or behaviours. I’m simply noting that they are already known. The Donald Trump of these hearings will undoubtedly be the same blunderbuss who was narrowly elected in 2016, warts and all.
Nor will the hearings unfold like a mystery, because a mystery needs a narrator, and no one narrates the news today. In the digital age, every individual, Trump included, is potentially a media outlet, free to elide details, spin events and spoil surprises.
Trump’s impeachment is more likely to resemble the failed attempt by Republicans to oust Bill Clinton from the presidency in December 1998 and January 1999. Americans by and large disapproved of Clinton’s conduct with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
But however tawdry the story was, it was consistent with the character the American people had chosen: a truth-shading womaniser who “didn’t inhale.” Because there was no mystery to unfold, no fraud to unmask — just a warty presidential id on display — there was no public conversion to drive a political collapse.
The late, great journalist Marjorie Williams wrote the definitive essay on the Clinton affair, a detailed examination of the tortured lengths to which supposed feminists in the Democratic Party went to excuse his offences and defend his presidency. Bottom line: They liked his politics more than they disliked his conduct.
As long as Clinton supported a woman’s right to choose, they were willing to countenance bad treatment of the women of his choice.
Principled conservatives can now write in the same vein about Trump’s supporters in the Senate, who will stick with him for essentially the same reason. The judicial appointments, the tax cuts and the regulatory rollback all matter more to them than a characteristic shakedown of the president of Ukraine. – GN