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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Citizen’s Guide to Impeachment

The President, Vice President and all civil officers of the United States, shall be removed from office on impeachment for, and conviction of, treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors—Article II, Section 4 of the U. S. Constitution.

Talk show hosts, a bevy of academics and politicians of every variety are bombarding the nation with competing notions of just what the framers of the Constitution had in mind when they drafted these 31 words in Article II.

The debate is loud–and often highly partisan– but it is doing little to inform the public or to develop a consensus about when and where the impeachment powers can be properly exercised. There seems to be agreement even among President Clinton’s most faithful supporters that, at a minimum, the President’s conduct was improper–or in the words of some “reprehensible.”

Facing the Congress are allegations that the President may have committed perjury, suborned perjury and obstructed justice in an effort to cover up his sexual affair with Monica Lewinsky. But many argue that these acts, even if proven, are not impeachable offenses since they involved “personal conduct” and not the conduct of the constitutional office of the Presidency.

Complicating the effort for the public and the Congress to agree on the Clinton case is the fact that so little precedent exists to guide the impeachment process. The only President actually impeached by the House of Representatives was President Andrew Johnson who escaped conviction in the Senate by a single vote. More recently in 1974, of course, the House Judiciary Committee voted articles of impeachment against President Nixon, but Nixon resigned before the issues reached the floor of the House of Representatives.

Neither the Andrew Johnson nor the Richard Nixon impeachment efforts provide much guidance for what the framers of the Constitution called “high crimes and misdemeanors” in Article II. And on the vagueness of those words hangs the fate of the impeachment of President Clinton.

The confusion and misinformation which surrounds the heated disagreements over Article ll’s application to President Clinton makes a new book by Alan Hirsch–A Citizen’s Guide to Impeachment–extremely valuable.

Hirsch, a free lance writer and constitutional scholar out of Yale Law School, cuts away the partisan underbrush of the current debate and dispassionately lays out an understandable rendition of what the impeachment process is and what it is not. This 40-page guide is a first- class road map through the impeachment issues for citizens who have grown weary and confused by the overblown and often misinformed rhetoric of the partisans and television’s talking heads.

Hirsch’s love for the Constitution is obvious and, unlike some, he holds Section 4, Article II in great respect despite the framers’ failure to give us a definition of “high crimes and misdemeanors.”.

“Impeachment is a pillar, at once an expression and means of protecting our hard-earned and ever precious liberty,” he writes. “Even the President, who commands our armed forces and controls our nuclear weaponry, who flies in Air Force I and lives in luxury at the public expense, even this most powerful and privileged person can be brought to heel if he abuses the trust we place in him.”

But, even the Constitution, Hirsch concedes, can be misused and he is quick to warn that there is a “less splendid” side the impeachment power.

As many of Clinton’s defenders argue, there is a danger that the impeachment power can be used to negate voters’ decisions at the ballot box or, in Hirsch’s words, “to bludgeon a President one dislikes or disapproves.”

Hirsch argues that most historians believe that the impeachment efforts against President Johnson were largely based on disagreements with Congress, “smacking of politics and partisanship.”

As a result, Hirsch sees the impeachment process as a “double edged” sword that when used properly serves to reflect and serve the nation’s deepest ideals. But, when used improperly for partisan purposes, it can undermine those very ideals.

If elections can be undone by “sham procedures,” we will in effect have a “palace coup,” he writes.

While Hirsch sees the Johnson impeachment as a partisan misuse of the impeachment power, he regards the impeachment effort against President Nixon in 1974 as justified and a proper use of the power.

The author sees President Clinton’s current situation as being somewhere between the cases of Johnson and Nixon. He describes the Clinton impeachment efforts as “murkier and more nuanced” than these two major cases and argues, as a result, “we need to be especially careful” in the current case.

Alan Hirsch’s book should be at the desk of every member of the House Judiciary Committee. It may one of the few objective guides available in what seems certain to be a partisan donnybrook. For the people, the guide will provide a handy road map on all aspects of the impeachment and an excellent means to double check the pronouncements of the ubiquitous television analysts.

[Reader’s can obtain copies of a Citizen’s Guide to Impeachment from Essential Books, P.O. Box 19405, Washington, D. C. 20036–$10 per copy]