W is for "Watergate"

by Greg Method

No, no, you didn't momentarily go back in time thirty years, although in the last month or so it has certainly seemed like we all have.

In what was perhaps the biggest anticlimactic revelation of the century so far, former FBI official W. Mark Felt announced in early June that he was "Deep Throat." Now, I don't normally indulge in the genre, but I thought Linda Lovelace was killed in a car crash a few years ago.

Yeah, I know, everyone else has already made that joke.

No, seriously, when I say "Deep Throat" I mean the top-ranking inside man who helped whiny Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein expose the Watergate scandal that led to the resignation of the second vilest president ever, Richard Nixon.

Of course, when most people think of this mythical political figure, visions of All the President's Men or any film noir piece come into one's head: a Bogart-like man in trench coat and hat, whispering secrets over cigarette smoke and giving screwball signals in newspapers to prompt meetings. More like the Smoking Man on X-Files or paranoid superhero The Question than some unappreciated bureaucrat who wanted to bring down his bosses because he was skipped over for a promotion.

In the years since Watergate broke and Nixon resigned in disgrace, political buffs had debated endlessly as to who supplied Woodward and Bernstein with their inside information. Surely it has to be someone in the public eye, right? What about opportunistic Nixon Chief of Staff Alexander Haig, the man so conservative he didn't know they updated the Order of Succession? Or what about White House press aide Diane Sawyer, who recently was able to get Howdy W. Doody to admit that it didn't matter that our soldiers were in Iraq dying over a lie? Or Ben Stein, who provides proof that anyone can go from being a respected pundit to a one-note self-parody in seconds flat? Or Pat Buchanan? Or John Dean? Or wrinkly ol' original George Bush himself? The fact that it turned out to be just "some guy" is akin to Darth Vader really just being some grumpy teenager who can't act. It's sort of a let-down.

Well, since the big reveal, Watergate has once again become the hip thing to talk about in public without feeling like you're some kind of bookworm. It's sorta like the Woodstock anniversaries in 1994 and 1999, only for squares. People have begun reevaluating all that went down, who was involved, why it was done, and everything else associated with the scandal like it happened yesterday and not three decades ago. And once again, most people are agreeing on the conclusion, that it was wrong for Nixon to not only conspire with his reelection committee to break into the Democratic National Committee headquarters but also to refuse to release tapes and information to the FBI for its investigation. Of course, I'm generalizing a bit here as to what all happened, but any history book or encyclopedia worth its salt can describe Watergate better than I ever could. Go ahead, go out there and read a book. It won't kill you.

All this latter-day Watergate hoopla, and the impending impeachment that Nixon was facing should he have remained in office, led me to ponder which presidents had in fact been impeached and why. I mean, there has to be reasons, right? And it's got to be a good, serious reason, too, like having your reelection committee burglarize and spy on your political rivals. A president just wouldn't be impeached for something stupid, right?

Before we begin, I want to make it clear that I will be using the correct definition of the word "impeachment" and all of its tenses. The majority of people believe that "to impeach" simply means "to remove from office"...and apparently the majority of people also believe that Iraq had something to do with September 11, so so much for the majority. But really, an impeachment is, in essence, a formal trial process in which an accused elected official must testify in front of senators and of course the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. If two-thirds of the Senate finds the accused official to be guilty of the wrongdoings in question, then the convicted party is removed from office. So, a president can be impeached but not be removed from office...provided they are acquitted, of course.

Up until about a decade ago, the only impeached president we had was our nation's seventeenth, Lincoln successor Andrew Johnson. Shortly after Johnson took office in 1865, the War Democrat immediately began butting heads with the Radical Republicans in Congress, who wanted to grant full citizenship to all former slaves after seeing the horrendous treatment the "freed" slaves were receiving in the South. In April 1866 the Radicals' influence on Congress led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act, which gave legal and proprietary rights to native-born blacks (how ironic, considering modern Republicans want to take rights away from minorities). Well, claiming that the act would encroach on the rights of the individual states and would create "discord among the races," Johnson vetoed it. But of course, Congress retaliated by overriding the veto. As you might guess, this wasn't going to be a happy working relationship.

Just two months later, Congress would pass the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution (the one guaranteeing civil liberties to all native-born and naturalized citizens and voting rights to all males aged twenty-one and over), again against Johnson's wishes. Johnson felt that it was unfair to pass such an amendment while numerous ex-Confederate states were still without representation in Congress. This in part led people across the country to believe that Johnson was siding with those who previously rebelled against the country, so when the mid-term elections came up that fall the voters gave the Radicals complete control of both the House and the Senate.

Emboldened by this new power of majority, in 1867 the Radicals overrode Johnson's vetos on three consecutive acts. The Military Reconstruction Act forced Southern states to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment and craft new "politically correct" state constitutions in order to be re-admitted back into the Union. The Command of the Army Act forced the president to now issue all military orders through the General of the Army instead of issuing them directly himself. And the Tenure of Office Act forced the president to now seek senatorial approval before removing any official that had been originally confirmed by the Senate.

It was this last act that proved to be Johnson's undoing. Johnson wanted to bypass the Tenure of Office Act in order to remove Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, who sided with the Radicals. In August 1867 Stanton explained to Johnson that the military chain-of-command had been newly restructured to make the military answerable to the Senate and the House before the president. Furious, Johnson announced that General Ulysses S. Grant was to replace Stanton. But of course, the Senate wouldn't allow that. In February 1868 Johnson tried again, this time by appointing General Lorenzo Thomas to replace Stanton and by ordering all military governors to now report directly to him. That was the straw that broke the camel's back.

On February 24, 1868, the House voted 126-47 to impeach Johnson on the grounds of "high crimes and misdemeanors." Now, I'm not exactly a Woody Allen fan, but I'd hardly call any of his movies impeachable offenses. Well, maybe The Curse of the Jade Scorpion.

Eight articles were drawn up charging that Johnson had illegally removed Stanton from office. A ninth charged that Johnson had violated the Command of the Army Act, and two more articles charged Johnson with libeling Congress through "inflammatory and scandalous harangues," claiming he did "utter loud threats and bitter menaces" to the members of Congress. What, did he tell a senator to go fuck himself or something?

In the end, Johnson's verdict came down to just one single vote, that of Radical Republican Edmund G. Ross. Ross turned his back on his own party and voted to acquit Johnson, resulting in a 35-19 vote that allowed Johnson to remain in office until the end of his term. Johnson avoided conviction by the skin of his teeth, and this was all essentially because his ego got in the way.

Whether or not the actions committed by Johnson were in fact impeachable offenses is, I suppose, a matter of debate, since there are far worse things a president could do than violating two minor acts out of spite. But at the time, Congress felt that was enough. So, to sum it up in an easy-to-remember bullet point: "Violating two minor acts is criminal."

Now, let's jump ahead a century or so to the time of horse-faced, foul-mouthed ghoul Richard Nixon. The Big Dick was impeached in 1974 on the grounds of "obstruction of justice," "abuse of power," and "contempt of Congress."

I had already gone over the Watergate scandal above, but to "quickly" recap: In June 1972 five men were caught breaking into the Democratic National Committee offices at the Watergate complex in order to check on wiretaps that were strategically placed there in a previous break-in. Once arrested, it was learned that all five men were connected to Nixon's reelection campaign. Although two months later Nixon had assured the press that "no one in the White House staff, no one in this administration, presently employed, was involved in this very bizarre incident," it was later revealed that Nixon's administration had set up a paranoid double-secret committee to spy on all enemies as far back as 1970...and that Nixon had been recording Oval Office meetings since 1971! Nixon would win reelection, but numerous aides and officials resigned throughout 1973, including one who admitted to have been pressured into destroying Watergate evidence! Televised Senate hearings would begin that spring, and Nixon even appointed a special prosecutor, one Archibald Cox, who actually vowed to subpoena Nixon's super-secret Oval Office tapes. Nixon then fired Cox, triggering the impeachment proceedings about a week and a half later. The White House would finally comply (sorta) and announce that it would release some of the tapes, but it also announced that two were missing and a crucial eighteen-minute conversation from another was "mysterious" erased. In the spring of 1974 Nixon would backtrack slightly and release edited transcripts of the recordings, one of which revealed that Nixon was planning to allocate "hush money" to the Watergate burglars. On July 24 of that year, the Supreme Court ruled that Nixon had to submit all of the tapes in their entirety, and just three days later the House Judiciary Committee voted 27-11 to approve the first of three articles of impeachment. Whew!

Well, we all know how this delightful tale ended. In order to avoid conviction, about two weeks later Nixon resigned from office, giving power to our first of two unelected presidents. Accident-prone Gerald Ford would pardon Nixon a month later (how lucky), while twenty-five Nixon administration officials were eventually convicted and sent to prison.

So, again in order to sum it up into a single point: "Conspiring to spy on political rivals and obstructing justice is criminal."

The silly-sounding threat of impeachment would rear its ugly head once again two decades later, targeting the most popular, most successful president of recent years, the one and only Bill Clinton. Here is a man who truly tried to please everyone all at once, regardless of political background. He often found himself walking down the line as a way to unite the left and right on numerous issues, from gays in the military to education reform. You know you're effectively courting the right when Michael Moore calls you the greatest Republican president we've ever had.

Well, of course such cross-party diplomacy doesn't sit well with the Republicans, who only like it when their side has a uniter. "Likable? No, no, no. Charismatic? Oh, no, no, no! Down to earth? Oh, and Reagan wasn't?!? Effective? Oh, like record surpluses are anything special!"

With Clinton soundly defeating crotchety gasbag Bob Dole in the 1996 election, Republicans needed to get even. "How dare this likable, spirited Baby Boomer get more votes than the party of evil! We'll make him pay...oh yes, we'll make him pay!"

Enter the wormy Kenneth Starr, a Republican, a former Reagan-era Justice Department official, and a former Bush-era federal appeals court judge and solicitor general. In mid-1994 Starr was brought in to investigate the dealings of the Whitewater Development Corporation, a real estate firm Clinton co-founded back in 1978. How such a profession was relevant to his job as president is open to debate.

Anyway, after three years of slimy dirtdigging had turned up nothing, Starr focused his attention on Clinton's personal life. "Coincidentally" this happened right when dogfaced clerical worker Paula Jones accused the president of sexually harassing her while he was governor of Arkansas. As Jones continued to publicly bark allegations to anyone who would listen, her lawyers were openly seeking any evidence that could allow them to establish a pattern of behavior from Clinton.

In comes the even uglier Linda Tripp, the baglady-like beast who would become the most famous of scoundrels that rat on their friends (you know, like Reagan). Tripp had been secretly taping phone conversations with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky, who trusted Tripp enough to reveal that she was having an affair with Clinton. Violating her trust, Tripp took this information to Jones's lawyers and particularly to Starr. Starr would then have hired thugs trap Lewinsky in a hotel room and badger, threaten, and intimidate her for hours until she agreed to cooperate and give explicit details on her affair with Clinton.

In January 1998 Clinton met with his lawyers and Jones's lawyers to give a pretrial deposition. Trying to establish a pattern, Jones's lawyers asked Clinton if he ever had an affair with Lewinsky. Clinton denied it under oath, and for the next couple of weeks, practically every appearance the president made was to deny having an affair with Lewinsky.

The Jones case was eventually thrown out of court in April of that year, but Starr obsessively went ahead and focused on Clinton's affair with Lewinsky. Starr seized control of a sperm-stained blue dress that Lewinsky owned and was able to trace the DNA of the stain back to Clinton (nice to see our tax dollars at work, eh?).

Both Lewinsky and Clinton would testify before Starr's federal grand jury. Although Clinton would refuse to discuss his own sexual acts (first of all, why the hell should he??), the cat was essentially out of the bag.

Well, sure enough if it involves Democrats and sex, then the Republicans are going to roll around in it like a dog discovering a dead bird. This is hilarious considering Bob Dole would later endorse Viagra and appear on television to ogle a very underage-ish Britney Spears in a Pepsi commercial (how very moral indeed). The Republican-controlled House Judiciary Committee announced it would begin a formal impeachment inquiry, hoping to get Clinton bounced from office...over a blowjob he didn't want his wife to find out about. Apparently Congress is just a really big, boring version of a daytime soap opera. In October the House voted 258-176 to impeach Clinton, which began a longer, even more boring string of people testifying...over a blowjob.

Despite the moral embarrassment Clinton now faced from almost all sides, every governmental scholar that was brought in to testify agreed that the charges were certainly not grounds for impeachment or removal from office. Regardless, in mid-December the Judiciary Committee started approving the articles of impeachment, which charged Clinton with committing perjury before Starr's grand jury and in the Jones case, with obstruction of justice in the Jones case, and with making false statements...all over a blowjob.

I will spare you all the even more boring details of the Senate trial, which lasted all the way through February 1999. In the end, Clinton was acquitted on all charges, and Republicans have been extra bitter ever since.

So, in the case of Clinton, his impeachment can be summed up as: "Lying about a blowjob is criminal."

So what we have here are three very different impeachment proceedings, but the lessons are clear: "Violating two minor acts is criminal."; "Conspiring to spy on political rivals and obstructing justice is criminal."; and "Lying about a blowjob is criminal." And really, two of those lessons border on ridiculous.

Why do we impeach presidents for ridiculous reasons but not for, say, manipulating facts to lead us into a war?

On May 1, London's paper The Times reported on a 2002 memo released by Tony Blair's Downing Street office. The memo detailed the United States' plan to invade Iraq, the reasons why, and how the United Kingdom can join the "cause."

Below is what I feel is a key excerpt from this memo....

C [nickname for Sir Richard Dearlove, head of UK foreign intelligence service --Greg] reported on his recent talks in Washington. There was a perceptible shift in attitude. Military action was now seen as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy. The NSC had no patience with the UN route, and no enthusiasm for publishing material on the Iraqi regime's record. There was little discussion in Washington of the aftermath after military action.

(snip)

The Defence Secretary said that the US had already begun "spikes of activity" to put pressure on the regime. No decisions had been taken, but he thought the most likely timing in US minds for military action to begin was January, with the timeline beginning 30 days before the US Congressional elections.

The Foreign Secretary said he would discuss this with Colin Powell this week. It seemed clear that Bush had made up his mind to take military action, even if the timing was not yet decided. But the case was thin. Saddam was not threatening his neighbours, and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran. We should work up a plan for an ultimatum to Saddam to allow back in the UN weapons inspectors. This would also help with the legal justification for the use of force.

(snip)

The Prime Minister said that it would make a big difference politically and legally if Saddam refused to allow in the UN inspectors. Regime change and WMD were linked in the sense that it was the regime that was producing the WMD. There were different strategies for dealing with Libya and Iran. If the political context were right, people would support regime change. The two key issues were whether the military plan worked and whether we had the political strategy to give the military plan the space to work.

Call me crazy, but when things are being said in secrecy such as:

"Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy."

Or...

"No decisions had been taken, but he thought the most likely timing in US minds for military action to begin was January, with the timeline beginning 30 days before the US Congressional elections."

Or even....

"It seemed clear that Bush had made up his mind to take military action, even if the timing was not yet decided. But the case was thin. Saddam was not threatening his neighbours, and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran."

And of course....

"If the political context were right, people would support regime change."

...then you have to wonder why aren't more people outraged. "Intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy??" Discussions of when it would be most advantageous to go to war?? Which circumstances would get Americans to support such an effort?!?

Add all this to the fact that Bush has been financially tied to the bin Laden family. Now, I'm not saying that Bush allowed September 11 to happen in order to go to war with Iraq...to even seriously entertain such a notion is enough to churn one's stomach. But still, "facts were being fixed??" Both UK and U.S. officials have confirmed in the press that the memo is authentic. So...shouldn't this be explored a little bit maybe?!?

Isn't "Sending our troops off to die on fixed intelligence" a greater crime than, say, "Violating two minor acts," or "Conspiring to spy on political rivals and obstructing justice," or even "Lying about a blowjob?" Doesn't this inherently constitute some sort of abuse of power? Gosh, that certainly doesn't sound like the Bushes.

Where are today's Ken Starrs who should be out there gathering evidence to investigate this?? Where are today's Radicals who wouldn't put up with a potentially corrupt leader? Where is the new "Deep Throat??"

Why aren't we all screaming at the top of our lungs, "Here is the smoking gun! Do something with it already!"?? What on earth is the matter with us?

Sure enough, just minutes before I finished this column, a new Zogby poll revealed that approximately half of all Americans are in favor of impeachment proceedings to find out if Bush did in fact lie to get us into this war. Gee, how could we let our feelings be known to those that could do something about it?

What will happen in thirty years when George P. Bush is in office and some former FBI official on his death bed tells the world "We had the evidence to end the Bushes' reign on Washington forever, but nobody cared?" What do you think the reaction will be from some homosexual who had been incarcerated for marrying another man in Vermont, or from some Mexican immigrant mother who had been thoroughly exploited by Wal-Mart in order to retain her "second class citizen" work visa?

I'll tell you this much: it will be anything but anticlimactic.

--Greg


Quote of the Month

"In our view, the policies and actions of your administration, both domestically and internationally over the past four years, violate many deeply held principles of Calvin College. Calvin is a rigorous intellectual institution, and a truly Christian one... By their deeds ye shall know them, says the Bible. Your deeds, Mr. President--neglecting the needy to coddle the rich, desecrating the environment, and misleading the country into war--do not exemplify the faith we live by. Moreover, many of your supporters are using religion as a weapon to divide our nation and advance a narrow partisan agenda. We are deeply disappointed in your failure to renounce their inflammatory rhetoric. We urge you not to use Calvin College as a platform to advance policies that violate the school's religious principles. Furthermore, we urge you to repudiate the false claims of supporters who say that those who oppose your policies are the enemies of religion."
An open letter signed by 823 students, faculty, and alumni of Calvin College shortly before Bush's May 2005 commencement speech at the campus

Link of the Month
DowningStreetMemo.com
The first, and still best, web site for all the info on the infamous memo.