The framers of the Constitution debated the question of presidential impeachment at length in 1787. Some said that the “national executive” should not be impeachable; his four-year term was short enough to ensure that presidents could be electorally dismissed before doing too much damage. But that was unpersuasive to those who successfully argued that no one in a democracy is above the law. If the “national executive” were beyond the law's reach, then the rule of law was a fiction.
The debate then turned to the grounds for impeachment. Should the president be impeachable only when guilty of a crime? Or were other factors in play? Benjamin Franklin listened to the arguments of Gouverneur Morris, George Mason, James Wilson, and Charles Pinckney, and then gave his own distinctively Franklinesque verdict: the “chief magistrate,” said the author of Poor Richard's Almanac, should be impeachable when he has “rendered himself obnoxious.”
Some would argue that President Clinton met that standard months — even years — ago. But there can be little doubt that the president fully satisfied Franklin's test as of 10:10 p.m. EDT, on Monday, Aug. 17, 1998.
In a republic, unchecked public corruption tends to damage everything around it. That is why the majority of the framers — who had carefully studied the metastasizing capacities of corruption throughout Western political history — provided for a corrupt president's removal from office. In their view, impeachment did not necessarily trigger a constitutional crisis, nor were the only impeachable offenses explicit violations of criminal law. Impeachment and removal from office, were political acts whose purpose was political hygiene: maintaining the essential minimum of trust and moral confidence required for a president to govern. The plain moral fact of the current situation is that the president of the United States is a liar. He has lied to his family, and that is, indeed, their affair. But he has lied to the public, and he has cajoled, compelled or convinced a squadron of aides, many of them on the public payroll, to lie to the public. And that is all of our affair.
Like a malignancy, the big lie corrupts the healthy tissue it touches. In the case of the president's Aug. 17 address, the healthy issue was the American public's sensible belief that there is too much intrusion into the private lives of public figures.
But what happened between the president and Monica Lewinsky was not a private affair. These things did not happen in a White House bedroom. They happened in the Oval Office — which is, by some reckonings, the center of the American public life. This was willful, self-indulgent fouling of the American public square. In the archaic meaning of “obnoxious”(that is “offensive” or “repugnant”), these were acts “deserving of censure.” So were the lies that followed.
The constitutional remedy for censuring an obnoxious president (in the further etymological sense of dealing with “offensive, repugnant” presidential behavior) is impeachment by the House of Representatives and removal from the office on conviction by the Senate. That is one remedy for the corruption wrought by President Clinton, and it has much to recommend it.
An impeachment and trial would define for the present and historical record the thick web of mendacity that the president and his minions have woven around this administration. It would force members of Congress to act like statesmen — for the common good, not for partisan advantage. It would compel the Republican Party to honor its commitment to the moral revitalization of American public culture and it would require the Democratic Party to acknowledge that there are limits to personal license. It would remind every American that democracy rests on a moral foundation whose erosion threatens the entire edifice of government.
The honorable course for the president is resignation — the one act that would demonstrate his grasp of, and remorse for, what he has done to the public. But the resignation of a man obsessed by politics since adolescence seems unlikely. That is why the Congress must face its duty to defend the integrity of American democracy. This presidency cannot be allowed to drag on. This presidency must end, or it must be ended — and ended by a deliberate act of political will, aimed at restoring the compact of trust that must exist between the president and the people.
George Weigel is a senior fellow of the Ethics & Public Policy Center in Washington.