Impeachment: An American History, by Jeffrey A. Engel, Jon Meacham, Timothy Naftali, and Peter Baker

Nine stars

The term ‘impeachment’ has taken on a life of its own, particularly in the American political system. It has been bandied about numerous times, by legislators and media alike, to add fuel to a fire when an individual in a position of authority appears to stray from their constitutionally-permitted role. While many federal positions use impeachment to remove the office holder, only the three men who held the position of President of the United States (POTUS) are discussed in the essays that comprise this collection, along with some sentiments about potential future impeachment, based on the furor that appears to be growing. The scholars who penned these essays offer their own insights into the events that led to impeachment proceedings, or the potential of them. Jeffrey Engel offers the reader a primer on the basis of impeachment and how it found its way into the US Constitution, including the struggles the Founding Father’s faced when outlining the rules surrounding qualification and its use by Congress. As with with much within the US Constitution, the rules are vague and open to interpretation. Thereafter, Jon Meacham opens with an essay on the impeachment process of Andrew Johnson, the first POTUS to be thrust into this political drama. Strongly against Reconstruction after the Civil War and having been handed the job when Lincoln was assassinated, Johnson was vilified by many and it took three attempts to bring forth Articles of Impeachment before any would pass, tossing the case to the Senate. Johnson was firm in his beliefs and used southern sentiment to have the case fall a single vote short, in what Meacham aptly calls a ‘partisan impeachment’. One hundred years later, new impeachment threats were levied against Richard Nixon, in an essay penned by presidential historian Timothy Naftali. Arguing that it was not the Watergate break-in, but the cover-up and firing of the independent special prosecutor that pushed Nixon into the firing line, Naftali contrasts this situation with that of Johnson. While there was a strong partisan push for impeachment, Republicans joined the Democrats to call for Nixon’s removal, thereby creating the bipartisan momentum lacking in Meacham’s earlier essay. Naftali develops a wonderfully detailed narrative to expose the developing process whereby Congress took steps to rid themselves of a ‘crook’, though the man was able to read the tea leaves and left when hope seemed all but lost. Peter Baker takes up the torch in examining Bill Clinton’s actions, culminating in 1997-1998, which led to numerous Articles coming from the House of Representatives’ Judiciary Committee. While some would deem the entire situation salacious, Baker explores how perjury by a sitting president could push the realms of acceptable and lead some to draw parallels to the rule-breaking that Nixon did at will. Executive Privilge became the buzzword, leaving the Special Prosecutor and some within the Republican controlled House Judiciary Committee to launch into a form of witch hunt with the intent of embarrassing Clinton as he had America on the world scene. With a partisan split during Article voting, Clinton’s impeachment went to the Senate, the first in the era of television. Such drama evolved on screen, much like the trial of OI.J. Simpson did five years before. In the end, both sides agreed that substantiating the impeachment claims were never intended, but rather a wrap on the knuckles. As Jeffrey Engel returns to conclude, one must look at present circumstances to decide if impeachment is worthwhile, though it is surely not an act to be taken lightly. As is argued throughout, impeachment is a political, not legal, tool. It is also defined as whatever the majority of House members choose it to be. While many wait to see if Articles will come, now that the Democrats have control of the House, it should not be the central focus of the country’s legislators. At least for the time being, one has to worry about keeping the ship on course, as it enters murky waters. Highly recommended to those readers who enjoy political discussion and historical analysis of events, as poignant today as when they occurred.

There is no doubt that impeachment has been on the lips of many, especially since the Russia probe has begun to gain momentum. One need only look at publications of tomes and essays released since 2016 to see how many academics have weighed in already. Understanding the process is as important and the end result, something that the layperson in America may not fully comprehend. Impeachment, as is seen through the three central essays in the collection, as well as an introduction and conclusion, is a messy business that divides both along party and political lines. The three men whose names have come up in impeachment proceedings did something sever enough that the Founding Father’s might have agreed with the use of this stop-gap measure to keep America great, though it was the interpretation at each instance that led to different approaches to the same set of vague constitutional rules. While impeachment is a weapon used to threaten regularly, few holders of the Oval Office have had their names dragged through the constitutional mud. Why is that? Likely a heightened degree of seriousness that accompanies the threat, as well as the difficulty to enact it—which is not altogether a bad thing! Interested readers can bask in the details offered in this collection, as well as the poignant arguments made as threats of impeachment surface again. Is there enough to bring Articles? Would the Senate support it? While things tend to be political when it comes to Congress, the reader can decide for themselves, after receiving the plethora of information found in this book. The essays are not only penned by scholars, but they are easily digested, allowing the lay reader to fully comprehend the issues at hand. This is essential in an era where media spoon-feed the electorate at every opportunity. I await news from the Special Prosecutor and how the White House will react to it. That may—and precedent shows that it will—prove either the last nail in the coffin or used to disperse discussion until November 2020, when the electorate can speak with democratic voices. That being said, there remains a question as to how fair that venture might be. However, that is a discussion for another scholarly tome.

Kudos, Messrs Engel, Meacham, Naftali, and Baker, for this insightful piece. I learned so much and understand the system a lot better now. These insider explorations of events, left out of the history books, has helped me create a more grounded opinion on whether impeachment should rear its head again soon.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons