Why 42 had to be impeached twenty years ago

George Weigel

Twenty years ago this month, I found myself seriously double-booked, so to speak.

The editing of the first volume of my John Paul II biography, Witness to Hope, was entering the ninth inning, and I was furiously engaged in exchanging edited and re-edited copy with my editors in New York. At the same time, the Clinton impeachment drama was cresting. And as I had long done speechwriting for Congressman Henry Hyde, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, I spent week after week of split time, working on John Paul II from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., then switching to impeachment for a couple of hours before returning to Witness to Hope in the evening.

It was not the optimal way to work but it had to be done, even if it seemed likely that the president would be acquitted in a Senate trial. On December 19, 1998, the House of Representatives voted two articles of impeachment and senior House members, including Mr. Hyde, solemnly walked the two articles across the Capitol and presented them to the Senate’s leaders. On toward midnight, Henry Hyde called me and, referring to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, said, “We’re not going to make it. Trent won’t fight; I saw it in his eyes.” After a long moment I replied that, if we were going to lose, we had a duty to lay down a record with which history would have to reckon.

Which is what the great Henry Hyde did during the January 1999 Senate trial, where he bent every effort to prevent the proceedings from descending into farce.

For Hyde, the impeachment of President Bill Clinton was an unavoidable piece of nasty business. It was not a matter of partisan score-settling, nor was it a matter of punishing a president for gross behavior with an intern in the White House. It was a matter of defending the rule of law. As Henry put it to me when it seemed clear that the president had perjured himself and obstructed justice, “There are over a hundred people in federal prisons for these crimes. How can the chief law enforcement officer of the United States be guilty of them and stay in office?”

Impeachment is a political process and it was clear by mid-fall of 1998 that the politics were not breaking toward removing the president from office. They had been pointed that way over the summer, though. And as the pressures built, it seemed as if the Clinton presidency might end as Richard Nixon’s had: Party elders, in this case Democrats, would go to the White House, explain that it was over, and ask the president to resign for the sake of the country. Then around Labor Day that year, Maureen Dowd of the New York Times and other columnists began suggesting that, if Clinton were impeached and convicted, the sexual revolution would be over, the yahoos of reaction would have won, and we’d be back to something resembling Salem, Massachusetts, during the witchcraft insanity.

That was preposterous. It was also effective. And within days, at least in Washington, you could fill the templates shifting: This wasn’t about the rule of law, it was about sex and the yahoos couldn’t be allowed to win. (That Henry Hyde was the leader of the pro-life forces in Congress neatly fit this storyline, of course, abortion being a major plank in the platform of the sexual revolution.)

So once the game was redefined — Are you for or against the puritanical yahoos? — there was little chance to wrench the political process back to what it was really about: the rule of law. In his opening speech during the president’s trial, Henry Hyde tried valiantly to refocus the argument, insisting that high office did not absolve a man from obeying his constitutional oath to faithfully execute the laws of the United States and his oath swearing to tell the truth to a federal grand jury. To suggest that it did was to “break the covenant of trust” between president and people, dissolving “the mortar that binds the foundation stones of our freedom into a secure and solid edifice.”

It wasn’t a winning argument. But it was the right argument. And on this 20th anniversary, the nation should remember with gratitude those like Henry Hyde who, under fierce assault, stood for the rule of law.

Featured image by Gage Skidmore | Flickr

COMING UP: Avoiding another Roman fiasco in February

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By peremptorily ordering the American bishops not to vote on local remedies for today’s Catholic crisis of abusive clergy and malfeasant bishops, the Vatican dramatically raised the stakes for the February 2019 meeting that Pope Francis has called to discuss the crisis in a global perspective. How the Americans taking decisive action last month would have impeded Roman deliberations in February — the strange explanation offered by the Vatican for its edict — will remain an open question. Now, the most urgent matter is to define correctly the issues that global gathering will address. As there are disturbing signs that Those Who Just Don’t Get It are still not getting it, I’d like to flag some pitfalls the February meeting should avoid.

1. The crisis cannot be blamed primarily on “clericalism.”

If “clericalism” means a wicked distortion of the powerful influence priests exercise by virtue of their office, then “clericalism” was and is a factor in the sexual abuse of young people, who are particularly vulnerable to that influence. If “clericalism” means that some bishops, faced with clerical sexual abuse, reacted as institutional crisis-managers rather than shepherds protecting their flocks, then “clericalism” has certainly been a factor in the abuse crisis in Chile, Ireland, Germany, the U.K., and Poland, and in the McCarrick case (and others) in the United States. There are more basic factors involved in the epidemiology of this crisis, however. And “clericalism” cannot be a one-size-fits-all diagnosis of the crisis, or a dodge to avoid confronting more basic causes like infidelity and sexual dysfunction. “Clericalism” may facilitate abuse and malfeasance; it doesn’t cause them.

2. The language describing the crisis must reflect the empirical evidence.

“Protecting children” is absolutely essential; that is the ultimate no-brainer. But the mantra that this entire crisis — and the February meeting — is about “child protection” avoids the hard fact that in the United States and Germany (the two situations for which there is the largest body of data), the overwhelming majority of clerical sexual abuse has involved sexually dysfunctional priests preying on adolescent boys and young men. In terms of victim-demographics, this has never been a “pedophilia” crisis, although that language has been cemented into much of the world media’s storyline since 2002. If the Rome meeting ignores data and traffics in media “narratives,” it will fail.

3. Don’t ignore the devastating impact of a culture of dissent.

Ireland and Quebec demonstrate that sexual abuse occurred in the pre-conciliar Church. Still, the data suggest that there was a large spike in abuse in the late 1960s, 1970s, and much of the 1980s: decades when dissent from Catholicism’s settled moral teaching was rampant among priests, tacit among too many bishops, and tolerated for the sake of keeping the peace. That appeasement strategy was disastrous. February meeting-planners have said that the Church needs a change of culture. Does that include changing the culture of dissent that seems to have been involved in spiking the number of abusive clergy and malfeasant bishops? Then let the bishops gathered in Rome in February issue a clarion call to fidelity to the Church’s teaching on the ethics of human love, as explained in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. And let them affirm that ethic as a pathway to happiness and human flourishing, rather than treating it a noble but impossible ideal.

4. Forget bogus “solutions.”

How many times have we heard that changing the Church’s discipline of celibacy would reduce the incidence of clerical sexual abuse? It’s just not true. Marriage is not a crime-prevention program. And the data on the society-wide plague of sexual abuse suggests that most of these horrors take place within families. Celibacy is not the issue. The issues are effective seminary formation for living celibate love prior to ordination, and ongoing support for priests afterwards.

5. Resist playing the hierarchy card.

Drawing on lay expertise does not diminish episcopal authority; it enhances it. Bringing lay expertise to bear on this crisis is essential in getting at the facts and to restoring the badly-eroded credibility of too many bishops — and the Vatican. The leadership of the U.S. bishops’ conference understood that, and the majority of American bishops were prepared to act on that understanding with serious remedies. The February meeting must be informed of those remedies — and it should consider how Roman autocracy made a very bad situation worse.