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Off the Record: Impeachment is getting to be a bad habit

In the 230-year history of this country, only three presidents have gone through the impeachment process. President Donald Trump joined that elite club this week, though he is sure to be acquitted by the Senate in January. President Richard M. Nixon was not impeached, but resigned in 1974 when it became clear he would be tossed out of office over the Watergate scandal.

Impeachment, then, has been rarely used in this country, but the pace has been picking up. The last two impeachments and the Nixon resignation have all taken place in the last 45 years. I don’t know whether I should count myself lucky to have been around to see them.

When the U.S. Constitution was adopted in 1789, it gave Congress the power to remove the president by impeachment. Congress waited nearly 80 years — until 1868 — before it deemed it necessary to exercise that power.

President Andrew Johnson got in a brouhaha with “Radical Republicans” over the Reconstruction of the country after the Civil War. Johnson, like Lincoln before him, wanted to ease the transition and treat the former Confederate states with leniency. The Radical Republicans preferred a “stick it to ’em” policy. Push came to shove and the House voted articles of impeachment against Johnson, but the Senate failed to muster the two-thirds majority to remove him by one vote.

Another 100 years passed and the idea of impeachment faded into a footnote in history books, until the Watergate Scandal broke. On June 17, 1972 (my 21st birthday, coincidentally) five men broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate Hotel in Washington D.C., and got caught. They turned out to have been sent by the Committee to Re-Elect the President (aptly condensed to CREEP) to bug the Democratic campaign office. When Nixon tried to cover it up, he and his administration were exposed and a riveting congressional investigation was held to look into “what the president knew and when he knew it.”

Turns out he knew a lot, early on. The big bombshell came when Nixon’s Deputy Assistant, Alexander Butterfield, revealed that there was a taping system recording all the conversations in the Oval Office. The tapes were subpoenaed. When a mysterious 18-1/2-minute gap turned up in a crucial conversation, Nixon was doomed. Impeachment loomed, and he resigned in 1974 when Republican leaders in the Senate told him he wouldn’t have the votes to survive.

President Bill Clinton was impeached after a three-year investigation by Kenneth Starr into his dealings as governor of Arkansas in the Whitewater Development project turned up no evidence of wrongdoing, but did find he had lied to Starr about extramarital activities. He was impeached for lying under oath to investigators about the affairs and obstruction of justice. Republicans in the House, who had been grinding their teeth over Clinton just as angrily as Democrats are over Trump today, led the charge to impeach, along with a few votes from Democrats. The Democrat-controlled Senate acquitted him, just as the Republican-controlled Senate is expected to acquit Trump.

So, from Andrew Johnson’s impeachment to the Watergate scandal was 106 years. From Nixon’s resignation to the Clinton impeachment was about 24 years. From Clinton’s impeachment to Trump’s impeachment is only 21 years.

The pace is picking up. I hope its not developing into a trend, where each party is looking for an excuse to impeach the other party’s president to get back at them for impeaching their own president.

If we want to avoid this, we may need to start electing a better class of people — to Congress and the presidency.

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Kevin Sweeney has been the managing editor of The Journal since May 1985. A native of St. Paul, he worked at newspapers in LeSueur and Albert Lea before moving to New Ulm. Contact him at ksweeney@nujournal.com.

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