Ashley Wayne Cruseturner: How Bill Clinton Inadvertently Saved George W. Bush's Presidency

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Ashley Wayne Cruseturner is an Instructor in history at McLennan Community College, Waco, TX.]

Reflecting back on the star-crossed eight years of the George Bush administration, the outgoing chief executive might feel some gratitude to his predecessor. In a perverse way, Bill Clinton and his desperate campaign to retain power in the face of scandal probably saved the Bush presidency.

The framers designed impeachment as the ultimate (as in last resort) "check" against the misuse of executive and/or judicial power. Congress has used the weapon of impeachment sparingly over the course of American history. Two presidents, Washington and Jackson, when faced with a quarrelsome opposition in Congress, dared the legislative branch to impeach. On both occasions, Congress wisely demurred.

Jeffersonian Republicans (forerunners to the modern Democratic Party) pushed to consolidate gains against the Federalist Party and remove a troublesome remnant of the opposition within the judiciary. Through mostly good luck and/or providence, the scheme failed. In the aftermath of the Civil War, Radical Republicans attempted to remove the beleaguered Southern Unionist, Andrew Johnson. The Senate failed to convict the President (just barely), but the legislative succeeded in diminishing the executive for a generation. The power of the presidency did not make a real comeback until the administration of Theodore Roosevelt.

In 1974, a resurgent legislative branch finally succeeded in toppling a president. Although the House of Representatives never formally impeached him, Richard Nixon resigned once leaders of his own party assured him that he faced certain removal.

Enter Bill Clinton.

Initially, I believed that the low crimes and misbehavior of President Bill Clinton did not meet the threshold of constitutional removal from office, but it merited resignation. That is, although not quite impeachment-worthy, Bill Clinton's lying, cheating, and shameful behavior tainted the presidency and compromised the national security of the United States; therefore, an honorable President, made to confront his misdeeds, would have fallen on his public sword and slunk off into the shadows of American public life. But, alas, President Clinton did not see it that way, and he determined to hunker down and hold on to power with every ounce of his prodigious instinct for survival.

In the midst of his simultaneously craven and courageous full-court press to stay in office, I began to detest President Clinton and the gutter brawl he waged to preserve his power. Although I voted against him twice, it is important to note that I had never been a Clinton-hater before Monica. Before it was over, however, I loathed Bill Clinton and his entire team. In the heat of the moment, I cheered for impeachment, and I cursed the day he was acquitted (or "not proved") on all charges.

Today, I look back on impeachment sheepishly. Perhaps we over-reacted. Bill Clinton was pathologically untruthful, egregiously self-absorbed, and disdainful of many of the traditional social mores that serve to limit the worst excesses of human behavior. Worse, he seemed to view himself as above the law (although he was never formally charged with any criminal behavior).

On the other hand, we the citizenry duly elected him as president twice, and he clearly maintained the overwhelming support of the American people during the very worst of the revelations concerning his conduct. We got the leadership we desired. While the impeachment charges were serious and valid, they were also the product of overheated politics.

Looking back, the impeachment of Bill Clinton seems ill-advised, and his decision to eschew the myriad calls for resignation appears far-sighted. I grudgingly believe that he acted judiciously in riding out the storm. If he had left office under the pressure of the moment, the institution of the presidency would have suffered significant damage, and every president forward would have faced intense pressure to resign in moments of crisis and personal embarrassment.

More practically, one can reasonably argue that Bill Clinton's decision to fight for power, and his ultimate victory, saved the presidency of George Bush. Understanding the lessons of 1999, the Democrats of 2007 went to work to derail this president the old fashioned way (through obstructionism and violent calumny). Standing against fierce calls for impeachment proceedings from the left-wing fringe of the party, Democratic Leadership opted to wait for and work toward the Election of 2008 as the appropriate moment to chastise a president they had come to detest.

Who can doubt that an impeachment charade during the spring and summer of 2007 would have been a violently destructive and destabilizing national experience? Ironically, Bill Clinton's primal impulse to stand and fight back in 1998 played an essential role in securing our reprieve from a pathetic partisan show trial in 2007. Going forward, the consequences of the Clinton showdown will serve as a cautionary tale for any opposition majority. This is a good thing.

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