by Eric Alterman
The Nation magazine, January 11/18, 1999
To hell with Bill Clinton. He is no longer the issue. What
is at stake in this impeachment fight is the ability of an extremist
minority to debase the Constitution and destroy its protections.
Through their complicity in this travesty, the Republican leadership,
the mainstream media, the Washington establishment and their self-deluded
apologists on the left-in the face of the consistently voiced
opposition of a massive majority of American citizens-demonstrate
contempt for the fundamental precepts of both democratic and republican
Spare me the sanctimonious invocation of 'principle."
Republicans, with their popularity at its lowest ebb in fourteen
years, may be committing political seppuku, but this is hardly
because "they have pledged allegiance to the republican principle,"
as George Will idiotically pretends. The impeachment of the President
was ordered and executed in the office of majority whip Tom DeLay,
where the GOP's money men and Christian soldiers converge to form
an implacable bloc. Those Republicans who dare to buck "The
Hammer"-a man who compares EPA regulators to Gestapo agents-risk
inviting a right-wing primary challenge with no help from the
national party. Without countervailing power, the moderates have
no means to defend themselves. (This explains the cowardly flip-flop
of the four who voted for impeachment only to call for censure
barely forty-eight hours later.)
The Republican right-wingers are so busy fighting their holy
war against the sixties they never noticed their putative enemy's
capitulation. What was Bill Clinton's eulogy of Richard Nixon
but a sellout of every antiwar protester he was said to represent?
What was Hillary's career as a corporate lawyer and commodities
trader but an endorsement of the very values that "the sixties"
were supposed to question? The Clintons long ago jettisoned whatever
principles survived their tenure in the Arkansas governor's mansion.
Clinton may be a man of generous instincts and frequent political
genius, but his fealty to the constitutional strictures of his
office is considerably less than one would hope. He began the
air war against Iraq on December 16 without even the pretense
of Congressional consultation, much less national dialogue or
debate. The public supports the war, of course: Once the bombs
begin to fall, Americans support every war, believing it unpatriotic
to do otherwise.
That does not change the fact that no one in the Administration
can explain, in plain English, exactly what good this extensive
and expensive attack ultimately will achieve. Iraq's ability to
deploy "weapons of mass destruction" is indeed scary.
But its hateful regime will be no less capable of doing so following
the bombings. US generals do not even pretend to know how to locate
the most dangerous parts of Iraq's arsenal and wisely refrain
from targeting chemical weapons factories because a successful
hit could release their deadly compounds into the atmosphere.
Yes, we are being "diddled" by a dictator. But the only
people likely to suffer from our response are the people he has
already victimized. Predictably, the Arab world is incensed,
Saddam Hussein's prestige increased and the West and Russia
profoundly split. The last time the Administration tried to restart
this war it was humiliated by a tough-minded audience at Ohio
State University. This time they knew better than to give real
people a chance to ask unscripted questions.
Where is the democracy in our democracy? A Democratic President
commits an act of war without the pretense of democratic debate.
A lame-duck Republican majority, refusing to allow even a vote
on the one alternative that Americans insist they want-censure-attempts
to remove a popular President without even a fig leaf of bipartisan
support. This occurs in the wake of a midterm election in which
the pro-impeachment side is roundly defeated and while the President
in question enjoys an approval rating of more than 70 percent.
Where are the media in this pathetic spectacle? Where they
have been since day one: cheering the military and stoking the
scandal's most hysterical elements. Aware that they do not have
the votes to win a trial in the Senate, Republicans used the impeachment
debate (and Bob Livingston's resignation as Speaker-elect to create
the illusion of a groundswell for the President's resignation.
Network pundits, absent a scintilla of evidence, played Nostradamus.
Cokie Roberts predicted hopefully that the cries for Clinton's
resignation would soon become "deafening." Her ABC News
colleagues, William Bennett and William Kristol, seconded her
anti-Clinton emotion. Robert Bork repeated it on NBC, as did David
Gergen on PBS. In between touchdowns on CBS, Dan Rather reported
that resignation calls were coming from "Republicans and
others." Since Roberts and Gergen are probably registered
independent, this statement is technically true, but substantively
The President's antidemocratic act of war is consistent with
the behavior of all postwar Presidents. Bringing democratic control
to the conduct of foreign policy requires a struggle merely to
force the issue onto the public agenda (see my book Who Speaks
for America?). This is not true, obviously, of the Republicans'
constitutional coup. While they are unlikely to oust Clinton from
power, they have already succeeded in crippling our political
system. The discourse has been denuded of discussions of healthcare,
Social Security, the environment and education. All we have seen
and heard about for the past year has been semen-stained dresses
and back-room blowjobs, the trivia of sexual inquisition.
Clinton's resignation followed by Al Gore's ascension to the
presidency might rupture this dynamic, but the price is far too
high. Our political institutions are on the brink of combustion.
Elections are ignored and potentially overturned. The right to
privacy is eviscerated. The Constitution is shredded. The media
amplify and applaud the mad dogs bent on political annihilation.
Whatever one thinks of Bill Clinton, his opponents must be
thwarted. They are the enemies of democracy and of the Constitution
that insures its possibility. We long ago lost the luxury of choosing
our allies. This is war.