ON OCTOBER 7, 2003, citizens of the world's fifth-largest economy swarmed to the ballot box to oust their feckless chief executive in a special recall election. The wellspring of their discontent? A fiscal emergency, linked to a bungled electricity crisis, which had left constituents sweltering in the dark. Vying for votes against a motley crew better suited for a season of hijinks on VH1's The Surreal Life—a midget, a porn star, a Greek millionairess, an ex-Mr. Universe—Governor Gray Davis was thus rudely ushered out of power and Arnold Schwarzenegger installed as commander in chief of a state reborn, in a guttural instant, as "Galifornia."
With the benefit of hindsight, it's now clear that the wrong politician got the boot for the Golden State's woes. The energy crisis had nothing to do with Davis, the tone-deaf technocrat. Instead, it was a criminal conspiracy by Enron to plunder state coffers with schemes so malevolent that company traders code-named their effort "The Death Star."
If dead men could tell tales, Ken Lay might now regale us with the secret back story of those infamous energy meetings in the White House—the ones whose opacity Vice President Dick Cheney defended all the way to the Supreme Court—and expose the role of the Bush administration in suborning that faux "crisis." At the time, our president laughed off calls to investigate market manipulation by his chief corporate benefactor, even as he used California's blackouts as cover for abandoning his most important campaign promise. "We're now in an energy crisis," Bush declared in the spring of 2001. "And that's why I decided to not have mandatory caps on CO2."
And perhaps, then, we as Americans would demand ultimate accountability. For if lying under oath about a sexual dalliance with a Botero-esque intern is an impeachable offense, so certainly would be administration complicity in the effort to (as one Enron trader put it so coarsely) "jam Grandma Millie…right up her asshole for fucking $250 a megawatt hour."
But why limit ourselves to speculation about misdemeanors when the administration's high crimes are hiding in plain sight:
- Whereas the administration "fixed" intelligence to embark on a war of choice, unsanctioned by international law.
- Whereas a criminally incompetent lack of planning has caused that conflict to drag on longer than U.S. involvement in World War II, while spurring the nuclear ambitions of the mullahs in Tehran.
- Whereas the president authorized the National Security Administration to engage in warrantless wiretaps of American citizens in violation of the First Amendment, the Fourth Amendment, the doctrine of separation of powers, and the express will of Congress in establishing the fisa courts.
- Whereas the president has authorized the use of torture in contravention of military law and Article Three of the Geneva Convention, violations of which, as Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy pointedly observed in the Hamdan decision, "are considered 'war crimes,' punishable as federal offenses."
- Whereas the president has subjected "enemy combatants" to unconstitutional trial by military tribunal, and held American citizens in indefinite detention without access to lawyers or criminal courts.
- Whereas the administration's homicidal dithering left more than a thousand of our most vulnerable countrymen to perish, needlessly, under the waters churned by Hurricane Katrina.
The articles of impeachment write themselves. In the case of Articles of Impeachment Against George W. Bush, it seems, the book has as well. The same charge might be levied against The Case for Impeachment, The Impeachment of George W. Bush, and the raft of other contemporary and largely indistinguishable impeachment tomes now flooding the shelves of the nation's independent booksellers. Each offers a slightly different flavor of the same soporific cocktail: detailed recitations of the president's abuses of power and faithlessness to his oath of office, crafted in limp legalese. For their collective weight in pulp, not one of these volumes has the heft of the rousing 16-page case for impeachment put forth by former Harper's editor Lewis Lapham—that loquacious lion of the literary left—in Pretensions to Empire, which closes with a clarion call for Congress to amputate the gangrenous reign of George W. Bush, "cauterize the wound and stem the flows of money, stupidity, and blood."
In this undistinguished crowd, John Nichols' nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic, The Genius of Impeachment, stands apart. It concerns itself far less with the particulars of the legal case against Bush and Cheney, and instead combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use of the "heroic medicine" that is impeachment with a call for Democratic leaders to "reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by the founders for the defense of our most basic liberties."
Nichols, The Nation's Washington correspondent, traces the practice of impeachment to the 14th century, when the House of Commons first impeached two lords who were, quite literally, fleecing the government by absconding with wool from warehouses in Calais. For our Founding Fathers, impeachment wasn't a nuclear option, to be deployed only in the most dire of circumstances. Indeed, the bar for presidential removal was terribly low: In an early draft of the Constitution, George Mason followed the impeachable crimes of "treason" and "bribery" with the agreeable catchall "maladministration." James Madison prevailed upon his colleagues to turn instead to the historical language of "high crimes and misdemeanors," but as Nichols demonstrates, the two terms are roughly synonymous; the latter dates to a case from 1386 in which an earl was impeached for, among other offenses, "squandering away the public treasure" and "procuring offices for persons who were unfit, and unworthy of them." (Mike Brown, anyone?)
Nor are efforts to impeach at all uncommon. Although only two presidents—Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton—have actually been impeached by the House, formal articles of impeachment have been brought against 9 of our 43 chief executives. Impeachment—derived from the Latin word meaning "to fetter"—is not just a tool for replacing an individual officeholder, Nichols argues; even a failed impeachment offers a vital check on the office of the presidency, a tool by which, in the words of Jefferson, Congress can "bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution." This, Nichols says, "is the true genius of impeachment… It can be stalled by partisan majorities loyal to an irresponsible leader and still extract a measure of accountability from him." One might argue this is exactly what happened to Clinton.
In the case of Bush, impeachment would have less to do with the (admittedly far-fetched) chances of removing the man from office, Nichols argues, than with the opposition standing up for the rule of law and the Constitution, which is The Right Thing to Do—regardless of how it might play in 2008. For Nichols, every failure by a Congress to dust off the chains of impeachment—whether for Reagan at the height of Iran-Contra, or for Bush today—allows the office of the presidency to creep toward what Jefferson warned of as "an elected despotism."
Accordingly, Nichols celebrates the quixotic impeachment quests of Democratic Rep. Henry B. Gonzales, who sought to impeach Reagan over the invasion of Grenada; Republican Rep. George Bender, who did the same after Truman nationalized U.S. steel mills during the Korean War; and even a young Abraham Lincoln, who nearly scuttled his political career by seeking to impeach James K. Polk for waging war on Mexico. And Nichols savages House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, who has vigorously denied that her party will launch any impeachment proceedings should Democrats recapture the House in November—a calculated effort to rob Republicans of an electric campaign issue with which to mobilize their base. "Pulling punches in a political battle," Nichols writes, "usually results in a knockout, with the party that holds back collapsing to the mat."
Like many of today's progressives, Nichols believes that Doing the Right Thing and Taking a Stand have dramatic ripple effects. In this, he's an unabashed democracy idealist; you can almost hear the strains of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" swell in the background as he writes that a push to impeach Bush could "turn the ship of state in a new direction. That turn, which will eventually be supported by Democrats, Greens, Libertarians, independents and, yes, Republicans of good will, is in a homeward direction—back to the Constitution, to the system of checks and balances and to the most appealing of all American principles: that the rule of law applies to every citizen, 'be he President or pauper.'"
Back in the real world, there's little doubt that, both legally and morally, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney have earned an early retirement. Hell, the administration has even lost the father of modern conservatism, William F. Buckley Jr., who said of Bush in late July: "If you had a European prime minister who experienced what we've experienced, it would be expected that he would retire or resign."
But we don't live in Italy, and our Founding Fathers certainly never dreamed of the kind of Total Recall we saw in 2003. So we're stuck with Bush…or with impeachment—a truly confounding choice that none of these authors thinks through to its logical conclusion. For it to succeed—and not just morally as Nichols suggests but in actually dethroning Bush—Democrats would have to seize the House in November and run the electoral table in the Senate. Articles of impeachment passed in the lower chamber would then have to be approved by two-thirds of the upper, meaning more than a dozen Republican senators would have to break faith with the administration.
Impeaching Bush alone, of course, would be of no use—for Cheney, equally if not more culpable, is but another head of the same abominable Hydra. And there's the rub. Take away Bush, take away Cheney, and the line of succession would point to…President Nancy Pelosi. In order to replace a president who (for his many grievous sins) was popularly elected in a national election after the fiercest campaign in memory, we'd anoint a politician who hasn't faced serious opposition in two decades and was last elected by 225,000 true blue citizens…of San Francisco.
No, I'm confident the American people would far prefer a porn star or a midget, fairly elected—or, for that matter, two more years of the disastrous presidency of George W. Bush—than to see the White House change hands in what could only be described as an administrative coup.