For only the fourth time in the history of the Republic, the American people face the real possibility that the president of the United States will be impeached and removed from office. Like you, the editors of this review are mulling over the many moral, constitutional and political questions impeachment entails. And also like many of you, we have been here before.
In the course of a century of publishing, America has editorialized twice about a presidential impeachment, in 1974 and again in 1999. In the latter case, the editors believed that congressional censure was a more appropriate form of redress for President Clinton’s offenses, which, while serious, did not in the editors’ view meet the constitutional standard of “high crimes and misdemeanors.”
In 1974, America’s editors reached a different conclusion in the case of President Nixon, though they voiced their collective opinion rather late in the game, less than a month before Mr. Nixon resigned his office. Perhaps our forebears were being cautious. Impeachment is a very grave matter and caution is certainly warranted, as is an appreciation for historical precedent. For that reason, I took the time last week to re-read America’s editorials about both impeachments. The following is an excerpt from our editorial in the summer of 1974. Its clarity and sober judgment are needed now more than ever.
In such a situation, where so much is at stake for the moral and political ideals of our country, it is essential that we cut through the complexities and ambiguities by a return to first principles and indisputable facts.
The Presidency of the United States is a public trust, not a private domain. Any person who holds that office is under a solemn obligation to exercise its powers for the benefit of the public in conformity with the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The President is accountable to the public, not only for the wisdom of the policies he advocates at home and abroad, but for the morality of his Administration. Even though elected by the people, the President has no irrevocable right to the Presidency. He can be defeated at the polls, or he can be impeached, convicted and removed from office.
A President can be defeated at the polls for many reasons, but he may lawfully be impeached only for treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors. The impeachment process consists of two very distinct steps: accusation by the House of Representatives and trial by the Senate. Although this process has certain analogies in civil and criminal law, it is a constitutionally unique process and must not be confused with civil or criminal trials. Impeachment, by the deliberate choice of the framers of the Constitution, is a legislative, not a judicial, function. In reaching their momentous decisions, neither the House nor the Senate is under any obligation to act exactly like a court of law.
The function of the House is to accuse or not to accuse. The function of the Senate is to acquit or convict. Clearly, the two functions are not the same and should not be governed by the same rules. The members of the House do not have to ask themselves whether there is sufficient evidence to convict. What they do have to ask themselves is whether there is sufficient evidence to justify, or even require, accusation.
The function of the accusation is to compel the President to defend himself. The question, then, before the House is whether the evidence presently available with respect to President Richard M. Nixon’s involvement in Watergate and other scandals in his Administration exonerates the President or demands further explanation and defense of his activities. To this question, it seems to us that there is only one reasonable answer: the evidence, and especially the evidence made available by the President himself, demands further explanation and defense.
There is only one sure way to get additional evidence: impeachment. Paradoxically, impeachment is also the only sure way President Nixon can clear himself. As long as matters are allowed to stand the way they are now, there can be no public consensus as to the guilt or innocence of President Nixon with regard to deliberate obstruction of justice or equally deliberate failure to execute the laws faithfully.
What we have now is a public consensus of suspicion…. It would be a betrayal of the most fundamental American political ideals of morality and justice for Congress to permit this consensus of suspicion to fester without remedy. Impeachment has become the only way to vindicate the national honor.
July 27, 1974