Something is going very wrong for the Democrats in their impeachment drama. It was supposed to play out like the Nixon Watergate hearings. Each day would build drama and increase suspense, with new revelations culminating in such a nationwide impact that the president would not even have to be impeached after all. When Nixon read the tea leaves, he resigned.
The Republicans tried to replicate that effort with their impeachment of Bill Clinton, but that campaign never quite impacted the same way. Everyone knew by then about Paula Corbin Jones and the zipper, Kathleen Willey and the pawing, Monica Lewinsky and the cigar … and the dress … and the stain. Yet the Clinton affair was marked by the unexpected drama that came when an honest politician in Washington arose on the Senate floor, Democrat Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, and spoke truth to power, giving voice to the shame of a nation. That was it, but it was something.
The Senate never was going to convict Clinton. Those in the House who instigated the impeachment all paid a steep price, and the Republicans lost their momentum. Yes, Clinton had lied under oath, and he even had to be disbarred in Arkansas — but at the end of the day, the revelation that a married man had denied having an extramarital affair just did not measure up to, say, a standard that had been set previously when a sitting president appeared to have covered up a felony and paranoiacally had wiretapped his own White House to record his own private conversations with most everyone. Nixon had microphones installed in the Oval Office, the Cabinet Room, the Lincoln Sitting Room, his Executive Office Building office, and even in the Aspen Lodge at Camp David.
The Nixon impeachment was supposed to happen again that same way this time with Nancy Pelosi reliving the historicity of her youth and with Adam Schiff taking down the high and mighty in the manner of Edward R. Murrow. But it has fizzled. There is no John Dean. There is no high crime or misdemeanor. Perhaps a moment we all remember from the Nixon hearings was when presidential aide Alexander Butterfield was asked whether or not the president had recordings. Butterfield responded, “I’m sorry you asked. But, yes, there was a taping system that taped all presidential conversations.” White House counsel John Dean confirmed the tapings.
Why is the Pelosi–Schiff impeachment playing out so differently — bereft of drama, bereft of interest, so bereft of all else?
For one thing, there is no John Dean with a pretty blonde wife sitting right behind him for the camera to keep viewers’ attention. There is no “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” equivalent of Joe Lieberman to rise to speak truth to power and to remind the American people of objectively core national values that have been transgressed:
I was also angry because I was one of the many people who had said over the preceding seven months that, if the president clearly and explicitly denies the allegations against him, then of course I believed him….
The implications for our country are so serious that I feel a responsibility to my constituents in Connecticut, as well as to my conscience, to voice my concerns forthrightly and publicly. And I can think of no more appropriate place to do that than on this great Senate floor.… To begin with, I must respectfully disagree with the president’s contention that his relationship with Monica Lewinsky and the way in which he misled us about it is nobody’s business but his family’s and that even presidents have private lives, as he said.… In this case, the president apparently had extramarital relations with an employee half his age and did so in the workplace in the vicinity of the Oval Office. Such behavior is not just inappropriate. It is immoral. And it is harmful, for it sends a message of what is acceptable behavior to the larger American family — particularly to our children — which is as influential as the negative messages communicated by the entertainment culture.
If you doubt that, just ask America’s parents about the intimate and frequently unseemly sexual questions their young children have been asking them and discussing since the president’s relationship with Ms. Lewinsky became public seven months ago. I have had many of those conversations with parents, particularly in Connecticut, and from them I conclude that parents across our country feel much as I do that something very sad and sordid has happened in American life when I cannot watch the news on television with my 10-year-old daughter anymore.…
It is this mindset that has helped to threaten the stability and integrity of the family, which continues to be the most important unit of civilized society, the place where we raise our children and teach them to be responsible citizens, to develop and nurture their personal and moral faculties.… In choosing this path, I fear that the president has undercut the efforts of millions of American parents who are naturally trying to instill in our children the value of honesty. As most any mother and father knows, kids have a singular ability to detect double standards. So, we can safely assume that it will be that much more difficult to convince our sons and daughters of the importance of telling the truth when the most powerful man in the nation evades it. Many parents I have spoken with in Connecticut confirm this unfortunate consequence….
Mr. President, I said at the outset that this was a very difficult statement to write and deliver. That is true, very true. And it is true in large part because it is so personal and yet needs to be public, but also because of my fear that it will appear unnecessarily judgmental. I truly regret this. I know from the Bible that only God can judge people. The most that we can do is to comment without condemning individuals. And in this case, I have tried to comment on the consequences of the president’s conduct on our country. I know that the president is far from alone in the wrongdoing he has admitted. We as humans are all imperfect. We are all sinners. Many have betrayed a loved one and most have told lies. Members of Congress have certainly been guilty of such behavior, as have some previous presidents.
That was then. But now, focusing on a phone conversation with a newly elected national leader, where even Volodymyr Zelensky, that newly elected president of Ukraine, saw nothing wrong with the call, there is nothing consequential at play. Even if Mitt Romney eventually embraces a platform on the Senate floor to take yet another potshot at Donald Trump, he long ago set forth on the “Never Trump” path. Thus, he provides a contrast from Lieberman, who always had been a Clinton ally and even remained one during and after the impeachment trial that acquitted. By contrast, there is no drama here. No cover-up. No zipper, no dress, no stain. Even more pointedly, it both (i) is not close — and (ii) there is no cigar.
If the Meme for the Ages that emerged from the Nixon–Watergate hearings was “What Did the President Know, and When Did He Know It?,” and if the Meme for the Ages from Clinton was “I did not have sexual relations with that woman,” then this time the moment that may best be remembered will be when Pelosi–Schiff’s lead two star witnesses, Ambassador William Taylor and the State Department’s George Kent, were asked by Rep. John Ratcliffe,
“Are either of you here to assert that there was an impeachable offense in that call?”
The question was met by stone silence at the table. After moments of awkward quiet, Ratcliffe urged,
“Shout it out! Anyone?”
Yet the televised live moment of complete enduring silence continued. Crickets. Five long seconds of two “star witnesses” exposed, the silence of the shams.
Another profound difference between now and Nixon is that the Nixon impeachment was bipartisan, with ostensibly fair-minded patriots at the helm, ranging from special prosecutor Leon Jaworski, who succeeded Archibald Cox after the “Saturday Night Massacre” of October 1973, to New Jersey Democrat Rep. Peter Rodino, chair of the House Judiciary Committee that oversaw the process. Likewise, the Clinton impeachment was marked by the investigation headed by independent counsel Ken Starr, already well reputed as a respected federal court of appeals judge and later a United States solicitor general. By contrast, the present imitation is being conducted by a morally stained and long-discredited political partisan, Adam Schiff, already pocked in the public mind by his apocryphal prior assurances that he had seen the evidence of Trump campaign collusion with Russia — claims from within the secrecy of the House Intelligence Committee but that special counsel Robert Mueller utterly destroyed when he publicly told a nation that there was no collusion. Amplifying those deceits, Schiff later paraded forth with his ill-advised “parody” public reading as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee of his own doctored “transcript” of the Trump phone call to Zelensky. Next, he decided first to conduct weeks of secret impeachment hearings outside public purview, dotted with carefully selected daily leaks to his preferred media allies. As a result, Schiff not only has discredited himself many times over, but concurrently has discredited the very hearings he is conducting. He is no Rodino, Jaworski, or even Mueller. He is no Starr, and he is no star.
Perhaps the most profound difference in explaining why the Pelosi–Schiff impeachment affair is playing out so differently from the previous two is the most subtle. In the past, there were virtually no media outlets to counterbalance the decidedly liberal, Democrat-oriented presentations of the main mass media: CBS, NBC, ABC, PBS, New York Times, Washington Post, Newsweek, Time. Since then, something profound has changed. Not only do Republicans in general, and conservatives in particular, have Rush Limbaugh on radio, but the media also now include the Fox News Channel and their commentators, including Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Tucker Carlson, and so many others. There’s also the Fox Business channel, which includes Lou Dobbs, Stuart Varney, Trish Regan, and Melissa Francis. Those programs, in turn, have expanded exponentially the universe of public voices and experts who opine on matters consequential, including Victor Davis Hanson, Andrew McCarthy, Jeffrey Lord, John Solomon, Sara Carter, and Mark Steyn. Mark Levin brings more voices before the public. They now are players.
Thus, America no longer is limited to the Woodwards and the Bernsteins whom the media present as the exclusive cast of experts — a small coterie of same-thinking liberals who agree as one on everything within their echo chamber. Rather, there now is a broader universe of opinion. Publications like this one and others in our universe further project facts and opinions through the internet that historically have been hidden or outright suppressed. Thus, it even may be that Nixon would have survived Watergate with no worse than a serious congressional censure had these media and the universe of conservative experts been ubiquitous then.
It no longer is possible to push a tepid accusation, bereft of evidence, based on a conversation whose very substance defeats the accusation, as a gospel that Americans will worship. There is too much sunshine to expose the falsehoods and the single-drum narrative that permeates CBS, NBC, ABC, PBS, CNN, MSNBC, the New York Times, and the Washington Post. The news and analysis that is quite fit to print but that gets buried censored, rejected by the Times, now sees the light of day here and elsewhere. If democracy dies in darkness, then the Washington Post’s three-year impeachment campaign against President Trump fails because of all the ancillary sunlight it cannot eclipse. And that is why Pelosi and Schiff are not realizing the impeachment successes that prior generations of impeachers experienced during Nixon and Clinton times.