On the Left, the overwhelming fear is that if Clinton is removed from office, the Right— particularly the Christian Right— will have finally achieved control over the judiciary and increased its clout with Congress.
This legitimate concern is also shared by many of the rising number of independent registered voters around the country as well as some Republican moderates.
Consider the fact that Texas Republican Tom DeLay— a professional exterminator of rodents before he entered public life— is already the strongest member of the majority party in Congress. The new floor speaker, Dennis Hastert, while a conservative, is not a rigid ideologue. DeLay is, and he pushes hard.
For several years, DeLay has led the campaign in Congress to impeach federal “activist” judges. To him, an “activist” judge is someone who enforces the Bill of Rights, particularly the constitutional rights of defendants.
On the House floor, DeLay has eagerly agreed with Gerald Ford’s claim— made while Ford was trying to impeach William O. Douglas— that “an impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at any given moment of history.”
Therefore, when a federal district judge in New York, Harold Baer, released a drug runner because police had violated the Fourth Amendment in searching her car, DeLay and other Republicans howled for Baer’s removal. William Jefferson Clinton joined them, and Baer reversed himself. The courier is in prison.
Starting in 2000, a Republican president and a Republican Congress can indeed weaken the Constitution even more than Clinton has, and that’s saying a lot.
Recently, at an American Bar Association conference, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, responding to the increasing attacks on the independence of this judiciary, warned that if the neutrality of the courts is broken, “the law ceases to exist. All that’s left is the dictate of a tyrant or a mob.”
Clinton’s two Supreme Court appointments, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer, are far from William O. Douglas, William Brennan, and Thurgood Marshall in their passion for civil liberties. But the odds are strong that a Republican president, along with a Republican majority of the Senate Judiciary Committee, will do a lot worse when the next Supreme Court seat is open.
It is also true that many of the fervent advocates of the defenestration of the president are part of, or allied with, the Christian Right.
In certain states, the Christian Right remains a pivotal force in some local, state, and federal elections. It is not as strategically skillful since Ralph Reed left, but Pat Robertson— the creator of the Christian Coalition— still thrives, and his 700 Club is carried nationally on the Fox Family Cable Network. Robertson also is heard on 235 radio stations across the land.
Pat Robertson is hardly a household name in New York City, but he has influence around the country. So does Dr. Dan Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, whose urgent right-wing messages are heard on at least 1500 radio stations. Dobson says: “To read the Constitution as the charter for a secular state is to misread history. . . . The Constitution was designed to perpetuate a Christian order.”
And Pat Robertson vigorously asserts that separation of church and state is “a lie of the Left.”
A couple of years ago, I was on a panel at Robertson’s Regent University and I pointed out that God is nowhere mentioned in the Constitution. That secular charter says that no religious test for public office or trust “shall ever be required” in this nation.
The true believers who declare this a Christian country— and they are many— will surely be heartened if Clinton is convicted in the Senate.
So, the fear of a takeover by the Right has some justification— if all the rest of us let it happen. Are we that weak? If we are, we have already lost the country.
Also, the illusion that Clinton is our ally in protecting constitutional rights is absurd. As I have pointed out here, he has damaged more sections of the Bill of Rights and the rest of the Constitution than any president in American history— from his attacks on the privacy protections of the Fourth Amendment to his relentless expansion of capital punishment. And there is his law that strikes at the heart of our system of justice— the 1996 Anti-Terrorism Act, which prevents aliens, including longtime resident aliens, from seeing the evidence against them before they are summarily deported.
As for the two impeachment charges against Clinton in the Senate: not only has he committed a number of felonies (perjury), but what he has done to obstruct justice should disqualify him from any office in a constitutional democracy.
As I said in answer to Todd Gitlin (Voice, Letters, January 26), can a president— who is supported by those who fear the Right— use his power and resources to act like he is a member of the Mob, silencing unfriendly witnesses against him by threats and other forms of intimidation?
Clinton has not “whacked”— in the parlance of the Mob— the women his agents have visited. But they understood his point. (“How are your children, Ms. Willey? Don’t you get the message?”)
Are there, then, any limits— even if a president is seen to be the lesser of two evils— to what he can do to stay in office?
That is the fundamental question. If he stays, what will it take to impeach any president?
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 2, 1999