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Book Launch -- The Age of Impeachment: American Constitutional Culture since 1960

May 14, 2008 // 2:00pm4:00pm

David E. Kyvig, Distinguished Research Professor, Department of History, Northern Illinois University, author; commentators Linda Greenhouse, Supreme Court Reporter, The New York Times; James Reston Jr., Independent Writer, and Senior Scholar, Woodrow Wilson Center.


Why was impeachment utilized so rarely in the United States between 1789 and 1960 but far more frequently between 1960 and 2000? Prof. David Kyvig, speaking at the Division of United States Studies of his The Age of Impeachment, contended that the study of the impeachment episodes is a way of framing modern U.S. history. The frequent calls for impeachment since 1960 are "like a canary in the mineshaft," he argued, reflecting the increasingly "toxic" American political environment.

Impeachment, which had its origins in the British parliamentary system, was intended to deal with public officials who were too powerful to be tried in a common court system. In Britain, any public official could be impeached for "high crimes and misdemeanors." The punishment was not limited to removal from office, as would become the case with the U.S. system, but could include fines, imprisonment or execution. Drawing upon but not following all of the British model, the framers of the American Constitution inserted impeachment clauses as a way to remove officials with fixed terms who committed an impeachable offense. An "impeachable offense," however, was not clearly defined. The Founders did recognize that removing an official elected by the public should be difficult and above political whims. They therefore set a high bar for removal from office, requiring a majority of the House and two-thirds of the Senate, and allowed the public official to remain in office while undergoing the impeachment process.

Kyvig counted thirteen impeachment attempts between 1789 and 1960, and twelve attempts, of varying seriousness, in the 40-year period between 1960 and 2000. If impeachment were meant to be used judiciously, why have calls for it become so frequent? Kyvig noted that the election of 1964 began a breakdown of the politics of bipartisanship and compromise. Between 1964 and 1994, many of the politicians who comprised the moderate middle of both parties were voted out of office, leaving an increasingly polarized Congress that began to value impeachment as a political tool. Impeachment has proven to be effective, Kyvig asserted, as shown in the impeachment efforts between 1960 and 2000 that resulted in resignations or removal from office of two members of the executive branch (Richard Nixon and Spiro T. Agnew) and six federal judges. Even those who escaped impeachment (that is, a vote by the House that they should be tried by the Senate) or removal from office, including Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton and Supreme Court Justices Earl Warren and William O. Douglas, found their power substantially weakened.

The modern age of impeachment has had unforeseen consequences. There has been a shift in the employment of the impeachment threat from a last ditch effort to deal with disgraced politicians to an early political tactic, as seen in the calls for President George W. Bush's impeachment near the beginning of his first term. Repeated instances of impeachment have left the public with diminished confidence in their government. Ironically, impeachment efforts have led to enhanced presidential authority. Presidents and other White House officials have learned how to escape impeachment by withholding information, enabling an unparalleled expansion of executive power, particularly in foreign affairs.

The commentators addressed the question of what acts can be considered impeachable. Linda Greenhouse wondered whether the decision to impeach is solely at the discretion of members of the House and precisely what role the Senate plays in the process. Are the Senators meant to be evaluators of the impeachment charge, or simply jurors? She asked whether Kyvig might have considered whether impeachment can be viewed as an accident of history rather than a cause of it, and whether scholars might differentiate between serious efforts at impeachment and political grandstanding. President Reagan, Greenhouse argued, lost power because of the revelations about Iran-Contra, not because of efforts to impeach him. What are we left with, James Reston then queried, if the failure of impeachment efforts has so narrowed the definition of impeachable offenses that the only way to address misdeeds of public officials is with censure, "a slap on the wrist," or pressure to resign? President Richard Nixon said he had no "corrupt motive" for what happened in the Watergate robbery and subsequent cover-up attempts. Does the lack of such a motive matter? When an administration that deliberately withholds information from Congress about its conduct in foreign affairs is not threatened with impeachment efforts or other punitive actions, what is the state of U.S. democracy? Reminding the audience that the War Powers Act followed the Nixon impeachment scandal as an attempt to curb the abuse of presidential power, Reston asked as well whether other such legislation might follow the presidency of George W. Bush.



Division of U.S. Studies 202-691-4147







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