In 1998, Missouri Republican Senators John Ashcroft and Kit Bond voted to remove President Bill Clinton from office for lying about oral sex with an intern and obstructing justice when he got caught.
At the time, there were 55 Republican and 45 Democratic senators. All the Democrats voted to acquit. Ten Republicans joined them on the perjury count and five on the obstruction count (including Sen. Susan Collins of Maine), and Clinton remained in office, the needed two-thirds Senate majority not having been approached.
While I'm not a fan of what-about-ism, it's hard not to consider that history as we sit around waiting — not at all breathlessly — to see if Republican senators such as Missouri's Roy Blunt and Josh Hawley think bribery and extortion in an arms-for-political-dirt shakedown of a foreign ally is as serious as lying about oral sex. As a congressman from Springfield, Blunt voted for Clinton's removal.
The same might be asked of Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin, or retiring Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville. Shimkus voted to remove Clinton, as did then-Rep. Jim Talent, who held the 2nd district in Missouri, roughly the one Wagner represents now.
Having been around awhile, I was trying to remember what I thought in the Clinton days. Then I remembered that I wrote about it in this space. No Pulitzer was won, but I think it offers some worthwhile perspective as Congress wrestles with whether to tolerate the criminal conduct of our current president:
Well, of course Bill Clinton lied. First he lied about sex. Then he lied about lying about sex. Now he's refusing to admit either that he lied or that he lied about lying, and that refusal arguably constitutes another lie.
Placed on the hot seat, he'd probably lie about his refusal to admit the lies and the lies about the lies, and if that didn't satisfy the inquisitors, he'd lie about lying about his refusal to admit the lies and the lies about the lies.
This could go on forever and, in a sense, has. The Republican majority in Congress keeps chirping its endless impeachment song, a twisted "Twelve Days of Christmas" knockoff.
"Eight lies about Monica. Seven lies about Betty. Six lies about lying. Five lies under oath ..." Over and over and over again.
Now, if we can take them at their word, almost all of the Republicans seem to believe that lying under oath is an impeachable offense. That is, a president should be removed from office if it's proven he has lied, say, during a grand-jury investigation into his conduct.
Fine. For the sake of discussion, let's say the Republicans are right — that any lie told under oath, in any circumstance, is grounds for removal from the presidency.
But wait. Many of the same Republicans who solemnly swear that the Constitution requires them to fulfill their solemn duty to suffer through — with grim reluctance — the impeachment trauma also tell us that they might be willing to forget about it all if Mr. President would just kindly come forth and admit he's a liar.
Where, dear constitutional scholars, is it suggested a president can remedy his "high crimes and misdemeanors" by publicly admitting to them? If Clinton lied to a grand jury — and if that act of lying gives Congress no choice but to impeach — why should anything he does or says now have anything to do with anything?
If the president suspected a general of disloyalty and shot him (the sort of act that our hardly celibate forefathers no doubt had in mind by "impeachable"), do you suppose that his confession to murder would make things OK? It's the high crime that matters, not the high road in its aftermath.
One could argue that murder and perjury differ widely in degree, but the only sliver of a prayer that the Republicans have for convicting Clinton in the Senate hangs on a literal up-or-down, strict-constructionist verdict on the perjury or obstruction charges. If degree mattered to Congress — as it does to the large majority of Americans rightfully opposed to impeachment — then we wouldn't be having this discussion at all.
Or would we?
As the Republicans' willingness to bargain with Clinton suggests, this attempt to bring him down with a no-confidence vote isn't constitutional at all. Nor is the Democrats' fairly unified defense effort, for that matter.
On both sides of the aisle, the entire "crisis" isn't solemn, and it isn't constitutional. It's political.
So then, what are Republicans (and some Democrats) really doing when they speak so loftily about fulfilling their constitutional duty? Why, they're lying.
Yes, Republicans and Democrats, acting in their official capacity in the halls of government (don't know whether that technically constitutes an oath, but it's in the ballpark), are saying one thing when they mean another. Perhaps they'd prefer to call it fudging or hedging or shading or coloring or spinning the truth.
But it's all in the family of lies.
Some of these are white lies, such as when they tell us how sad they are to be appearing on Larry King Live or Nightline or Crossfire in such troubled times, but more often the lies are big old whoppers, the kind only the likes of House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde (the erstwhile lying, pink-Cadillac-buying adulterer) can deliver with a straight face.
"The solemn duty that confronts us requires that we attain a heroic level of bipartisanship and that we conduct our deliberations in a fair, full and independent manner," Hyde told the world, presumably without crossing his fingers, on receipt of fellow partisan Kenneth Starr's report on Clinton on Sept. 9.
"The American people deserve a competent, independent and bipartisan review of the Independent Counsel's report," Hyde said. "They must have confidence in this process.
"Politics must be checked at the door, party affiliation must become secondary, and America's future must become our only concern. I will not condone, nor participate in, a political witch hunt.
"If the evidence does not justify a full impeachment investigation, I will not recommend one to the House. However, if the evidence does justify an inquiry, I will fulfill my oath of office and recommend a fuller inquiry."
Now then. Henry Hyde didn't seem to lose control of his committee during all those weeks of inquiry, and he didn't seem too upset with its work at the end, so one can only assume that he feels the direction he set out in that Sept. 9 statement has been followed.
Thus, after weeks of "fair, full and independent" deliberations, after reaching that "heroic level of bipartisanship," after "checking politics at the door" and casting aside party affiliation, it just happens — by strange coincidence, presumably — that all of the Judiciary Committee's 21 Republicans independently decided to impeach and all of its 16 Democrats independently decided not to impeach.
Believe all that? Then you probably also believe that Henry Hyde and his colleagues would "neither condone nor participate in a political witch hunt." If not, believe this: Bill Clinton, the guy who cheats and lies and always gets away with it, shouldn't be the target of all those lying Republican politicians.
He oughta be their hero.
Ray Hartmann founded the Riverfront Times in 1977. Contact him at [email protected] or catch him on St. Louis In the Know With Ray Hartmann and Jay Kanzler from 9 to 11 p.m. Monday thru Friday on KTRS (550 AM).