History can fool us. Whenever writing about its apparent lessons, it’s important to include plenty of accurate context: historical, societal, religious and other.
Some writers claim that since people are basically the same across the ages, history repeats itself: We make similarly good and bad decisions from generation to generation. If we want to understand the decline of the United States, we’re told, we have only to look at the decline of the Roman Empire, as if there’s a moral, political and historical equivalency.
Others say history does not conveniently repeat itself but, rather, each historical event is unique unto itself. Yes, people do share common characteristics and impulses over time, yet each person is unique. So are the times in which they live. Thus historical events which might appear to have similar outcomes and identical lessons actually prove quite different from one another.
In the Oct. 24 Trib, Texas-based Institute for Policy Innovation scholar Merrill Matthews discusses what he calls the United States’ “never-ending election campaign” and its “never-ending presidential impeachment campaign.” He quickly turns his historical musings to hypothetical exercises: “Some day,” he says, there will be a Democratic president and a majority Republican Congress. When that happens, “An impeachment door has been opened (by the Democrats) that Republicans will be tempted to walk through.”
The author bemoans the endless, ongoing investigations and impeachments that the future may bring. But context matters. Do Mr. Matthews and those who think like him have amnesia about the history of the United States only 20 years ago? If a historical precedent was ever established for the impeachment of duly elected presidents, it was then.
Prior to President Bill Clinton, only one president had been impeached while serving in office. Andrew Johnson, a Union-loyal Civil War Democrat running under the Republican banner in 1864, was sworn in as president after Republican Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by a Southern sympathizer shortly after Lincoln’s second inauguration. Johnson promptly got down to placating white Southerners determined to keep blacks down on the plantation, much to the outrage of congressional Republicans trying to secure civil liberties for African Americans only recently freed as slaves (and at great sacrifice and expense). Johnson got himself impeached in 1868.
No further presidential impeachments arose till the Republican Congress voted to impeach Democratic President Bill Clinton in 1998. If anything, the endless impeachment cycle Mr. Matthews fears began then. Who can forget the ferocity of Independent Counsel (and Republican) Ken Starr’s investigation of the president? Interestingly, Starr today discourages impeachment of another president some deem guilty of something approaching treason. He suddenly sees the entire impeachment process threatening a Republican president “a terrible, terrible thorn in the side of the American democracy.” He now suggests, in the unmatched wisdom that comes from hindsight, that censure or something like it should have been applied to Clinton two decades ago and Donald Trump today.
Yet letter-writers in the Trib and elsewhere regularly offer lists of Clinton’s misdeeds: ethical failure, moral failure, perjury, lying to Congress and on and on. (In the end, the House narrowly passed two articles of impeachment — perjury and obstruction of justice — involving Clinton’s extramarital relationships.) And when Texas Gov. George W. Bush was elected president in 2000, Republicans claimed a moral victory for righteousness and family values and basic human decency.
How times have changed among the Republicans.
Yet the fear of endless impeachments that so worries Mr. Matthews is not a hypothetical curiosity but the reality of a process begun by Republicans in 1998. Their cries about how Democrats now seek to undermine the 2016 election of Donald Trump should be placed alongside the howls of outrage from Republican lawmakers during the beleaguered presidency of Barack Obama. Back when Republican Congressman Bill Flores still had town-hall meetings here in Waco, some constituents pressed for Obama’s impeachment, if only because the Democratic president readily resorted to executive action in defiance of the Constitution’s Article I — another supreme irony given Trump’s present willingness to do the very same.
So if in the future a Democratic president is elected and a majority Republican Congress pursues impeachment, it will not come from a cycle that began with the present Democratic Congress. It will be a continuation of an endless impeachment cycle begun by Republicans two decades ago.
Context matters when we interpret history. Perhaps the better statement of history is from philosopher George Santayana, who supposedly and famously said: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” So, Mr. Matthews, study the past. We’re already busy repeating it.