Lapham’s Case for Impeachment

Harper’s editor Lewis Lapham explains why he wrote his provocative essay arguing for the impeachment of George W. Bush.

March 21, 2006

 |  In November 1972 Richard Nixon won 61 percent of the popular vote, carried 49 of 50 states and won the Electoral College 520-17. Yet only three months later the Senate voted 77-0 to hold hearings investigating the Watergate break-in and its coverup — a bit of petty theft, a campaign dirty trick that could hardly have made the difference in one of the most lopsided elections in U.S. history. A year later the House voted 414-4 that the Judiciary Committee investigate whether there were grounds for impeachment. Three articles of impeachment were eventually approved by the committee, and in August 1974 Nixon resigned before he could actually be impeached.

In 1999 Bill Clinton was acquitted by a vote of the full Senate after being impeached over lying about an extramarital affair.

Today George W. Bush sits apparently shielded from accountability by loyal and unified Republican control of the House and Senate. Bush, who deceived this nation into a catastrophic war and has admitted domestic wiretaps without warrants in clear violation of federal law, has seemed invulnerable to even the possibility of impeachment.

Is the tide finally beginning to turn?

Lewis Lapham, editor of Harper’s Magazine for nearly 30 years, wrote a cover essay for the March issue of the magazine that makes a strong and well-reasoned case for the impeachment of George W. Bush. Lapham has recently shifted roles, becoming editor emeritus so that he can devote himself to editing Lapham’s Quarterly, a new journal about history, while continuing to write his monthly column for Harper’s.

TERRENCE MCNALLY: I had to go to four newsstands to buy a copy of the March issue of Harper’s. The first three were sold out. I assume it’s because of the red sleeve attached to the cover with the words “IMPEACH HIM” in large bold letters. Why did you write this now?

LEWIS LAPHAM: In late December I came across a report that had been assembled by congressman John Conyers of Michigan which lays out much of this case. He had begun to assemble a report a year ago in May, before the discovery of the Bush administration’s use of the NSA to impose electronic surveillance on American citizens.

TM: So before what seems most clearly to be a violation of federal law?

LL: Right. Conyers held a series of hearings last summer on what are known as the Downing Street Minutes, a series of memoranda that were exchanged back and forth within the British government in the spring and summer of 2002, between its officials in London and its representatives in Washington. It becomes very clear in the correspondence that the Bush administration is determined to go to war in Iraq no matter what the facts are. And it’s clear that there are no weapons of mass destruction, that there is no connection between Saddam and Al Qaida, that Saddam is not in any kind of a position to pose a threat — certainly to the United States or probably not even to any of the countries in the Middle East.

The British intelligence people are saying to each other that Washington is determined to invade, and they’re going to fix the facts to fit their wish. There had been suspicions and rumors of this for two or three years, but here it was in print. The memoranda were not rejected or contradicted by the British government. Conyers held a hearing, and then sent a letter to the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon signed by 130 members of the House of Representatives.

TM: I’ll bet most people think Conyers was out there alone. One hundred thirty people signed this letter?

LL: It could be 120 or 124, but it was a substantial number, and it was backed by signatures from 500,000 American citizens acquired over the internet. The petition to the administration sought answers to questions. This is what has been said — what do you have to say about it? And of course there was a stonewall; there was no answer whatever.

Reacting to that, Conyers then set out with his staff to find out what could be learned from open sources — press, books, congressional testimony — to establish that a criminal fraud was perpetrated on the American people and on the American Congress in going to war. When he released the report — 182 pages with 1,100 footnotes — there was no mention at all in any of the mainstream press. As far as the New York Times, Washington Post, the networks and so forth were concerned, it never happened.

I called Conyers’ office and asked if they could send a copy. I read it, and it seemed to me an impressive piece of work, at least worth being discussed and given broader circulation. I wrote the essay in somewhat the same spirit that Conyers had presented the report, which was to at least ask the questions.

I said to Conyers, look, you’ve got no chance of getting an impeachment motion going in the House of Representatives, which is controlled with an iron fist by the Republican majority.

TM: Whereas, in the case of Nixon, there were Republicans like Howard Baker, not the lockstep partisanship that we face today.

LL: Exactly. Subsequent to writing the essay, I came across George Washington’s farewell address. In it, he says that we in the United States must be very vigilant against the despotism likely to be imposed by one party on the other. Our government only works with a balance of power between the judiciary, the legislative and the executive.

TM: Some wise people I’ve interviewed have pointed out that while we were one of the first to institute this sort of democracy, it doesn’t mean ours is the best form. Many other countries have learned from our model and have instituted proportional representation, parliamentary elections and so on. Here, short of impeachment, a president is assured of four years, so checks and balances become all the more important.

LL: And I think that is a weakness in our system and a strength in some of the European systems, where you can have a vote of no confidence.

TM: At this moment — after Katrina, the release of the illegal wiretap information, and 34 percent approval ratings and 70 percent against the war — you would call an election.

LL: Yes.

TM: I suspect this despotic reign may be reinforced by both John Roberts and Samuel Alito with their interpretations of a “unitary executive” and a more imperial presidency.

LL: That’s entirely possible. We don’t know yet, but I think that’s a pretty fair supposition.

People tend to forget that we have three branches of government, and that it is the constitutional task of the Congress to assert its power to correct the imbalance of power when it gets out of hand, which it now clearly has. For Congress not to do this is an abdication of their responsibilities.

Let’s go back to the ’70s. There were Republicans, Baker among them, who knew that it was their duty to act as senators and not simply as representatives of a political party. When you mention branches of government to people these days, they’re apt to think you mean Democrat and Republican.

There was greater political consciousness during the impeachment proceedings against Nixon because the country was emerging from a poorly conceived war in Vietnam, a very clear demonstration of what happens when the government in Washington acts in secret.

TM: Though not as assertive as they might have been, Congress did at critical moments stand up to Johnson and to Nixon.

LL: They did. We’ve lost some of that backbone over the last 30 years. There’s been a softening of the American political will and energy within both parties.

TM: Finally, given the political calculus we’ve just been talking about, you do not see impeachment as likely — what’s your best-case scenario when this kind of information gets out into the general public?

LL: I hope for a gradual raising of the political consciousness. You now see Sen. Russell Feingold suggesting a motion to censure of the president for his actions with regard to electronic surveillance. A motion to censure is preliminary to a motion to impeach. So you have more people talking about it, and you have more people trying to understand the constitutional crisis and what’s at risk.

What’s at risk is our constitutional system of government. More people need to understand that. They also need to understand their power as citizens. More people need to remember these people work for us.

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