“It’s ridiculous and I’m a Republican,” said one. “We’ve got an idiot in the White House,” huffed another. “Kenneth Starr and Larry Flynt are running the country,” exclaimed a third. “This is not about sex, it’s about a right wing takeover,” interjected a fourth. And so it went inside the tiny bar at Guido’s on Friday night, the eve of the U. S. Congress’ historic vote to impeach President William Jefferson Clinton. Here in Malibu, opinions seemed as divided as those in Washington.
The following day, after hours of angry partisan debate, the Republican majority passed two articles of impeachment against the president for lying about his affair with a former White House intern.
At Country Liquor, where C-SPAN beams in via satellite and politics is a passion, the mood was somber. “I’m sickened,” said Larry White, shaking his head. “This has nothing to do with the rule of law. It’s all about getting Bill Clinton.” Political follower Pete McKellar concurred. “This is a very dark day. It’s like an Islamic Jihad with these religious wackos taking over.”
At Pepperdine, the institution that once welcomed independent counsel Kenneth Starr, the view was much different. Constitutional law scholar Doug Kmiec says that given their divisiveness, congressional representatives did a good job of outlining government procedure.
Kmiec agrees with Republicans who say the case is based on lying, not sex. “It is more than your garden variety perjury case,” he explains. “There are allegations that he lied under oath. That is a very serious matter.” The law professor adds that “further lies and untruths told during the investigation cannot be tolerated by the chief law enforcement officer.”
With the president’s approval ratings soaring past 70 percent, many Americans were baffled that their representatives ignored the will of the people. Why did so many go against public opinion? The short answer is — they can. Technically, the United States is a republic, and the majority does not always rule. “We elect individuals to exercise their judgment over public questions,” says Kmiec. “It is not direct democracy.”
Even so, Kmiec has harsh words for the role of the independent counsel which was not envisioned by the framers of the constitution. “My criticism is not aimed at Starr but at the process,” the scholar says. “From the beginning, the threshold for this investigation has been ridiculously low.” For that reason, Kmiec believes that the independent counsel statue will be repealed or radically narrowed before it is set to expire in 1999.
Barring a compromise, a trial in the Senate will begin in early next year. If the president is convicted, he would leave office and Al Gore would take over immediately. Should anything happen to Gore, the house speaker (previously Newt Gingrich) would become president followed by Senate pro tempore Strom Thurmond.
How history views the $56 million spectacle remains to be seen. Some say the process was poisoned. Others say it prevailed. In any event, the presidential impeachment left Americans with few heroes to laud — except perhaps themselves. As Kmiec sees it, “the people of the United States were very prudent and slow to judge. Even in light of misconduct they abhor, they did not rush to judgment and I give the country a lot of credit for that.”