They popped onto the TV screen looking very serious, the weight of their constitutional task heavy on their brows.
I watched, thinking the House Judiciary Committee even considering the possibility of the impeachment of William Jefferson Clinton should feel like tragedy and high drama. But it doesn’t. It feels more like low comedy. The question you have to ask yourself is, “Why?”
I remember watching the Army vs. Sen. Joe McCarthy hearings in the ’50s. The participants seemed larger than life, the villains more villainous, the heroes more heroic, the Senators all men of stature and the drama so taut it was almost unbearable.
Then came the Watergate hearings in the ’70s. Nixon was a villain you could sink your teeth into. The incriminating evidence dribbled out, a little at a time. Nixon wheeled and dealed to the very end, watching the slow erosion of his own partisan support until the end was inevitable.
At the end it became clear that the only thing that could have saved Nixon was if Spiro Agnew was still his vice president. Poor old Spiro, however, had been caught with his hand in the cookie jar; payoffs were delivered to him while he was in office, which was a bit much even for a vice president. In the final analysis, all agreed that there was a sensible alternative — Gerald Ford. He seemed a decent guy, and Nixon was a goner.
Will history repeat itself?
There are many similarities between Gore and Ford. Both are basically decent guys. Both are creatures of the Congress with friends in the Congress who go back many years. Gore practically grew up on the Senate floor. The Congress, and particularly the Democrats, tend to be a pragmatic bunch, and ultimately they may just decide, “The hell with Clinton. Let’s dump him, get Gore in there and start with a comparatively clean slate.”
That’s what make this so interesting, and at the same time low comedy. There are many Republicans making speeches now about how Clinton should go, but in reality the last thing they want is for Clinton to leave. Mortally wounded and in place, he’s an enormous political asset to them. They can all run against him. They can claim the moral high road. They can rail against him and satisfy their most rabid partisans. They can anticipate that the Democrats will be so disheartened that many may not go to the polls to vote and the Republicans could pick up seats in both houses.
The Democrats, on the other hand, are saddled with an albatross. With many, there is no great love for Clinton. Besides, there is a sense that Clinton is bleeding from a self-inflicted wound. Nevertheless, for now they have to play their role, support the president, be good party loyalists and watch the election returns, but in their hearts many would like to be rid of him.
Then there are the rest of us.
This crew in the White House and Congress just seems so much punier than our past leaders. I remember Erwin and Baker in the Senate and Radino, Jordan and Wiggins on the House Judiciary Committee, and I sensed men and women of high purpose, deeply committed to their country, with a larger historical sense of their mission and the gravity of the event, as well as a sense of caution about what they were doing.
I certainly have seen no indication of that yet in this current crew. It makes me wonder whether the new batch really is different and if we really have lost something.
Then there’s that little voice in the back of my head that says, “York, you’re full of baloney. You’re just getting old, and the past is taking on a rosy haze that was really never there. Besides, it’s not that they’re smaller, it’s just that you’re bigger.”
Perhaps that voice is right. I hope so.
Maybe in this process a few new leaders will emerge. New voices we can believe. Men and women who have some character and really do place country before party or self.