tacit/ucs. motives for impeachment

C. G. Estabrook galliher at alexia.lis.uiuc.edu
Tue Dec 15 21:00:07 PST 1998

The last temptation is the greatest treason:

To do the right deed for the wrong reason.

So wrote the poet about a man who sought both justice and martyrdom. None of our (all but) impeached presidents -- Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Bill Clinton -- sought either, but I think the poet's words apply to all three impeachments: they were done for the wrong reasons.

The US, stuck as it is with a frozen 18th-century constitution (in contrast to, say, the British, whose unwritten constitution continued to evolve, so that they now have a 19th-century government), retains in its presidency a combined head-of-state/head-of-government with some of the symbolic meaning of a king. _L'etat, c'est moi_ said one, not perhaps realizing that that was true for good and ill. Today some of our most primitive fantasizing and deep identifications are foisted onto the collective identity of the nation -- and therefore, in America, onto the symbolic individual of the president.

Consider Kennedy. For many Americans -- by no means just those old enough to remember the 1960's -- the transition from the Kennedy to the Johnson administration produces a massive case of what some psychoanalysts call "splitting": the Good Daddy, Kennedy, who would have kept the US out of the Vietnam War and made all things new, was replaced by the Bad Daddy, Johnson, responsible for all the troubles we've had since. The strength of this will-to-believe (not just in Oliver Stone) is shown by the fact that the myth is contradicted by the evidence: Kennedy presided over the US invasion of Vietnam in 1962 and had no intention of altering that course; the US knew what it was doing in Vietnam, and Johnson simply pursued the constant goals.

The positive transference to Kennedy was paralleled in the 1970s by a negative transference to Nixon. He and his minions such as Henry Kissinger were obviously guilty of war crimes, and the country's recognition of the war's immorality in the end came down on his head. There is a sense in which his impeachment was not for what his defenders rightly called a "third-rate burglary." (It's true: the US government was responsible for much better burglaries.) Nixon was the (guilty) scapegoat for the Vietnam War in a national cleansing ritual, all the more neurotic because no real cleansing took place: the policies that destroyed Vietnam were contentedly continued by the US after Nixon's resignation: the Reagan Administration -- which closely imitated Kennedy's -- raped Central America in continuation of policies of the Carter Administration (e.g., towards Nicaragua).

There is a certain similarity in the case of Andrew Johnson. The ostensible reason for his impeachment in 1868 was his violation of law (later rejected by the courts) about appointments, but it could be argued that he was a (guilty) scapegoat for slavery. For example, Johnson had reversed General Sherman's order that a 30-mile strip along the coastline of the Southern states be set aside for settlement by former slaves: Johnson ordered the US army to remove 40,000 freed slaves from the land and restore it to its Confederate former owners. Outrage over similar actions led to his impeachment.

Can it be that Bill is a scapegoat for the crisis that dares not speak its name in the US: the hidden injuries of class? He combines the continuation of the Reagan-Bush dismantling of the New Deal at home with murder abroad. Inequality in the US increases while the economy -- read "the profits of rich people" -- is said to be booming; real wages are not back to 1989 levels while the US is unchallenged in a post-Cold War world; and the US has the smallest middle class of any of the industrialized countries. Is the unspoken dismay of Americans being visited on the Baby-Boomer-in-Chief?

--C. G. Estabrook

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