It's not as it was with President Nixon. The thought of Nixon is impossible except under the shadow of Watergate, which would have meant impeachment and probable conviction. But it isn't widely remembered that there was a movement to impeach Nixon before Watergate -- over the bombing in Cambodia. I remember a moment, in the course of a debate with Arthur Schlesinger Jr. before a huge crowd of students, when I ridiculed the idea of impeaching President Nixon.
"I never came out for impeaching him," Schlesinger said.
"Ah," said I, "but you are a vice president or whatever of Americans for Democratic Action, and they have come out for impeachment."
"I wasn't present at that meeting," Schlesinger said tensely.
An amusing and instructive aftermath came in the limo in which we were both driven off to a reception. Schlesinger sat in the back seat next to his mother, the widow of the hugely respected historian Arthur Schlesinger Sr. "Arthur," she said sternly, "you should not have come out for impeaching the president."
"Mother, I didn't. I wasn't even there."
What amused especially was Mother Schlesinger's refusing to take her son's word for it and sticking to her opposition. "Your father would never have come out for impeachment."
The dividing line is between just plain partisanship and Constitution-bending to advance a political cause. Several thousand convened in Washington last spring demanding the impeachment of President George W. Bush. The moving spirit of this enterprise turns out to be Ramsey Clark, who would be in favor of impeaching St. Peter if Peter gave out the least emanation in favor of a Republican president. So Clark continues to live in jerkdom, but that does not alter the fact that there are people out there who believe the time has come for impeachment.
The rules for impeachment were drawn up by a Constitutional Convention that was seeking means by which the checks and balances among the different branches of government might be enforced. The constitutional provision explicitly applies to "the president, vice president and all civil officers of the United States" -- which includes federal judges. Observers have sometimes wondered whether it also applies to members of the House of Representatives and the Senate, but the consensus has been that it does not. Then again, legislators can be removed, in extreme cases, by a two-thirds vote of their own house of Congress.
In any case, the president, like those other "civil officers," can be removed from office if impeached by the House and convicted by two-thirds of the Senate, but this provision of the Constitution has hardly ever been invoked. The impeachment-minded succeeded, in the post-Civil War fever, in impeaching President Andrew Johnson, but didn't get enough votes to convict him.
You have to jump from Johnson more than 100 years to see it come up again. Richard Nixon almost certainly would have been impeached over Watergate, but Tricky Dick coped with that threat by resigning. Still, a presidential impeachment lay ahead -- that of Bill Clinton. He was impeached by the House for lying to a grand jury and for obstruction of justice, but the Senate declined to follow through, and Clinton was free to accept his next honorary degree.
The bill of particulars drawn up by Ramsey Clark et al. against Bush accuses the president of everything this side of ignoring his parking tickets. The articles of impeachment have him down for bombing civilians, lying to Congress, lying to the people, giving unconstitutional orders, etc. If he were indeed guilty of one-half the charges laid against him, he'd belong not in the White House but in jail.
What stands out this time around is that there are no serious people urging impeachment. By "serious" is here intended, men and women of sobriety who weigh conscientiously what constitutes impeachable presidential behavior.
Mr. Bush is swimming in very low political tides. Although he beat down with ease the outrageous and insulting charges of Rep. Pete Stark of California, it is striking that a member of Congress felt free to indulge in that level of public obloquy. There was enough of that for Bush in the election of 2006, which was interpreted, reasonably, as a repudiation of his leadership.
If ours were a form of government patterned after that of the Europeans, Bush would probably have been replaced as leader of his party. But the majority of the American people still think of him as a man of good will and very stout heart who is pursuing his duties as he sees them, a man, moreover, of conspicuous incorruptibility. Let the people pronounce on his stewardship in November 2008.