Students today are lucky, as they’ve only been alive for one presidential impeachment, said Bill Lacy, director of the Dole Institute of Politics.
Though talk of impeaching President Donald Trump is not unheard of today, the 1998 impeachment of President Bill Clinton is still one of the greatest political events in living memory. However, its impact pales in comparison to other political events of the 20th century, said Alan Arwine, a University political science professor.
“I don’t think the lasting impacts of Clinton’s impeachment were as great as Watergate,” Arwine said. “My perception, it was more of a curiosity.”
To impeach a president, 218 members of the House of Representatives must vote in favor of impeachment. If charges of impeachment pass in the House, a trial is held in the Senate, where 67 votes are required to remove the president from office.
The U.S. Constitution declares in Section Four of Article II that impeachable offenses include “treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors.”
Clinton was charged in the House with obstruction of justice and perjury for lying about his extramarital affair with White House Intern Monica Lewinsky in the deposition of a sexual harassment suit.
“Anything that the House of Representatives thinks is an impeachable event is,” Arwine said. “Remember, impeachment is a political process. It’s not a legal process.”
However, Clinton was acquitted in February of 1999 by the Senate when neither charge received 67 guilty votes.
“I think that a reasonable person could come to the conclusion that it was justified, but it was probably ill-advised and probably too much of a partisan effort,” Lacy said. “There was a lot of discussion about do we really need to remove this guy from office for having an affair.”
Arwine said despite the Lewinsky scandal, many people were still confident in Clinton’s administration.
“A lot of people still had that confidence in Bill Clinton in terms of running the economy,” Arwine said. “They wished he could keep his zipper up, but they thought he made good economic decisions, good foreign policy decisions. So, I don’t think it was that traumatic for the country.”
Lacy said the scandal didn’t infiltrate society in the same way that the Watergate scandal, which revealed that the Nixon administration had illegally spied on the democratic party, did.
“I don’t think that it dominated the culture at the time,” Lacy said.
It clearly dominated the news cycle for a period of time, but didn't do much good for the country, Lacy added.
Arwine agreed that Watergate was exceedingly more influential than the Lewinsky scandal. The ‘70s were a much more tumultuous time, Arwine said.
“There was a lot of pessimism in the country overall,” Arwine said. “You can see that in even sitcoms that you’d watch in the 1970s like ‘All in the Family’ with Archie Bunker. There’s just this negativity that’s going on, and I don’t see that today.”
As for the scandal’s effects on Hillary Clinton’s presidential run, Lacy said they were minimal.
“In terms of the final result, I don’t think it had any impact, truthfully,” Lacy said. “I don’t think what happened in the ‘90s had any effect whatsoever on that election.”
However, Lacy said the Clinton impeachment does have lingering effects.
“Because, perhaps in part due to what happened to Clinton, there is this sense that impeachment is a viable option for lots of things that it’s probably not viable for,” Lacy said.
Lacy said today there is an environment where impeachment is not viewed as a last resort but something that is being discussed in the first year of a presidency. During the Watergate investigations, impeachment was a slow and careful process, Lacy said.
“That was a better approach than what we saw with Clinton and what we’re seeing today,” Lacy said. “There’s too much eagerness to go to that before you have the proof and the evidence and everything.”
— Edited by Brianna Childers