There was a tale told during World War II about heavyweight champion Joe Louis, when he was serving in the Army, hearing some racist insults shouted by some passing soldier.
“Why don’t you go punch that guy out?” a friend asked him.
“What would Sinatra do if he yelled at him?” Louis replied. “Sing him a song?”
Experts don’t waste their talents on folks who can’t appreciate their artistry, and that’s what’s wrong with the late-blooming fad of impeachment in Washington.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who must know better, recently added his quavering voice to the rumble of Republicans wanting an inquiry into the removal of President Biden.
Mouse, meet elephant gun.
McCarthy acted gravely concerned about “a culture of corruption” in the Biden family. But it’s reasonable to believe the Californian, who needed 15 roll call votes over four days to capture the speaker’s office, is at least equally frightened by a drumbeat of attacks from the far-right wing of his party.
Disgruntled GOP House members also have been grumbling about ousting the secretary of homeland security and the attorney general while they’re at it. But Biden is the one they really want – even if it means having Vice President Kamala Harris in the White House for what would be a few months left in the truncated Biden administration.
It’s significant that U.S. Sen. John Thune, the second-ranking Republican, said having an impeachment trial “would not be advantageous” for senators. He must remember how Republicans paid at the polls for impeaching Bill Clinton 25 years ago.
Never mind any reasons for ousting Biden. Lately, the desire to get even has cheapened what should be a grave, historic process reserved for truly evil or incompetent public officers. The “grand inquiry of the nation” is now a partisan potshot.
The Senate came within one vote of removing Andrew Johnson after the Civil War in an act of pure partisan vengeance. But that was so long ago, and times were so different, it’s no precedent any more.
The Constitution is deliberately vague. Then-U.S. House Minority Leader Gerald Ford said “high crimes and misdemeanors” meant whatever Congress decides it means, as he half-heartedly sought to impeach Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas some 50-plus years ago. Douglas had committed no crime, other than giving college students an overblown idea of their own importance.
Not long afterward, impeachment became dead serious and Richard Nixon surely would have been removed if he hadn’t resigned in 1974. A delegation of honorable, responsible Republican leaders like Sen. Barry Goldwater and House Minority Leader John Rhodes went to the White House and told Nixon it was over, that Watergate had eroded his Republican support in the Senate. He had to quit.
But Nixon had not only committed felonies, he had tape-recorded himself committing felonies. We’ll probably never see that again.
At least Bill Clinton’s impeachment had its humorous angles. Perjury and obstruction of justice were the official reasons, but how often did you shake your head and wonder, “How could he…?”
There was never any doubt that the Senate couldn’t muster 67 votes to remove Clinton and, in fact, impeachment backfired on the Republicans in the 2000 elections. Former Rep. Bill McCollum, R-Fla., lost whatever chance he had for rising to the U.S. Senate that year largely because of his strong advocacy of Clinton’s humiliation.
Ditto Donald Trump. House Democrats even impeached him twice – once after he’d left office – knowing that conviction in the Senate was mathematically impossible, both times. Again, whatever the legal grounds may have been, the real reason was Trump being Trump.
And if Trump wins again next year, impeachment articles will be drafted before his inauguration. They’ll just fill in the blanks when he inevitably gives them something to work with.
It’s as if the Republicans are saying, “OK, you impeach Trump – we impeach Biden.” Instead of treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors, they do it because we really, really want to get even – or because the speaker really needs to mollify the most extreme faction of his tiny majority in the House.
That’s not how it’s supposed to work. Like a Joe Louis knockout, impeachment should be reserved for a richly deserving few.
Bill Cotterell is a retired capitol reporter for United Press International and the Tallahassee Democrat. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.