I was rummaging around in my library yesterday looking for a particular essay on Plato by the late George Anastaplo of Loyola University and Rosary College in Illinois, and by accident I happened upon a lecture he gave in February 1974—note carefully the date—entitled “Impeachment and Statesmanship.” (The essay appears in his collection Human Being and Citizen: Essays on Virtue, Freedom, and the Common Good.) Needless to say I had to read the whole thing, and it offers a lot of useful perspectives about the present moment worthy of sharing here.
Before proceeding, however, it is worth saying a general word or two about Anastaplo (d. 2014), whom I never had the pleasure to meet and whose excellent work I have come to rather late in the scheme of things. I guess you would categorize him as a conservative, but a highly idiosyncratic one. He opposed the Vietnam War from the get-go, and thought much of American policy during the Cold War was wrongheaded and counterproductive, though never for the reasons the left held. Most interesting is that he was disbarred in Illinois in the early 1950s for refusing to sign the state’s new McCarthy-era loyalty oath, but for the most sound reason: he said the oath’s requirement of complete loyalty to the United States and requirement to abjure any subversive action violated the right of revolution clause of the Declaration of Independence (also the First Amendment)! Quite correct; as Jefferson instructed us, if the government of the United States becomes destructive of our fundamental liberty, it is not just the right but the duty of citizens to throw off that government. Heh. He lost his appeals all the way up to the Supreme Court, where he argued his own case pro se, and his disbarment wasn’t finally undone until the 1980s.
While no fan of Nixon, Anastaplo’s sober reflections on the scene are spot on for the Trump impeachment. Some highlights, and as you go, you can swap out “Trump” for “Nixon” in several references, even though the facts of the two cases are obviously quite different (and remember this lecture was delivered before the tapes and lots of other Nixon evidence came out):
I suspect, by the way, that one reason impeachment remains a live issue is that a number of comfortable people are rather bored: they are open to a little constitutional drama, perhaps indeed, in part, because of the genuine calming accomplishments of certain of Mr. Nixon’s policies. The dramatic or theatrical has had more to do with what has happened thus far, with the development of this issue and with the shaping of public opinion, than may be proper. . . [A]ll this permits sensitive liberals to realize what it feels like to be on the hunter’s side of a witch-hunt for a change. . .
At the core of such pursuit is, I am afraid, a dominating self-righteousness. I am reminded of what Robert Bolt says in his review of the cast of characters for his play about Thomas More, A Man for All Seasons, when he describes William Roper as having “an all-consuming rectitude which is his cross, his solace, and his hobby.” . . .
What unites all the would-be impeachers, it seems to me, is not really the evidence against Mr. Nixon but their animus against him, an animus that is (I grant) understandable. But is it constitutional?
Certainly, “loss of confidence” should not provide the basis for impeachment. Ours is not—and probably should not be turned into—a parliamentary system. . . We should take care not to turn “loss of confidence” (or even “a pattern of misconduct”) into an impeachable offense. A President should sometimes be quite unpopular, even for a long period of time, if the common good is to be served. The purpose of Presidential impeachment, it should be remembered, is not to serve as a recount of the last election, or as a censure of elected officials or as a way of gratifying public opinion. . .
Of course, common sense is called for in considering what behavior Congress should take seriously. And, as I have suggested, one should be suspicious when so many counts are alleged. . . The fact is that with a bureaucracy as large as ours, and with the informal manner certain things have come to be done, it is not difficult in certain administrations to start things unraveling. . .
In any event, we should be aware of two dangers in how we conduct any impeachment we embark upon. We can so conduct it as to make impeachment all too frequent a threat in the years ahead. Or we can so conduct it as to lead to another century-long repudiation of the impeachment remedy, thereby depriving ourselves of this vital safeguard for the truly serious cases. Is not all this another way of saying that presidential impeachment is an awesome process, deliberately to be held in reserve?
A third danger should also be anticipated, that of breeding a general cynicism by “letting Nixon get away with it.” A deliberate withdrawal from further impeachment proceedings at this stage would require a statesmanlike explanation on the part of Congress, followed by ratification of such an explanation by the responsible press. Certainly it would be recognized that Mr. Nixon has already been adequately “put in his place” and that he cannot really get away with anything, no matter what happens now. Rather, it should be explained, the country can be understood to be sensible enough to know when it has learned and done enough to take care of itself in its present circumstances.
Of course, the reference to “the responsible press” is obsolete, since we don’t have even the shadow of that any more. But otherwise there is much here to be taken to heart.