A compact, concise, and highly relevant civics lesson.
There have been a number of books published about impeachment, many of them partisan manifestoes. What makes Sunstein’s (University Professor/Harvard Law School; #Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media, 2017) book of such great interest is its lack of fanfare and knife-sharpening. The author is a learned and accessible guide as he maneuvers his way through the history of democracy’s nuclear option. To impeach is a “national nightmare, a body blow to the republic.” He notes that Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and their colleagues “thought a lot about impeachment,” which was at the “core of the founders’ intricate and majestic effort to balance the defining republican commitments to liberty, equality and self-rule with the belief in a strong, energetic national government.” The how-to is clearly laid out in the Constitution—the House impeaches, the Senate convicts—but for what is less clear. A brief debate resulted in the purposefully vague “Treason, Bribery, or other High Crimes and Misdemeanors.” After taking a side street down “Interpreting the Constitution,” Sunstein examines the impeachments acted upon by the House (of mostly judges). A weak try to impeach President John Tyler failed in 1842. Andrew Johnson was famously impeached in 1868 by a vote of 126-47; he was acquitted. The Judiciary Committee voted to impeach Richard Nixon along party lines, but he resigned before a House vote. As the author writes, the “impeachment of Bill Clinton is almost incomprehensible,” and he is harsh on Kenneth Starr’s prosecutor’s report: “If it were a movie, you wouldn’t bring your children.” Like a good lawyer, Sunstein compiles a detailed list of hypothetical cases for impeachment, some easy, some harder. Though we may not need to “focus on the impeachment mechanism,” writes the author, “we do need to know about it. It’s our fail-safe, our shield, our sword—our ultimate weapon for self-defense.”
A welcome, timely, ideal primer.