Though I had read and hugely admired former prosecutor Andrew C. McCarthy’s previous work, when I opened the galleys of his latest book — Faithless Execution: Building the Political Case for Obama’s Impeachment — I assumed I was just embarking on what was more or less an intellectual exercise from one of America’s great legal minds.
After all, we were rounding the bend into the last quarter of the eight-year Obama presidency and such a national distraction seemed scarcely worth the effort. As McCarthy’s own subtitle indicated, building a political case for impeachment with the public, a literal groundswell, would be necessary and that seemed, well, a bridge too far or a mountain too high (pick your cliché).
When I finished the book — which I devoured in one breathless gulp, a rarity for me in these days of multiple distractions — it was a wholly other matter. If it weren’t eleven o’clock at night, I would have run out to buy a pitchfork and headed for the barricades, or at least the Washington Mall, myself.
With measured, almost inexorable clarity, this book is an extraordinary call to legal — or, more precisely, Constitutional — arms.
McCarthy begins with a basic history of impeachment, showing the provenance of the deliberately general “high crimes and misdemeanors” from English law via Edmund Burke and how our Framers saw this as a way to preserve the separation of powers we all (I hope) learned about in school and prevent the emergence of a despotic presidency.
He examines the three impeachments in our history — Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton. Neither Johnson nor Clinton would reach the two-thirds vote needed in the Senate to remove a president and Nixon, as we all know, resigned to avoid such an embarrassment.
The Clinton episode, because it is so recent and familiar to so many of us, is particularly instructive. Clinton clearly broke the law (perjury and obstruction of justice), but in the eyes of the public these did not constitute “high crimes and misdemeanors” sufficient for removal from office. Clinton’s lies had been about personal matters (adulterous affairs) and, significantly, his presidency was relatively normative otherwise.