Thinking the unthinkable impeachment about President +V Clinton


WASHINGTON -- Twenty-five years ago, when the Watergate break-in first sent President Richard M. Nixon on a slippery slope toward resignation, the notion that an American president could be or would be impeached was unthinkable. It didn't become thinkable until nearly two years and a mountain of evidence later, when he averted that fate by resigning.

Today, only a week since the sex scandal enveloping President Clinton first hit the newsstands and airwaves, speculation is rampant about that possibility over an allegation in which much hearsay but little concrete evidence has been produced.

Is what seemed unthinkable 25 years ago now much more thinkable?

The early polls on whether Mr. Clinton should be forced from office if it is found he lied about having sex with a young White House intern, and about urging her to deny it, indicate it's too early to draw a firm conclusion.

A CBS/New York Times poll found that 29 percent of those surveyed thought he should then resign, and 20 percent thought he should be impeached.

A CNN poll found 48 percent said he should then be impeached, to 47 percent who said no.

A Newsweek poll had it 49 percent yes, 43 percent no.

Job approval

But all these polls also found people saying they approved of the job Mr. Clinton is doing, by as much as 59 percent, in the ABC/Washington Post poll.

None of these figures conveys a groundswell yet for Mr. Clinton to be forced from office. But at the same time, the figures do indicate that resignation or impeachment is not unthinkable anymore.

The reason may be the Watergate experience, which demonstrated after all the fears of a constitutional crisis that a presidential resignation or impeachment did not cause the sky to fall.

Indeed, there was a general sense of relief when Nixon resigned, a sense that, as his successor, Gerald R. Ford, expressed it, "Our national nightmare is over." The Watergate affair, dragging out two years as it did, exhausted the country to the point that there was great relief when it ended.

The current crisis facing Mr. Clinton is more like a sudden tornado whipping through Washington, and you hear very little here about the sky falling if he were forced to pack his bags and move out of the White House.

Allegations are personal

It may be that the allegations against him are of such a personal nature that they are less likely to rub off on his party than was Watergate, which tarred an entire administration.

Also, were the circumstances to reach a point where impeachment or resignation were more seriously considered, there is another fact that might make either one easier for the public to swallow: The man in line to succeed Mr. Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, is very well-prepared by training and exposure to the policy issues of the day to take over.

Mr. Clinton, probably more than any previous president, has groomed Mr. Gore for the presidency, treating him as a partner. Contrast this, if you will, with the way Mr. Nixon sloughed off his two vice presidents, Spiro T. Agnew and Mr. Ford, when they served under him.

'Insurance policy'

In the midst of the Watergate hearings, Nixon regarded the controversial Mr. Agnew as an "insurance policy" against his own impeachment, believing Congress would never act to remove him while Mr. Agnew was waiting in the wings. And after Mr. Ford succeeded the disgraced Mr. Agnew, Nixon once jokingly asked Nelson A. Rockefeller if he could picture Mr. Ford sitting behind his desk in the Oval Office.

It is ironic, therefore, that Mr. Clinton, in preparing Mr. Gore to serve as president by giving him important jobs and high visibility as vice president, may have removed Mr. Gore as any kind of "insurance policy" against impeachment.

Although Mr. Gore has been under fire in the 1996 campaign fund-raising excesses, he is highly regarded on Capitol Hill, where he served, and his elevation would not send shock waves through Congress and the country.

So impeachment may not be just around the corner in the current Clinton crisis, but it's not unthinkable either, the way it first was when Watergate was dismissed as a "third-rate burglary" 25 years ago.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 1/28/98

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