To restore dignity

October 06, 1998|By Gerald R. Ford

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. -- Almost exactly 25 years hav passed since Richard Nixon nominated me to replace the disgraced Spiro Agnew as vice president. In the contentious days of autumn 1973, my confirmation was by no means assured. Indeed, a small group of House Democrats, led by then-Rep. Bella Abzug, a New York Democrat, risked a constitutional crisis to pursue their own agenda. "We can get control and keep control," Abzug told the speaker of the House, Carl Albert. The group hoped, eventually, to replace Nixon himself with Albert.

The speaker, true to form, refused to have anything to do with the scheme. And so on Dec. 6, 1973, the House voted, 387-35, to confirm my nomination in accordance with the 25th Amendment to the Constitution.

When I succeeded to the presidency, in August 1974, my immediate and overriding priority was to draw off the poison that had seeped into the nation's bloodstream during two years of scandal and sometimes ugly partisanship. In the end, I listened to only one voice, that of my conscience. I didn't issue the pardon for Nixon's sake, but for the country's.

A generation later, Americans once again confront the specter of impeachment. From the day, last January, that the Monica Lewinsky story first came to light, I have refrained publicly from making any substantive comments. I have done so because I haven't known enough of the facts -- and because I know all too well that a president's responsibilities are, at the best of times, onerous. In common with the other former presidents, I have had no wish to increase those burdens. Moreover, I resolved to say nothing unless my words added constructively to the national discussion.

A breech of faith

This much now seems clear: Whether President Clinton has broken any laws, he has broken faith with those who elected him. A leader of rare gifts, one who set out to change history by convincing the electorate that he and his party wore the mantle of individual responsibility and personal accountability, the president has since been forced to take refuge in legalistic evasions, while his defenders resort to the insulting mantra that "everybody does it."

The best evidence that everybody doesn't do it is the genuine outrage occasioned by the president's conduct and by the efforts of some White House surrogates to minimize its significance or savage his critics.

The question confronting us, then, is not whether the president has done wrong, but rather, what is an appropriate form of punishment for his wrongdoing. A simple apology is inadequate, and a fine would trivialize his misconduct by treating it as a mere question of monetary restitution.

At the same time, the president is not the only one who stands before the bar of judgment. It has been said that Washington is a town of marble and mud. Often in these past few months it has seemed that we were all in danger of sinking into the mire.

Twenty-five years after leaving it, I still consider myself a man of the House. I never forget that my elevation to the presidency came about through congressional as well as constitutional mandate. My years in the White House were devoted to restoring public confidence in institutions of popular governance. Now as then, I care more about preserving respect for those institutions than I do about the fate of any individual temporarily entrusted with office.

This is why I think the time has come to pause and consider the LTC long-term consequences of removing this president from office based on the evidence at hand.

The president's hairsplitting legalisms, objectionable as they may be, are but the foretaste of a protracted and increasingly divisive debate over those deliberately imprecise words "high crimes and misdemeanors." The Framers, after all, dealt in eternal truths, not glossy deceit.

Moving with dispatch, the House Judiciary Committee should be able to conclude a preliminary inquiry into possible grounds for impeachment before the end of the year. Once that process is completed, and barring unexpected new revelations, the full House might then consider this resolution to the crisis.

Each year it is customary for the sitting president to journey down Pennsylvania Avenue and appear before a joint session of Congress to deliver his State of the Union address.

Imagine a very different kind of presidential appearance in the closing days of this year, not at the rostrum familiar to viewers from moments of triumph, but in the well of the House. Imagine a president receiving not an ovation from the people's representatives, but a harshly worded rebuke as rendered by members of both parties. I emphasize: This would be a rebuke, not a rebuttal by the president.

A cleansing moment

On the contrary, by his appearance the president would accept full responsibility for his actions, as well as for his subsequent efforts to delay or impede the investigation of them. No spinning, no semantics, no evasiveness or blaming others for his plight.

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