When I joined the Clinton legal defense team in the fall of 1998, I was familiar with the adage that the cover-up is often worse than the crime. What surprised me, however, was how quickly politics could eclipse the cover-up. Reportedly, former White House official Lewis "Scooter" Libby experienced his own version of that phenomenon, as his lawyers struggled mightily to find enough jurors capable of separating their feelings about the Bush administration from the facts of his case.
Now that the trial is underway, it seems there has been very little let up in the partisan bickering. Headlines like "The Libby Farce: It's a Trial About Nothing" and "The Case for Impeachment" have regularly made their way into mainstream news coverage of the event. The blogosphere, in particular, has been buzzing about left-wing "witch hunts" and right-wing "conspiracies."
During the impeachment of President Clinton, assessing the magnitude of his alleged lies quickly deteriorated into a partisan quest for his political scalp. One of the big questions early on, for example, was whether both sides would be able to subpoena (call) potential witnesses to testify. On the record, GOP lawyers indicated that both sides would. When we actually tried to use our subpoena power, however, the Republicans informed us we had no right to call witnesses, and wouldn't entertain any subpoena requests from the Democratic side. Early in the process, Democrats were not given access to the most basic essentials, such as an office, a secretary, or even a copy machine.
Needless to say, all of this created the distinct impression that justice was not exactly at the center of the Republican agenda. In fact, former U.S. Rep Henry Hyde (R-IL), chairman of the House judiciary committee at the time, has since admitted as much. During a 2005 interview with WLS-7 reporter Andy Shaw, when asked whether the impeachment of President Clinton was "payback" for the proceedings against President Richard M. Nixon, Hyde replied, "I can't say it wasn't."
From the Clinton experience, I should probably be clamoring for Libby's head, if for no other reason, than to achieve some level of revenge for what I consider a great injustice. Even so, another part of my nature (the better part, I think) is hoping for an outcome that will be substantially more beneficial for all of us in the long run: simple justice.
What do I mean by simple justice? Nothing more than the kind of justice that occurs when neutral jurors objectively weigh the evidence before them, render a fair and honest verdict, and the resulting punishment, if any, fits the crime.
In President Clinton's case, few of us doubted that he had made misleading statements during the Paula Jones case — and none of us were naïve enough to think that Republicans wouldn't play that for all it was worth. Our problem was with the utter lack of proportionality with which Republicans sought punish him. Had the founding fathers really intended the "high crimes and misdemeanors" language of the U.S. Constitution to include lies about extramarital pecadillos? How would removing the president from office under such questionable circumstances advance the best interests of the American people?
Fortunately, much of the country was asking similar questions. Following the House's impeachment of President Clinton, his approval ratings reached an all-time high, topping out at about 70 percent. Just as quickly, Newt Gingrich (R-GA) and Bob Livingston (R-LA) were resigning, and Henry Hyde was being forced to answer for his own extramarital indiscretions. In the meantime, President Clinton was decisively acquitted by the U.S. Senate.
Even so, there were no real winners in the Clinton impeachment fiasco. The president's bad behavior brought shame to his legacy and family, it cost him his law license for five years, and millions of dollars in fines and legal fees. Al Gore might argue that it cost him the presidency. Even Henry Hyde, perhaps the most virulent of Clinton opponents at the time, has since indicated that if he had to do it all again, he isn't sure that he would.
And so, with the trial of Scooter Libby underway, I am hoping (perhaps audaciously, as Barack Obama might say) for a return to simple justice: an objective assessment of the crimes alleged, followed by an appropriate punishment if he is found guilty. At the end of the day, I have learned, Democrats and Republicans are both better off when justice is carried out as the forefathers intended: absent partisan wrangling, and always, always, with liberty and justice for all.
• What role do you think partisanship is playing in the Scooter Libby trial? E-mail Lis and jump into the debate!
• Henry Hyde statements about Nixon
Chicago Tribune April 24, 2005: Section, Business: Hyde Reflects, Shaw Reports, Web Site Revises: by Phil Rosenthal
• Hyde might not do it all again (i.e., impeachment) if given the chance
History News Network: Copyright 2005 Globalvision News Network or its Content Partner Affiliates: May 15, 2005: See subhead: "Clinton Impeachment/Henry Hyde Admission"
Lis Wiehl joined FOX News Channel as a legal analyst in October 2001. She is currently a professor of law at the New York Law School. Wiehl received her undergraduate degree from Barnard College in 1983 and received her Master of Arts in Literature from the University of Queensland in 1985. In addition, she earned her Juris Doctor from Harvard Law School in 1987. Lis is also the author of The 51% Minority — How Women Still Are Not Equal and What You Can Do About It. To read the rest of Lis's bio, click here.