It happened today - December 19, 2015

On this day in history, Dec. 19 1998, Bill Clinton was impeached. And it couldn’t have happened to a more suitable candidate. Not even Andrew Johnson.

People sometimes get confused and think impeachment is when a president, or other official, is removed from office. It’s not, at least not in the American and a number of other systems. There it’s like a grand jury indictment, following which they are tried either by a court or, as in the United States, by a different legislative body.

In the United States, the House of Representatives impeached Clinton, as it had Andrew Johnson 130 years earlier. And the Senate then acquitted him, as it had Johnson. But Johnson was impeached on a technicality by his partisan foes whose real objection was that he was the worst president in history at a critical time in that history (which he was, a point to bear in mind next time an incumbent Republican is casually labeled the worst ever). Had I been there, I believe I would have held my nose and voted to acquit.

Clinton was a whole other story. He misused the powers of his office and committed flagrant perjury. And he was saved only by a mindless, belligerent closing of ranks by his own party. The House indicted him on two charges and voted down two others. But every single Democratic Senator voted to acquit on both charges although many knew, and some publicly said, that he was guilty. Republicans, meanwhile, were divided, albeit unevenly; four voted to acquit on both charges, one voted “not proven” on both, and five voted to convict on the perjury count and acquit on obstruction of justice.

When people complain that politics has become nastier and more partisan in the United States it is only partly true. Things were very bad in Andrew Johnson’s day, and a great deal worse a decade or so earlier, and they were pretty nasty at other times as well. But to the extent that it is true, too little attention goes, I feel, to those senators who decided that perjury, sexual harassment, lies and generally disgusting conduct were just fine if it was one of their guys doing it, especially that sly dog Bill Clinton.

One more gift he gave an unaccountably grateful nation.