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Muddling through impeachment

One more time, the Constitution worked

By Bruce Morton/CNN

February 17, 1999
Web posted at: 1:30 p.m. EST (1830 GMT)

WASHINGTON (February 17) -- Can we all relax now? Is it over? Well, in a major sense, yes.

Judge Susan Webber Wright, in Arkansas, may find President Bill Clinton in contempt for being too crafty in his answers during his deposition in the Paula Jones case. Independent Counsel Ken Starr may indict the president, now or when he leaves office.

But impeachment, one of the heaviest cannons in the Constitution, has been run out, fired and is now put away again.

The last impeachment trial in the U.S. Senate was a 131 years ago; it would be excellent if we had to wait that long for the next one. The one really bad result of all this would be if we made a habit of it, impeaching a president every time the other party controlled the Congress. We really don't need to do this often.

But having said that, it's clear the Constitution worked, and it continues to be an amazing fact that runs through all our history that that piece of paper -- crafted by those geniuses in Philadelphia before airplanes or radio or television or the Internet, or all Monica all the time -- that piece of paper still works today.

Some countries, Japan, for instance, are held together because they are one race, one ethnicity. Some countries, Britain, for instance, is held together mainly by tradition; it has no written Constitution, no Bill of Rights, simply traditions of freedom and democratic government. Some countries, like Israel or Egypt, share a common religion which helps keep them stable.

But the United States is a mix of all sorts of ethnicities, all sorts of traditions, from all sorts of places, all sorts of religions. We are held together by that piece of paper.

It has guided us through wars. Under it, we elected a president in the middle of a civil war, under it we ended slavery and then, a hundred years later, ended the legal segregation which succeeded slavery. Under it, we've muddled through depressions and recessions, severe bouts of red-baiting and so on.

And now we've muddled through again. Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, the political analyst, said the other day, "Muddling through is a very American trait." And so it is.

So now impeachment fever is over, and we can put away the thermometer and get on with other business, of which we have much.

Other business? Well, yes, the economy is doing wonderfully, but this is not an equally shared prosperity and the gap between rich and poor is growing, which is not good for a democracy. And one American child in five is officially poor. That's not good for a democracy either but it has been true in the United States for a generation or so.

Fixing it, or at least reducing the number of poor children, will probably take a combination of private efforts, volunteers, church groups working in poor neighborhoods and in public housing projects, and government effort.

Would increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit, which makes life easier for the working poor, encourage deadbeat fathers to stay with their wives and kids? It's a thought about a problem that needs a lot of thought. But if we're going to build a bridge to the next century, shouldn't it be a bridge our kids can walk on?

You never get there, of course. You never create paradise on earth. But what you can do, as the civil rights marchers used to sing, is keep on a walkin', keep on a walkin', toward what Langston Hughes, a poet of the Harlem Renaissance, once called, "America, the land that never was, and yet must be."


Investigating the President

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Wednesday, February 17, 1999

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