How Should Textbooks Treat the Clinton Scandals?


Mr. Schweikart is Professor of History, University of Dayton. He is the co-author of A Patriot’s History of the United States.

Almost any student who has ever sat through a history class in high school or college will nod with familiarity when I discuss how many teachers cover the last 20 years of history: “well, of course, you know what happened next.” For me, the history that inevitably was left out was the late 1950s or the Kennedy/Nixon years. As I entered the history profession, I found most students had never “gotten up to” the Vietnam War. If the past is any guide, the likelihood of survey classes in the early years of the 21st century discussing the Clinton administration and the impeachment of William Jefferson Clinton is remote.

In the past two weeks, however, a spate of news stories about textbook coverage of the Clinton impeachment/Clinton scandals have appeared, most of them concerned more with the question of “how salacious should history be” rather than the more serious question of why Bill Clinton was the first elected president ever impeached. As usual, textbook coverage extends across the spectrum from liberal writers who argue that the impeachment process “hurt both sides” to the nuts-and-bolts treatment of Clinton’s impeachment and acquittal, usually without the details of the sexual issues underlying the perjury. Certainly the nature of textbook writing prohibits extensive investigation into any scandal, whether in Ulysses Grant’s time or our own. Still, the Clinton impeachment saga demands more than just a cursory mention, with, say, the same space one would give to the Whiskey Ring or Grover Cleveland’s alleged “love child.”

The most important characteristic of a good textbook discussion of the Clinton impeachment—obviously, next to accuracy—is balance. How much space, or how many words, does the author give to Clinton versus, say, the impeachment of Andrew Johnson. Michael Allen, my co-author on A Patriot’s History of the United States, conducted a cursory examination of a few texts on this issue, and found that an older version of John Blum’s popular text, the National Experience, dedicated about 750 words to the Johnson impeachment, and a recent edition of Bernard Bailyn’s text, The Great Republic, has almost exactly the same word count. What one includes in the overall subject of “impeachment,” however, can be somewhat open. Does one include Johnson’s prior battles with the Radical Republicans over Reconstruction? If so, which ones? At any rate, Michael Allen and I consider Clinton’s impeachment—because he was elected president, whereas Johnson was only elected vice president and only became president through Lincoln’s assassination—to be at least as deserving of serious discussion as Johnson’s. Our Patriot’s History gives each impeachment almost equal treatment as measured by word count—although again, whether Whitewater, Travelgate, and the early Clinton sex scandals in his campaign all fall under the aegis “impeachment” is open to debate.

How one teaches the impeachment will also depend largely on the grade level of the students. It is probably not necessary to discuss what Clinton lied about with 7th and 8th graders, but the issue will almost certainly come up with high schoolers, who will want to know, “Yeah, but what did he lie about?” (usually knowing full well already what he lied about). Indeed, surveys showing that large numbers of American teenagers think oral sex is not sex—and who often cite Clinton as their source that it’s “ok”—suggest that the students are far more mature than we suspect.

For college students, however, the historical issues posed by the Clinton impeachment, and its contrasts with the Johnson impeachment, provide a rich field for exploring Constitutional history, political shifts, and political history. For example, one textbook claimed that the impeachment damaged both political parties, which is plainly false. Although the short-lived Speaker of the House, Bob Livingston (R-LA) resigned his speakership as a result of exposes by Clinton’s cronies, no major Republican figure was politically damaged at all in the impeachment process. The Republican Party went on to win three straight elections, including two presidential elections, one of which should have been a “gimme” for Clinton’s vice president, Al Gore, whose campaign was clearly damaged by Clinton’s “sleaze factor” and who was unable to position himself as being “of” the Clinton administration by the need to distance himself from the taint of impeachment. As late as 2006, Democrats find it extremely difficult to gain any traction on issues of “corruption” due to the lingering memories of Clinton, Chinese money-laundering, John Huang, and other unethical practices for which formal charges were never filed. (The Barrett Report, however, still hovers and, according to sources, contains serious charges that the Clinton administration routinely illegally used the IRS to attack political enemies).

When contrasted with the Johnson impeachment, one sees a hard-headed, unpopular president who is opposed by virtually all of Congress, fighting a battle of principle over proper powers of the legislative and executive branches. While Johnson clearly could have taken a safer route through the courts, his purpose in violating the Tenure of Office Act was to, in the words of Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, to “pack a fight.” Ultimately, the Senate decided that the harm done to the Executive Branch’s powers by a conviction would surpass the temporary gain of getting Johnson out of the Senators’ rapidly-diminishing hair, and they acquitted him.

Clinton, however, had no such lofty ideals in his self-made scandal. He brought sex into the arena by first lying to the public during the campaign over Jennifer Flowers; then again by attempting to hush Paula Jones in her civil suit; then finally by giving false testimony to a Grand Jury. In the process, he managed to become the only president ever to be disbarred by allowing his attorney to submit a false statement to a federal judge. (There must be a standing joke here to the effect that if you aren’t moral enough to be a lawyer . . . .) Clinton’s Lewinsky scandal was also worthy of historians’ treatment because it possibly marked the demise of the “mainstream media” as a journalistic monolith. The key stories were broken by Matt Drudge on his Internet site, and indeed, the mainstream media sought to contain the story that would damage the Democratic Party. Talk radio, the Internet, and Fox News all took center stage for bringing new information to the attention of the public. Teachers might examine the rise of these “alternative” news sources with the rapid and steady decline of the circulation of so-called mainstream papers and the incredible drop in viewership of the “Big Three” nightly news shows.

In light of the revelations by the 9/11 Commission that Clinton, with almost wanton disregard for the evidence, dismissed warnings about al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, and terrorism; that he turned down three offers by the Sudanese government to hand over bin Laden; and that his Justice Department, courtesy of Jamie Gorelick, erected “the wall” between the CIA and the FBI that later had to be torn down after the horror of 9/11, the central question that many students will have about the Clinton impeachment is, “Why was lying under oath all that the prosecutors could indict Clinton for?” It will take good teaching, indeed, to explain why laundering campaign money through sources of a hostile Chinese government, or why insisting on a law enforcement model of pursuing terrorists as opposed to a wartime model, were not themselves impeachable offenses. When these issues are addressed in detail, it might well be concluded that, in fact, the Clinton years not only “included” impeachment, but that the impeachment of William Jefferson Clinton was, in the big picture, the most important thing that occurred in his two terms.

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john r burke - 1/15/2009

Mr. Larry Schweikart's world view seems to be coming to an end - blow job villifications and all.
Hey, don't take my word for it, just ask the 7 million more people who voted for a campaign of Hope rather than Schweikart's hate, vitrole and destruction. Yeah, this guy would be a great prof to rag on. I wish I could go back to school and sit in the first row of his class.

Ryan White - 1/22/2006

Al-Qaeda begin in 1988. Bin Laden created such an uproar in Saudi Arabia, he was expelled to Sudan in 1991.

While in Sudan, bin Laden built training camps and recruited operatives. In 1995, bin Laden claimed he was behind attacks against the U.S. and Saudi bases in Riyadh and Dahran, he was subsequently stripped of Saudi citizenship. (Sounds like something about which the Clinton administration may have heard.) The Sudanese government offered to expedite Bin Laden to the U.S. several times in the 1990s, but it was refused each time. Note that at least one of these offers was in 1996, AFTER he claimed to have attacked the bases in Saudi Arabia.

Bin Laden, along with Zawahiri, issued a fatwa declaring "the ruling to kill the Americans and their allies - civilians and military - is an individual duty for every Muslim..." Again, pretty high-profile.

Anyway, several more pieces of information:

"1995- Airliners as Missiles: Intelligence sources in the Philippines uncovered a plot to hijack multiple US commercial airplanes and crash them into buildings. This was called "Project Bojinka," and it was again masterminded by Yousef and reportedly funded by Osama bin Laden. This was the first link to Al-Qaeda. Other evidence found was used to link Yousef to the 1993 WTC bombing and convict him. Elements of the Clinton administration became increasingly concerned with future terror attacks, yet the President still did not take daily intelligence briefs. The CIA Director (reportedly) could not even get a meeting with Clinton."

"1996- Finally, after additional pressure from his Cabinet and the National Security Agency, Clinton assigned VP Al Gore the task of reviewing airline and airport security. Though there were several good suggestions and improvements placed on the table, in the end, few if any were actually implemented in order to fix the airports or the airlines."

"The 9/11 Commission was briefed on two occasions that a Special Operations unit known as "Able Danger"; had identified the whereabouts of Mohamed Atta, the 9/11 terrorist ringleader, and three other terrorists who flew planes into the World Trade Center, a full year before the September 11, 2001 tragedy." (This does not seem to appear in the report, must have been a mistake...?)

Anyway, it would have been quite easy for the Clinton administration to capture Bin Laden on the charges of the bombings in Saudi Arabia, especially since Sudan offered several times. How could the Bush administration possibly find and capture Bin Laden AND learn of and thwart the plans for 9/11 in the (little under) 8 months between his inauguration and the attacks?

Lorraine Paul - 1/19/2006

Mr Wagedorn, You are joking...aren't you?

That a piffling affair, which concerned nobody but those involved in it, is considered impeachable in US politics why is it that President Bush has not been impeached for lying about WMD's?

Government/political expediency does not belong in a private bedroom!!

Leo Dohogne - 1/17/2006

In order for history to be more than a mass of inert data and facts, events need to be placed in context. The rise of the Republican party means very little without knowing about the Kansas-Nebraska Act.
I suggest Mr Schweikart start setting the scene with the repeal of the fiarness doctrine under Reagan; the rise of vitriolic talk radio and the financing of "investigations" by Andrew Mellon Scaife. Under these circumstances Bill Clinton could have lied about what he ate for breakfast and been impeached.

Thomas W Hagedorn - 1/10/2006

If you two gentlemen want to defend Clinton's indiscretions, go ahead. Shout your defense from the rooftops. You might want to talk to junior high teachers, as I have, about the effects of his disgusting behaviour on the acceptance of "sex that isn't really sex" (friends with benefits) on pre-teens.

Thomas W Hagedorn - 1/10/2006

Clearly, groundwork for 9/11, including much of the tactical planning and training occurred during Clinton's watch. We will never know, but I doubt that a Gore administration would have prevented it. Perhaps a more important question is what would have been the Gore administration response to such a heinous attack? I am not comforted that it would have been as strong as Bush's.

Schweikart's book appears to be a commercial success,from the sales numbers it is posting.

Thomas W Hagedorn - 1/10/2006

Joe Conason, now there is a source of unbiased information if I ever heard one!

Maia Cowan - 1/9/2006

"The most important characteristic of a good textbook discussion of the Clinton impeachment—obviously, next to accuracy—is balance."

Unfortunately, too often when people say "balance", they mean "Equal time for both sides, regardless of the relative merits." The example that immediately comes to mind are the demands for science classes that "balance" the theory of evolution with Intelligent Design. If the history text is accurate, then it *is* balanced, even if -- or rather, especially if -- it gives short shrift to assertions or points of view that are not supported by verifiable facts.

And in the interest of accuracy: the name is Gennifer Flowers, not Jennifer Flowers.

(In the interest of "balance", I hope that any textbook mention of Gennifer Flowers cites the evidence that her claim of an affair was untruthful, such as her assertion that their trysts took place in a hotel that didn't exist at the time. See The Hunting of the President for full details and sources thereof.)

Richard Dees Funderburke - 1/9/2006

Historians look for overriding themes or continuities in history and Clinton's impeachement will probably be viewed as the first major step in the arrogant abuse of power exercised by members of the ascendent Republican Party as it rose to power over the nation from the Congressional elections of 1994 through the Bush administration [so far]. Reputable historians and their accounts will nalturally include a discussion of the Conservative movement in post-World War II American politics with emphases on Barry Goldwater, Reagan, etc. The changing nature of this movement's ideology from an emphasis on small government and a strict reading of the Constitution to that of a process of power concentration in the chief executive in open contradiction to ANY reading of the Constitution and Bill of Rights will be of paramount importance in interpreting this era.

Michael Green - 1/9/2006

Only three questionable assertions?

What is more troubling, I think, is the failure to understand political context. Consider that Johnson's impeachment followed a nearly three-year battle over the fruits of a four-year civil war with hundreds of thousands of killed and wounded. Clinton's impeachment followed a ... partisan investigation of a financial deal that then turned to whether Clinton lied about sex, while Andrew Johnson clearly lied about whether he planned to help black Americans overcome, as his predecessor put it, 250 years of unrequited toil. If a textbook spends more time on Johnson's impeachment than on Clinton's, it is not only unsurprising, but also proper.

Being human, historians are biased. The issue is whether we are fair and factual--that we do not let our biases color our judgment. If Mr. Schweikart wants to accuse other historians of being biased, that is fine. But he really needs to look in the mirror.

Roses Prichard - 1/9/2006

There are at least three disputable assertions in the article on teaching about the Clinton impeachment.

First, the author claims, "He brought sex into the arena by first lying to the public during the campaign over Jennifer [sic] Flowers." Flowers claimed to have had an over 10 year affair with Clinton. He said she was lying -- while at the same time making it clear that he had cheated. He later admitted to having had a short dalliance with her.

Second, the author said that Clinton "then finally [gave] false testimony to a Grand Jury." This has been disputed by many reputable scholars. Clinton lied in his depositon about not having been alone with Lewinsky, but it's not been proven that he lied to the grand jury -- and he was, after all, acquitted by the Senate.

Third, the author asserts that "he managed to become the only president ever to be disbarred by allowing his attorney to submit a false statement to a federal judge." Clinton was not disbarred. He voluntarily agreed to a five-year suspension of his law license.

Incidentally, do you know that W admitted to having sworn a false affidavit? Check it out at http://www.democrats.com/view.cfm?id=10397.

Mark Stein - 1/9/2006

The 9/11 Commission investigation, which was strongly opposed by Bush, showed that Clinton had daily briefings on terrorism, and that his advisor Richard Clarke, warned Condoleeza Rice that terrorism was the most serious threat faced by America. The "wanton disregard for the evidence, dismissed warnings about al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, and terrorism" was Bush, not Clinton. It was Clinton's plan to overthrow the Taliban that was initiated by Bush (but not finished, because "I really don't care that much about OBL anymore, now that I have my opportunity to illegally invade Iraq"). Osama bin Forgotton (by Bu$hCo).

I suggest Larry Schweikart read the actual report before spouting totally false pronouncements about Clinton's exceptionally astute focus on terrorism. Also, it might be a little less disrespectful of the facts to remember that 9/11 happened NINE MONTHS into Bush's watch (one month after Bush received the Presidential Daily Brief titled "bin Laden Determined to Strike in the US", and after exactly zero of the meetings on terrorism that Richard Clarke urgently recommended), whereas major terrorist acts were actually prevented under Clinton. Did you know that the number of major terrorist attacks has steadily increased under Bush?

Some "History Professor" you are! I'll make it a point not to waste my money on your book. Judging by your sales rank of 30k on Amazon.com (a mere 27k below the rank for Zinn's similarly-titled book), it looks like I'm not exactly alone in noticing your extreme lack of credibility.

Mark Stein - 1/9/2006

Wow, for a history professor, you seem to have obtained few of your "facts" from the actual records of the impeachment debacle and its background ("The Hunting of the President" is recommended reading, very well researched and co-written by Joe Conason), or the subsequent 2000 "election" (actually, "selection" is a more appropriate term, as in "selection by the SCOTUS").

Actual research into well-corroborated records will show you that Gore was quite popular, despite the widespread exaggerations about him in the press, and that Gore's distancing himself from Clinton did his campaign more harm than good.

Remind me not to sign up for any of your classes. I prefer to learn reality-based history, rather than your "FOX News" fantasies.