David Kyvig: His new book chronicles modern age of impeachment (interview)

Historians in the News

Once a little understood tool of last resort, impeachment has become a political weapon of choice in recent decades, and one that is leading to an increasingly toxic culture in American politics.

So says Northern Illinois University’s prize-winning historian David Kyvig. His new book, “The Age of Impeachment: American Constitutional Culture Since 1960” (University of Kansas Press), chronicles the rise of a culture of impeachment that extends well beyond the infamous scandals surrounding Presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton.

Kyvig, a Distinguished Research Professor at NIU, spent more than four years researching and writing the book, including a year in residence as a fellow of the prestigious Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., and another year at the Library of Congress.

The author also snagged some high profile interview subjects for the book. They included Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Bob Woodward; John Dean, former counsel to President Nixon and the star witness in the Watergate proceedings; U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, once a federal judge who was removed from office via impeachment; Sen. Daniel Inouye and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, the co-chairs of the committee to investigate the Iran-Contra scandal; Illinois Congressman Ray LaHood, who presided over the House impeachment proceedings of Clinton; and journalists Daniel Schorr and Nina Totenberg of National Public Radio.

The Wilson Center will hold an official launch of Kyvig's book from 2 to 4 p.m. (EDT) Wednesday, May 14. The event is expected to be covered by C-Span and will feature commentators Linda Greenhouse, a Supreme Court reporter for The New York Times, and James Reston Jr., a senior scholar at the Wilson Center.

What follows is a Q&A with Kyvig.

What did you set out to accomplish in this book? I wanted to examine how the process of impeachment has changed the culture of Congress and national politics. Impeachment, and even the threat of impeachment, has made the American political scene increasingly combative. When I started working on this book I had no idea we'd end up dealing with calls for the impeachment of President Bush and Vice President Cheney, yet that has been part of the political conversation in the last few years. It demonstrates how impeachment has gone from something people never thought about to a first response to unpopular political leadership.

Why do you call this the age of impeachment? In the final four decades of the 20th century, Congress looked into as many serious proposals for impeachment as it had from 1789 to 1960. This includes not only calls for presidential impeachments but judicial episodes as well. The decade of the 1960s saw three impeachment efforts against Supreme Court justices. In the 1970s, President Nixon resigned under the threat of impeachment, while his vice president (Spiro Agnew) sought to be impeached in order to avoid an indictment. During the 1980s, President Reagan was threatened with impeachment over the Iran-Contra affair. And at the end of the next decade, Bill Clinton became only the second U.S. president ever impeached and tried by Congress.

How often is impeachment successful? Between 1960 and 2000, we had 12 proposed impeachments, three convictions and five resignations. So two-thirds of the time, a serious call for impeachment was successful in removing the person from office. It's no wonder impeachment is being used more frequently as a political tool.

How have judicial episodes of impeachment impacted the overall political culture? That’s where Congress has gotten most of its experience conducting impeachments. In the late 1980s, the Senate conducted three trials of federal judges. Those experiences served as preparation when it came time to deal with Clinton's impeachment....
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