Impeachment proceedings used to be news of unquestionable gravity. The week showed it’s just more fodder for the ideological and culture wars.
Big font, double-decker headlines, homepage takeovers: It’s been a big week in the news business for visual devices like these.
Editors turn to these once- or twice-a-year headlines to signal to the reader something more than that the news is BIG. Almost by definition in the modern media environment, when the news is big enough to justify big type it’s also news that the reader already knows. Heard about it, probably, within moments after it happened.
What the editors are really trying to say is that the moment is solemn, something of unquestionable gravity and universal relevance.
To which the reaction of many readers these days is: Yeah, sure, whatever …
It is too early to tell what will come of House Democrats’ decision to launch an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, but not too early to conclude that Speaker Nancy Pelosi has failed to revive the concept of solemnity in American politics.
That was the obvious intent Tuesday, when she stood in front of a bank of flags, invoking the Founding Fathers and Constitutional Convention of 1787, as she announced the impeachment inquiry.
But the reaction, underway even before she started speaking, made clear that for much of the country, it was just another day in what Rahm Emanuel, when he was Barack Obama’s chief of staff, called the metropolis of “Fucknutsville.” The news may be important, it may be swerving wildly in surprising ways, but never these days is it something that commands reverent attention.
People below a certain age may not have firsthand experience with news events that did indeed command that reaction — and impeachment proceedings against a president unambiguously would have been one of them.
As it happens, I’m above that age. Of four major efforts in U.S. history to impeach presidents, I have vivid, contemporaneous images in mind for three of them.
I was a 10-year-old at summer camp during the last days of Richard Nixon’s presidency. As his situation daily became direr, I recall receiving a letter from my then-Republican mother, reflecting sadly on the country’s wounds, how disgraceful it was that the president had dishonoured his office. For the actual resignation speech, aware that history was unfolding, the camp rolled out black-and-white televisions into the cafeteria, and campers listened raptly to Nixon’s words.
Twenty-three years later, I was a Washington Post reporter in January 1998, working late at the White House as I knew colleagues were on the brink of reporting Bill Clinton’s affair with a former intern named Monica Lewinsky. I was talking with Josh Gerstein, then a young producer for ABC News (and now a less-young journalist who writes for POLITICO), whose organization also knew of the imminent bombshell. The atmosphere was a bit like in a sci-fi movie in which an asteroid is hurtling toward Earth. The news seemed beyond belief, the implications grave. We might be hours away from a presidential resignation.
It took a little more than a year from that night until February 1999, when Clinton survived his impeachment by the House with a mostly party-line vote acquittal at a Senate trial. In retrospect, it seems clear what a critical moment of transition the Clinton impeachment — for that matter, the entire Clinton presidency — was in the journey to Nutsville. The solemnity that I was (momentarily) feeling in the press room that night was intermittently observed by most of the major actors during the drama that played out over the next 13 months.
During the Senate trial, Chief Justice William Rehnquist wore robes that he had designed himself for the occasion, with four gold stripes on each sleeve. The getup drew widespread mockery.