Hang on in there, Mr Clinton

Most people at some time or another lie about their sex lives - only a cad tells the truth about a love affair

THE AMERICAN political order is based on the separation of powers. This confuses the rest of the world and is especially confusing to those accustomed to a parliamentary system based on the fusion of powers. Still, for better or worse, the distribution of powers among executive, legislative and judicial branches is what the American Constitution ordains. On the whole, we like it.

We like the separation of powers because it serves as a bar against undue executive or legislative or judicial presumption. The point of the American system, as the great justice of the Supreme Court, Louis D Brandeis, put it, is "not to promote efficiency but to preclude the exercise of arbitrary power". The Constitution thus institutionalizes conflict in the very heart of the American polity.

Conflict between the executive and the legislative branches often takes place, even when the same political party controls both branches. And, latterly, the constitutional separation of powers has been reinforced by a political separation of powers. Since the Second World War, American voters have become increasingly fond of electing a president of one party and a Congress controlled wholly or partly by the opposition.

This taste for divided government is no doubt a reaction against so-called Imperial Presidency - the enhanced power flowing to the president to protect the republic from dangers abroad. In the half century from 1939 to 1989, the United States was in a condition of protracted international crises - crises that encouraged Congress to surrender power to the executive, especially the power to go to war.

Once international crisis receded, Congress began to reclaim its powers. This tends to happen after every war. Woodrow Wilson and the First World War were followed by Warren G Harding and his "return to normalcy". After the Second World War, the Republicans got their posthumous revenge against Franklin D Roosevelt by securing an amendment to the Constitution denying all future presidents more than two terms in the White House.

Most spectacular was the impeachment of Andrew Johnson after the American Civil War. "Impeachment", by the way, is equivalent to indictment. All it means is that the House of Representatives votes to send a case to the Senate, which then must decide by two-thirds vote whether or not the official is guilty, in the words of the Constitution, of "treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors", and is to be removed from office. When President Johnson fired his Secretary of War in violation of a so- called "tenure of office act" passed by Congress, the House voted to impeach Johnson. The senate then acquitted him by a single vote.

The president may have been rescued in 1868, but the presidency was damaged. One senator said: "Whether Andrew Johnson should be removed from office, justly or unjustly, was comparatively of little consequence - but whether our government should be Mexicanized, and an example set which would surely, in the end, utterly overthrow our institutions, was a matter of vast consequence." James G Blaine, a formidable Republican leader of the period, had voted for impeachment in the House; but, reflecting 20 years later, Blaine wrote that the success of the impeachment drive "would have resulted in greater injury to free institutions than Andrew Johnson in his utmost endeavour was able to inflict".

The aftermath bound and confined the presidency for the rest of the century. Woodrow Wilson, then a young political scientist, decided that Congress had become "the central and predominant power of the system", and entitled his brilliant and influential book, Congressional Government.

Will something like this happen today? Is the United States in for another experiment in congressional government? No one at this point can foretell the next chapters in Mr Clinton's Hogarthian saga, but they are not likely to be happy ones. Kenneth Starr, now unveiled as the nation's number one pornographer, is far more widely despised than Mr Clinton, but Mr Starr could not have polluted the Internet without Mr Clinton's collaboration.

The House Judiciary Committee will hold hearings on the Starr report, for the Republican leadership hopes to extract the maximum political benefit from the President's disgrace. This effort could even acquire a life of its own and lead to the submission of articles of impeachment to the full House.

Perhaps Mr Starr has further cards up his sleeve; but, at present, indictment of the President derives entirely from Mr Clinton's lies about his sex life. Of course, most people at one time or another lie about their sex lives. Only a cad tells the truth about his love affairs. It seems doubtful that the Senate would terminate a presidency because of such lies, even told under oath. Impeachment, most people feel, should be reserved for gross abuses of official authority. So, unless there are damaging new revelations, successful impeachment seems unlikely.

Mr Clinton is not likely to resign. He would regard resignation as vindication of the despised Mr Starr. Moreover, polls continue to show that most Americans want him to continue in public office. Most Americans also feel the need to register disapproval of his private behaviour. The obvious solution would be a resolution of censure.

Only once before has a president been censured. In 1834, the Senate censured Andrew Jackson for his transfer of public funds from the Bank of the United States to state banks. When the Democrats regained control of the Senate, the resolution of censure was expunged from the record.

One can expect a severely diminished presidency for the immediate future. Mr Starr's aggrandizement of the role of special prosecutor has already imposed extraordinary restraints on the presidency. He has obtained, mostly from Republican judges, rulings that turn White House lawyers and aides, as well as Secret Service personnel, into informers for the prosecutor. It is now hard to see with whom presidents can freely discuss anything - except for their wives, who cannot be compelled to testify against their husbands.

But future Congresses can remedy these matters. Even Republicans will acquire a new perspective on the presidency when they hope to recapture the White House. The special prosecutor act itself, due to expire next year, will, if renewed, very likely include restrictions on time, budget and jurisdiction designed to prevent protracted, freewheeling, dragnet investigations on the Starr model.

For the American presidency is indestructible. A system based on the tripartite separation of powers has an inherent tendency toward stalemate. One of the branches must take the initiative if the system is to move at all. The executive branch alone is structurally capable of taking that initiative. A strong presidency remains the key to the American system.

Mr Clinton's disgrace does not nullify the constitutional and institutional powers of the presidential office, or the president's capacity to decide policies and set goals. Mr Clinton, moreover, is an escape artist of the first water. If he wishes to recover a place in history, let him fight hard for the lofty ideals that he brought to the White House: for education, health care and social security, against the role of money in politics and against the increasing inequality of wealth and income. He may lose such fights, but he will educate the electorate in the issues and lay the foundation for more reforms in the future.

Strong presidents have always lived risky lives. As Charles Dickens told the American people after visiting the United States a century and a half ago: "You no sooner set up an idol firmly than you are sure to pull it down and dash it into fragments... Any man who attains a high place among you, from the President downwards, may date his downfall from that moment." That seems to be the American way.

The author, a celebrated historian of the American presidency, was an adviser to John F Kennedy

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
At this year's SXSW festival in Austin, Texas

Music Why this music festival is still the place to spot the next big thing

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished
tvReview: The latest episode was a smidgen less depressing... but it’s hardly a bonza beach party
Arts and Entertainment
Crime watch: Cara Delevingne and Daniel Brühl in ‘The Face of an Angel’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
music Malik left the Asian leg of the band's world tour after being signed off with stress last week
Author J.K. Rowling attends photocall ahead of her reading from 'The Casual Vacancy' at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on September 27, 2012 in London, England.
peopleNot the first time the author has defended Dumbledore's sexuality
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall

Mexican government reportedly paying Bond producers for positive portrayal in new filmfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Disney’s flying baby elephant is set to return in live-action format
filmWith sequels, prequels and spin-offs, Disney plays it safe... and makes a pachyderm
Arts and Entertainment
Nazrin with Syf, Camden
The QI Elves photographed at the Soho Theatre. They are part of a team of researchers who find facts for the television programme 'QI'.
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv0-star review: Sean O'Grady gives it his best shot anyway
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss