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
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’


Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'


Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from


Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Arts and Entertainment


These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
Arts and Entertainment
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.

    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
    12 best children's shoes

    Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

    Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
    Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

    Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

    Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
    Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

    Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

    Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

    UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London