What I saw at the last impeachment: Rules are for little people

What I saw at the last impeachment: Rules are for little people
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As House Democrats press for impeachment, we should remember that in grand political dramas like impeachment, what you see depends on where you are.

As a bureaucrat during the Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonA leadership menagerie of metaphorical scapegoats How Democrats can defy the odds in 2022 Biden is thinking about building that wall — and that's a good thing MORE impeachment 20 years ago, I saw that the rules are for little people.

Back in the late 1990s when the U.S. House impeached President Clinton and the U.S. Senate acquitted him, I worked in government alongside career federal executives and Clinton political appointees.


Contrasting stereotypes about lazy bureaucrats, the political and career government executives I knew were hard-working, smart, patriotic public servants. Among college professors, I am often the smartest person in the room; in the bureaucracy, I was often the dumbest, and the laziest to boot.

During the year of the Ken Starr investigation and resulting congressional proceedings, the press impeachment beat included Congress, the White House, and the political parties. We bureaucrats who kept government running sat beneath notice, but that didn’t mean we lacked opinions.

Each day on entering our government building, I passed underneath a framed picture of the commander in chief. Often, I wished that frame held Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold GoreHow Democrats can defy the odds in 2022 The information superhighway must be accessible and affordable for all American Rescue Plan: Ending child poverty — let's make it permanent MORE instead. We bureaucrats followed the rules, so we wanted a president who did likewise.

Long before #Me Too, the Clarence ThomasClarence ThomasTrump-era grievances could get second life at Supreme Court Joe Biden's surprising presidency Hillicon Valley: Supreme Court sides with Google in copyright fight against Oracle | Justices dismiss suit over Trump's blocking of critics on Twitter | Tim Cook hopes Parler will return to Apple Store MORE-Anita HillAnita Faye HillJoe Biden's surprising presidency Gloria Steinem: 'International Women's Day means we are still in trouble' 'Lucky': Kerry Washington got a last-minute switch in DNC lineup MORE hearings had changed the culture of the bureaucracy. When I joined government in the 1990s most federal executives knew that sex with a subordinate meant — as one colleague put it — “you are handing that person your job” if things end badly, as they usually do. Anyway, the taxpayers wanted us doing the public’s business, not monkey business. My agency actually privatized one division, rumor said in part because its employees spent too much time on sexual impropriety and not enough on government work.

Moreover, both career federal bureaucrats and political appointees endure training in government ethics, making it awkward serving a president whose ethical lapses would have gotten one of us fired. One Clinton political appointee recalled undergoing extreme vetting to join government “all to make sure I was not the kind of person who would embarrass the president, only to find out that the president was the kind of person who would embarrass me.”


By time the U.S. House voted for impeachment, many of the bureaucrats who voted for President Clinton thought he would lose public support and resign. We looked forward to President Al Gore. In actuality, most voters thought most everyone in government has sex with subordinates, so why target Clinton?

Regarding Congress, those public perceptions might be right. When the 1990s executive branch became puritanical, Congress never got the memo. Then and now, Congress members have large staffs filled with ambitious, attractive young people vying for attention from the boss, who determines their career advancement.

When sex happens between Congress members and their aides, sometimes it is fully consensual — sometimes not. For the latter, in true bipartisan fashion, Congress protects members from accountability, requiring staff who report sexual harassment to undergo months of counseling and mediation before the possibility of getting (secret) compensation.

Naturally, Clinton backers responded to impeachment by leaking the sex lives of Republican congressional leaders. GOP hypocrisy saved the Clinton presidency, along with two additional factors.  

First, as political scientist Daniel Elazar argued a half century ago, southern political culture is traditional, so many southerners viewed President Clinton’s behavior as just something powerful men have done since Biblical times. (Trump apologists make similar arguments today.)  

Second, politics is less about what you are for than whom you are against. Once socially conservative (and highly hypocritical) Republicans attacked Clinton, liberal Democrats had to defend him. No less than feminist icon Gloria Steinem backed the embattled president, arguing that a man could even sexually assault a woman so long as he stopped when told no, the so-called “one free grope” theory. Steinem’s political tribalism was unhelpful to women in the workplace.

In the end, President Clinton survived impeachment and insisted he had learned his lesson — notwithstanding allegations of selling presidential pardons a year later, and occasional lapses thereafter. Ironically, the politically fatal investigation into presidential candidate Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHow Democrats can defy the odds in 2022 Close the avenues of foreign meddling Pelosi planned on retiring until Trump won election: report MORE’s e-mails occurred after the FBI impounded a computer owned by Clinton friend, former Congressman, and repeat sex offender Anthony Weiner.  

In fairness, the Clintons cared about public policy, and given our current commander in chief, their scandals seem downright quaint. Yet the Clintons defined deviancy down, cracking open the doors Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump: McConnell 'helpless' to stop Biden from packing court Romney on NRSC awarding Trump: Not 'my preference' McConnell sidesteps Trump calling him 'dumb son of a b----' MORE barged through.

Moreover, on one thing the Ivy League educated Trump and Clintons agree: regarding ethics, sexual and otherwise, rules are for little people.

Robert Maranto is the 21st Century Chair in Leadership in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, and author of numerous books including “Beyond a Government of Strangers.”