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 ClintonRahm Emanuel: 'Panic would be the adjective to describe the mood' over Sanders Do Trump and Sanders hate America? Ex-CIA chief calls Trump intel shakeup a 'virtual decapitation' of the intelligence community 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 Gore'Where's your spoon?' What we didn't learn in the latest debate The Hill's Morning Report - In Nevada, bets on Sanders, eyes on Bloomberg Mellman: Primary elections aren't general elections MORE instead. We bureaucrats followed the rules, so we wanted a president who did likewise.

Long before #Me Too, the Clarence ThomasClarence ThomasJustices bar Mexican parents from suing over fatal cross-border shooting of teen Justice Thomas rues missed opportunity to curtail government power Trump allies assembled lists of officials considered disloyal to president: report MORE-Anita HillAnita Faye HillClarence Thomas breaks his silence in theaters nationwide Anita Hill to Iowa crowd: 'Statute of limitations' for Biden apology is 'up' Sanders campaign official: Biden 'actively courted pro-segregation senators' to block black students from white schools 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 ClintonDemocratic insiders stay on the sidelines in 2020 race Hillicon Valley: Twitter falling short on pledge to verify primary candidates | Barr vows to make surveillance reforms after watchdog report | DHS cyber chief focused on 2020 The Hill's Campaign Report: High stakes at last Democratic debate before Super Tuesday 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 John TrumpWinners and losers from the South Carolina debate Five takeaways from the Democratic debate Democrats duke it out in most negative debate so far 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.”