One of the many astonishing demonstrations of shamelessness by Bill
Clinton is his stated intention to deliver the State of the Union
Address to Congress on schedule later this month, despite the fact
that he will be standing trial in the Senate of the United States for
perjury and obstruction of justice at the same time.
Of course, remembering the shameful acceptance with which the
Congress greeted Mr. Clinton last year, offering him repeated standing
ovations even as the first waves of disgust over the Lewinsky affair
were crossing the
country, might encourage the president to think that an encore
performance can only help him. This is probably true, but it certainly
won’t help the country if the Congress affords him such an opportunity.
While some members of the Congress might wish for a delay in the
address, most everyone in the Congress seems to be agreeing that the
president is going to come and give it on schedule, should he choose to
do so. But rather than stare in slack-jawed wonder at Bill Clinton’s
shamelessness, why don’t we recall the simple fact that this decision is
not his to make in the first place?
We should remind people in the House of Representatives that in the
19th century presidents didn’t go to the Capitol personally to deliver
the State of the Union Address. Instead, they sent it in written form.
This wasn’t because they were too lazy to cross town and give a speech.
It was because the Congress was careful to maintain the separation of
powers in both form and substance. Theirs was a strong and reasonable
sensitivity to allowing the president to come forward and act as if he
somehow gave orders to the people’s representatives.
It is not the president’s prerogative to appear before the Joint
Session. It is something that is done as a grant — as a favor, if you
like — that the Congress extends to the president. Should this favor be
extended to President Bill Clinton in 1999?
If the House of Representatives is serious about the Articles of
Impeachment, it should not. If they really mean it when they say that
this president deserves to be charged with perjury and obstruction of
justice and removed from office, then it is entirely inconsistent with
the action that they have taken in voting the Articles of Impeachment
for them to admit this impeached president to their Chamber to deliver
the State of the Union Address.
The House should say “No, you cannot come right now. You cannot be
admitted to this House until the cloud that hangs over your presidency,
and which has been formally placed there by our vote, is removed.”
It would be a travesty for the House to go on with business as usual,
and act as if they don’t bear any responsibility for aiding and abetting
the display of political bravado and shamelessness that a Clinton State
of the Union will necessarily represent under these circumstances.
It will be a sign of either principle or lack of principle,
or lack of seriousness, whether the folks who are in charge of the House
of Representatives accede to letting the president come into the
people’s House to deliver a State of the Union Address while he acts
under the shadow of their impeachment. He has been impeached by them.
His credibility, his fitness for office, has been called explicitly into
question by the House itself.
Properly speaking, the senators should not allow him into the House
Chamber either, because the question of the Articles of Impeachment is
before them. They are sworn jurors now, and no sworn jury can maintain
its integrity while having the defendant come in and take advantage of
the pomp and circumstance of a formal setting to address them on
whatever terms he chooses. Such an event is an entirely inappropriate
contact between the defendant and the jury.
So on those grounds, both the Senate and the House should
conscientiously agree to tell the president that he cannot come to the
Congress to deliver his State of the Union Address. It is inconsistent
with the House’s Articles of Impeachment, and it is inconsistent with
the Senate’s sworn duty in the trial which is now taking place.
If the Congress allows the president to come speak before them, they
will be making a mockery of the impeachment process and of their own
role in that process. It must not be left to this president’s judgment
to decide that such mockery will be made of the solemn duties of the
people’s representatives. It is their responsibility to preserve the
dignity and integrity of their institution. Bill Clinton is not a
dictator, and the privilege of entering that Chamber should not be
extended to him by the Congress.