“Our long national nightmare is over,” Ford famously pronounced in his maiden speech as president, not long after Nixon’s cringe‐inducing double V‐for‐Victory salute and departure via helicopter on August 9, 1974. Nixon’s struggle had been our struggle, Ford maintained, “the internal wounds of Watergate more painful and more poisonous than those of foreign wars”—a comparison that might have seemed grotesque to the war widows tuning in, given the 22,000 American casualties Nixon racked up in Vietnam well after he knew the war was lost.
The revelers who gathered in D.C.‘s Lafayette Park had a healthier attitude: They hung a sign on the White House fence reading, “Ding dong, the witch is dead.”
“I’ll tell you what I remember most about Watergate,” journalist Jeff Greenfield enthused 10 years after the fact: “It was fun.”
Fun?! That sounds positively transgressive, but maybe Greenfield was on to something. We get so little for our tax dollars. Is the occasional bit of entertainment too much to ask? Throughout American history, presidential impeachments have been safe, legal—and all too rare. But what few we’ve had have provided their share of merry spectacle.
The 1868 impeachment of Andrew Johnson centered on the rather boring charge that the president had violated the short‐lived Tenure of Office Act by sacking his secretary of war, Edwin Stanton, without senatorial approval. But even that had elements of slapstick. Sec. Stanton refused to give up his post, camped out in his office, and barricaded the door. (It’s a wonder that move didn’t occur to diva‐ish former FBI director James Comey after Trump fired him in May 2017.) With the cooperation of a local judge, Stanton got an arrest warrant issued for his designated replacement, who was hauled out of bed, still drunk from the night before, by a district marshal. The war secretary got less help from his wife when he sent to her for food and clothes. Instead she came by to berate him for making a fool of himself.
The Johnson impeachment was D.C.‘s hot ticket of the season. A young Mark Twain filed dispatches from the proceedings: “The multitude of strangers were waiting for impeachment. They did not know what impeachment was, exactly, but they had a general idea that it would come in the form of an avalanche, or a thunder clap, or that maybe the roof would fall in.” Charles Dickens, in town on a U.S. speaking tour, wrote his editor that it was “lucky I made so much money at first,” since the House debate “instantly emptied our great gallery here last night, and paralyzed the Theaters in the midst of a rush of good business.”
To give Ken Starr his due, the Clinton impeachment saga probably was hell for a few people. But save for Monica Lewinsky, most of them deserved it. For the rest of us, the scandal was a guilty pleasure.
Even the collateral damage was amusing. Republican losses in the 1998 midterms—driven in part by the unpopularity of the impeachment effort—forced Newt Gingrich to resign as speaker of the House. His would‐be successor, Rep. Bob Livingston (R–La.), had to quit as well upon learning that one of his own extramarital affairs was about to be exposed. “I’ve been Flynted,” he told his colleagues, referring to Hustler publisher Larry Flynt’s impeachment‐inspired crusade to unearth sexual hypocrisy on Capitol Hill.
And it was instructive, to say the least, to observe the lengths to which Clinton would go to keep his job. In his book, Judge Posner summed up the saga as “the ultimate Washington novel,” the major effect of which was “to make it difficult to take Presidents seriously as superior people.” That’s a lesson worth relearning time and again.