The Magazine


Dec 21, 1998, Vol. 4, No. 14 • By TUCKER CARLSON
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You may decide as a body to go through with impeachment, disregarding the letter as well as the spirit of the Constitution, defying the deliberate judgment of the people, whom you are supposed to represent, and in some cases, deciding to do so out of anger and expedience. But if you decide to do this, you will have done far more to subvert respect for the Framers, for representative government, and for the rule of law than any crime that has been alleged against President Clinton. And your reputations will be darkened for as long as there are Americans who can tell the difference between the rule of law and the rule of politics.

For a moment, Republicans in the committee room -- sinners in the hands of an angry history professor -- looked stunned. Then they got mad. Rep. George Gekas of Pennsylvania denounced Wilentz's slurs as "despicable." Even the mild-mannered Mary Bono reacted grumpily. "I won't be labeled a zealot," she growled. Moderate Republicans, the fabled group Wilentz's testimony presumably was meant to impress, were turned off, too. "That kind of stuff did not go over well with members," says an aide to Michael Castle of Delaware, a leading impeachment fence-sitter.

Outside Congress, the verdict was just as harsh. Chris Matthews mocked Wilentz on his CNBC show for days, deriding "this band of academic people coming in and telling [congressmen] how to vote." A number of editorial pages took pains to slam Wilentz's testimony; his remark about zealots and fanatics was replayed endlessly on television. Apart from the White House, the only people who seemed to come to Wilentz's defense were Geraldo Rivera and Alan Dershowitz. ("Cravenness?" asked Rivera on his show that night. "Professor Dershowitz, does Professor Wilentz overstate?" "Not at all," replied Professor Dershowitz. "I think he's absolutely right.")

According to those who know him, Wilentz isn't usually this ridiculous in real life. Though unapologetically left-wing, he is regarded as honest and rigorous about historical accuracy. The courses he teaches at Princeton are for the most part straightforward and non-trendy. "He's a distinguished historian in an extremely eminent department," says Princeton legal theorist Robert George, who strongly disagrees with both Wilentz's politics and his views on impeachment. "He is no hack." And unlike many of his colleagues, Wilentz has long criticized the sillier manifestations of identity politics. As historian Eugene Genovese puts it, "Though he is very much a man of the far-left, he has bravely opposed the political-correctness crap."

Why would Wilentz risk his reputation to join the already bulging ranks of Clinton throne-sniffers? Maybe, says Genovese, a friend of Wilentz's, the demands of congressional punditry are simply more than the average Princeton professor can handle. "I don't want to speak specifically about Sean, but it is not unusual, under the pressure of time and the passions of the moment, to let your higher scholarly standards lapse and really not do your homework well," he says. As for why anyone would cite the Framers in defense of Clinton, Genovese seems baffled. "I come from a rather rough working-class neighborhood where attitudes toward women left a great deal to be desired," Genovese says. "But if anybody had said in the local pool room that someone had stuck a cigar into a woman, the attitude would have been, 'That's degenerate. You don't do that to a girl, not even a whore.' The idea that the United States of America, the supreme world power, would tolerate a man in office who is a palpable moral degenerate -- the Founding Fathers would have choked."

Tucker Carlson is a staff writer for THE WEEKLY STANDARD.