IMAGINE YOU'RE SEAN WILENTZ. For years, you have labored in the vineyards of academia, writing footnoted books, getting tenure, rising to become director of the American Studies program at Princeton. Things are going well. Then, suddenly, you become famous -- not for your research on 19th-century labor movements, but for defending Bill Clinton's sex life. One thing leads to another, and one December morning in the closing days of the Monica Lewinsky scandal you find yourself testifying on the president's behalf before the House Judiciary Committee.
The day after your testimony you get up early, pad down-stairs in your slippers and retrieve the New York Times from the doorstep. There you are, above the fold and in color, hand raised solemnly in oath-swearing position. Pretty excellent, you think, though admittedly it's only a picture. You turn to the editorial page to see what the thinkers on the tenth floor of the Times building made of your performance. Your eye scans down the column -- there's your name -- wait! Something horrible is floating in the punch bowl. "For the most part, the Democratic case was well presented," the Times editorialist declares. "Only a gratuitously patronizing presentation by Sean Wilentz, a Princeton historian, marred the Democratic experts' argument."
You almost drop the paper. Your ears turn red. You're humiliated. All of your friends are going to see this. Your family. Your students. Other professors. The New York Times has just accused you of acting like a buffoon in front of the entire country. And the worst part is, the New York Times is right.
In fact, the New York Times was merciful, printing just a small sample of what Wilentz actually said. Only cable television watchers, NPR devotees, and those physically present in the committee room last week had the full Sean Wilentz Experience, and none of them is likely to forget it. Wilentz began his testimony on a disingenuous note -- I have not come to excuse Clinton's history of "equivocating" under oath, he declared, but simply "to defend the institution of the presidency, the Constitution and the rule of law" -- and moved swiftly into a harangue of stunning pomposity, even by congressional standards.
As Wilentz explained it, House members now weighing the evidence against President Clinton have two options. They can vote to impeach -- and risk subverting the rule of law, shattering the trust of the American people, committing a "gross dereliction of duty," violating their "oath of office," being condemned by future generations for "cravenness," or, at the very least, "going down in history with the zealots and the fanatics."
Or, Wilentz said, "you could muster the courage of your convictions. The choice is yours."
But what about the president's lies under oath? Isn't perjury impeachable? Won't the rule of law suffer if Clinton skates? Get real, said Wilentz. Those are "deeply mistaken and misleading arguments . . . nonsense, logically and historically, with all due respect."
Earlier this fall, in a statement he signed with several hundred other historians, Wilentz argued that Clinton's misdeeds are not impeachable because the president's "private behavior" and "subsequent attempts to deceive" are outside the bounds of what the "Framers saw as grounds for impeachment." The men who wrote the Constitution, Wilentz contended at the time, "explicitly reserved" impeachment for "high crimes and misdemeanors in the exercise of executive power."
Needless to say, there is nothing explicit in the impeachment clause about "the exercise of executive power," and by the time he got to the Judiciary Committee, Wilentz had dropped this part of his argument. Instead, he made the case that what Clinton did is not impeachable because . . . well, because lots of college professors say it's not impeachable: "The current charges against President Clinton do not, we American historians believe, rise to the level of impeachable offenses." Censure, by contrast, is just fine by the American historians. "There is no constitutional bar to censure. Anyone who proposes that has simply not read the Constitution clearly enough," explained Wilentz, who is neither a constitutional scholar nor a lawyer.
Serious people disagree about what is and is not impeachable, but in the end Wilentz wasn't testifying for the benefit of serious people -- or even testifying at all. He was preaching. Here's how the sermon ended:
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.