I said the proceedings were "slightly demented." I was being polite. I was one of two witnesses invited by the Republican members to testify at the House Judiciary Committee's hearings on "executive power and constitutional limitations" on July 25. The event was more accurately described by one of the Republican committee members as "impeachment lite."
The hearings brought out a whole gallery of Code Pink enthusiasts who, with giggling excitement, talked of the event among themselves as "the impeachment hearings." Dennis Kucinich was one of the star attractions. He isn't a member of the Judiciary Committee, but he got himself invited as a witness. There were four such congressmen in an initial panel. Kucinich then arranged to come back and participate in a second panel of outside experts.
Most Democrats on the committee showed up for at least part of the show. It went on for more than six hours, stretching into the late afternoon on a Friday, which only the most important hearings can do. The seating for "visitors" (that is, the cheering section) was full to the end. And to the end, the "visitors" provoked solemn reminders from Chairman John Con-yers that they were breaking the rules by cheering, laughing, or hissing.
It was no honor to be there in the circumstances. The hearings were designed to showcase arguments of Bush critics--seven in all, in addition to the four congressmen who testified. Most had written books advocating impeachment or prosecution (or in one case, a truth-and-reconciliation commission). They would hold up their books for the C-SPAN camera at regular intervals.
The minority was allowed only two witnesses. Several wiser or busier colleagues had already found reasons why they couldn't be there. Stephen Presser of Northwestern University Law School, a distinguished scholar of constitutional history, was the other witness invited by the Republicans. He tried to stay above the partisan fray by offering the same analysis of standards for impeachment that he'd provided to the committee in 1998, when it debated bringing charges against President Clinton. But history wasn't on the agenda this time, and Presser retreated to very brief answers. He seemed embarrassed to be there. He is, as I mentioned, a serious scholar.
But I found the whole circus somewhat instructive. It was of clinical interest. There was no real suspense, of course. There isn't time to mount an impeachment in the few months remaining in Bush's term. Nothing has happened in recent months to give Democrats special reason to start impeachment proceedings now, when they failed to do so over the year and a half since they took control of Congress. If they were really going to initiate impeachment, they wouldn't have launched the effort on a Friday afternoon and wouldn't have received such limited attention from the media.
You might think of the hearings as a gesture of appreciation for the Kucinich supporters. The congressman was cheered when he entered the hearing room (hand in hand with his 30-year-old wife). At one point, when Conyers told Cindy Sheehan she would have to leave if she didn't stop shouting from the visitors section, he called her by name, as if she were a special constituent of his. Which, in a way, she is now. Conyers didn't try very hard to keep the crowd quiet. He called them "visitors" but they were more like clients or patrons of the proceedings.
Almost every witness claimed that Bush was guilty of dragging the nation to war through lies and deceptions. In recent weeks, even formerly cautious voices in the Pentagon have started to talk about our impending "victory." Not the best time to rehash old debates about what happened six years ago? None of the witnesses seemed to notice. Certainly none made any reference to anything occurring on the ground in Iraq. Their main point seems to have attained the status of a ritual incantation--"Bush lied. His claims have been shown to be false. He lied."
No one bothered to explain what motive could have impelled the president to lie. Wouldn't he fear to be found out, if he knew there were no WMDs to be found in Iraq? If he didn't know, should mistaken claims really be called "lies"? Was it reasonable to expect that everything claimed or predicted by intelligence estimates would later prove totally correct? No one was interested in arguing past any such obvious objections. "Bush lied" is now an article of faith.
Yet it doesn't seem to have the punch you would expect, even with those who invoke this claim. If you believe the president really told deliberate lies to take the country to war for personal or idiosyncratic reasons, you must believe the president behaved monstrously. But none of the Democratic witnesses--and none of the Democratic members of the committee--could keep their focus on the war. They also wanted to talk about Bush's abuse of executive privilege (by refusing to let White House personnel testify in congressional investigations), his abuse of signing statements (putting his own interpretation on enrolled bills while still signing them into law), allegations that he gave preference to Republicans at the Justice Department--charges that shouldn't be in the same league with wrongly dragging the nation into war.
I made this point in my initial statement. Why talk about anything else, if you really think the president is guilty of starting a war for personal or frivolous reasons? It's what I meant when I said the committee should recall that "the rest of the country is not necessarily in this same bubble in which people think it is reasonable to describe the president as if he were Caligula." No one noticed. We went on for hours reviewing the possible illegality of executive privilege claims, detention policies at Guantánamo, and other issues of secondary rank.
But then there was a response. The C-SPAN audience was enraged. At least some of them were. My BlackBerry started buzzing even while I was sitting at the witness table. "BUSH IS WORSE THAN CALIGULA!!!!" More and more came my way over the next three days. Perhaps not a scientific sample, but it was as interesting as the "polls" they run on FOX or CNN where they ask viewers to "vote" on the question of the day. At least I didn't ask these people to contact me. From my sample--of 60 or so--I can say that nine out of ten were very, very angry.
They were angry at Bush, of course. They were angry at me for remarks they interpreted as defending Bush. They were most angry at me for speaking of them--the people so angry at Bush--as figures worthy of ridicule. Quite a few of them wanted me to know about their educational attainments, more wanted me to know how carefully they have watched congressional hearings, many more wanted me to know about the books and websites they have studied to reach their conclusions. "Don't call me crazy" was the usual point.
But, of course, quite a few couldn't be seen as anything else. A few wanted to go back to the events of 9/11: "Basic physics and common sense" disprove the official story that the Twin Towers were knocked down by a handful of terrorists in two airplanes. Some told me to "get down from your Ivory Tower," apparently under the impression that universities are dominated by Republican snobs. A few wanted to share their views on the Jewish Question, ranting about "Wolfowitz" and "the Jewish neo-cons." One dismissed me and mine as "Illuminati scum."
From professorial habit (in an era when email has largely replaced office hours), I made some response to every message. To my surprise, I found that many people offered reasonably polite replies, thanking me for responding to their messages and trying to respond to the one or two points I had offered them. The usual thing I pointed out was that, if they were angry at me for questioning impeachment, they should be more angry at Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama who had much more to do with the failure of this Congress to open serious impeachment proceedings. Yes, said various respondents, good point. I'm mad at them, too. And "I didn't mean to say you don't have the right to your own opinions."
So I'm left with a horrifying thought. The acolytes of "Bush lied!" won't go away when Bush leaves the White House. But they won't become terrorists, either. They will settle into one of those domesticated cults, mixing apocalyptic claims with genial demeanor: "The End of the World is Upon Us--Please Give Generously." Even our darkest obsessions may end with "Have a nice day."
Jeremy Rabkin is a professor of law at George Mason University.