The Breach: Inside the Impeachment and Trial of William Jefferson Clinton.
New York: Scribner, 2000. 464 pp. Illustrations, Cast of Characters,
Acknowledgments, Notes, Chronology, Appendixes, Index. $27.50 (cloth),
ISBN 0-684-86813-X .
R. B. Bernstein , New York Law School.
the Web of Controversy
"Mr. Chief Justice, my fellow senators, as this trial nears
the end, we have to ask the question how we got here with a tragedy like
this. There are many losers. There are no winners. There are surely no
heroes. There are lots of lessons to be learned, and I think all of our
prayers ought to go out to those who were ensnared in the web of
controversy." -- Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA), February 10, 1999 (pp.
Now that the Clinton era is behind us, readers may wonder
why they should bother with any new book on the constitutional trainwreck
known more formally as the Clinton impeachment. Peter Baker's The
Breach deserves to survive any such skepticism.
is the latest, and may be the best, journalistic account of its subject.
Baker, a reporter for the Washington Post, presents a calm,
unvarnished account of the constitutional ordeal of 1997-1998. His focus
is "the web of controversy" surrounding the impeachment and trial of
President Bill Clinton, the first ever of an elected President. Like most
studies of this depressing episode, Baker brings to the subject a
perspective and derives from it an argument. He maintains that the
impeachment and trial of President Clinton grew out of and was molded by
the widening partisan breach between Republicans and Democrats, shaped in
turn by the culture of attack politics and the demands of an insatiable
news media (see esp. pp. 18-20). Unlike such previous studies as Judge
Richard Posner's An Affair of State (which used the Clinton
impeachment as a vehicle to promote Posner's jurisprudential perspective)
and Jeffrey Toobin's A Vast Conspiracy (which used the subject to
launch an unconvincing argument that the legal system had taken over the
political system), Baker has taken great pains not to let his perspective
overwhelm the facts as he has been able to ascertain them. Thus, with
every page of The Breach, Baker's argument gains plausibility as an
explanation for the account that he presents.
In The Breach, Baker focuses on the thorny and
tortuous process by which first the House of Representatives and then the
Senate grappled with the issues sparked by Independent Counsel Kenneth
Starr's "referral" (the notorious Starr Report), and the
impeachment process that his referral ignited. (Readers unclear about such
issues as what Whitewater was or wny the Whitewater independent counsel
expanded his inquiry to cover the Monica Lewinsky affair and the Paula
Jones litigation may not find enlightenment in these pages.) At first,
events and arguments within the White House (pp. 23-66) take pride of
place, but eventually Congress assumes and retains center stage.
Throughout, Baker is notably successful in his presentation of the ways in
which politics and constitutional principle entwined and often collided in
the Clinton impeachment.
As he demonstrates, the impeachment was the consequence of
an increasingly "coarse and corrosive" (p. 18) political culture reigning
in the nation's capital -- a culture increasingly shaped by the
interaction between attack politics and the growing appetite of the media
for fast-breaking news. One consequence was that, as Baker shows, both
sides in the impeachment battle came to regard it as just "another
campaign to be won" (p. 19). In essence, they had reduced an elaborate and
portentous constitutional process, meant to be invoked as a response to a
constitutional crisis, to the level of a partisan brawl. Neither side
proved immune to the temptation to seek transient partisan advantage in
the heat of battle; both sides shaped and reshaped the impeachment process
to gain a tactical point or to put their adversaries off balance. Baker
also shows that both sides ignored, selectively invoked, or sometimes were
trapped by the precedent of Watergate, often acclaimed as a model of how
to conduct an inquiry into the impeachment of a President. For example, as
the House Judiciary Committee staff drafted articles of impeachment, the
lawyers' decision to use the Nixon articles as a model unintentionally set
up the presidential offenses alleged in Watergate as a standard that the
Clinton impeachment ultimately could not meet (pp. 188-189). (Note also
that the historians and constitutional scholars who took part in the
public discussion of impeachment and who at one key point appeared before
the House Judiciary Committee make only fleeting appearances in Baker's
pages [e.g., pp. 198-199, 266, 269-270], but that suggests just how
marginalized they found themselves.)
Although Baker does not offer detailed documentation of
The Breach, his notes (pp. 423-426) attest to the thoroughness of his
reportage and to his ability to secure copies of documents seemingly
beyond journalistic reach. (Careful readers attentive to the perspective
from which Baker tells his story often can deduce who his sources were,
even though he invokes his obligation to preserve their confidentiality
[p. 424].) His Appendixes (pp. 433-445) helpfully present full texts of
the relevant statements made by President Clinton on the Lewinsky scandal
and the impeachment; the four articles of impeachment proposed by the
House Judiciary Committee (although the full House sent only Articles I
and III to the Senate); and two proposed censure resolutions -- one
rejected by the House and the other spurned by the Senate. He also
includes a detailed and enlightening Chronology (pp. 427-432).
As they study the Clinton impeachment, constitutional
historians will turn often to The Breach, not only becaue of
Baker's interpretation's persuasiveness and his account's factual
reliability, but also because he so effectively conveys the sometimes
chaotic, sometimes terrifying, and sometimes comic atmosphere surrounding
these events. For example, Baker tells us of the day when Jim Ziglar, the
Senate's sergeant-at-arms, discovered that Chief Justice William H.
Rehnquist and his clerks were spending one of the long, frustrating
intervals between sessions of the Senate trial playing poker, "money and
cards strewn all over the table"; Ziglar reprimanded them for seeming to
violate the rules of the Senate barring gambling and left the room
briefly, finding on his return that the cards remained but the money had
vanished (p. 364).
Exemplary in its evenhandedness, The Breach neither
lionizes nor demonizes any parties to the process -- although its sober
recounting of the sense of betrayal that many of Clinton's supporters felt
as they gradually realized how much and how often he misled them makes
appalling reading. In sum, however, the reader comes from Baker's account
impressed by the sincerity even of those with whom the reader vigorously
disagrees on constitutional or political grounds.
With commendable restraint, Baker refrains in his Epilogue
(pp. 413-420) from pontificating about the lessons of the Clinton
impeachment. In this refusal to draw morals, he is true to the idea that
journalism is the first draft of history. At the same time, in a dimension
of the book that will resonate with historians' soundest instincts, The
Breach conveys the contingency of events in the Clinton impeachment;
contrary to prevailing impressions then and afterward, nothing was as
inevitable as it seemed (p. 20). And yet, while Baker depicts a "coarse
and corrosive" Washington political culture colliding with the
Constitution, he also tells a story of "real people making it up as they
went along, uncertain about what was the right answer" (pp. 19-20). This
last vital point is a lesson that applies to many of the thorniest
episodes of American constitutional history, and it is a lesson that, all
by itself, confirms the enduring value of this fine book.
Library of Congress
Call Number: KF5076.C57B35 2000
* Clinton, Bill, 1946- -- Impeachment
* Trials (Impeachment) -- United States
* Impeachments -- United States
Citation: R. B. Bernstein . "Review of Peter Baker, The
Breach: Inside the Impeachment and Trial of William Jefferson Clinton,"
H-Law, H-Net Reviews, January, 2001. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.cgi?path=29077981055668.
ď[Bakerís] story is less about Clinton than about the moral, political,
and practical judgments all the other folks in the process had to
make. As such, itís a tale with continuing relevance: Clinton will leave
office soon, but many of Bakerís other players will stay.Ē
The Breach: Inside the Impeachment and Trial of William Jefferson
Clinton, by Peter Baker, Publishers Weekly 247 (September 4,