Very early morning, November 8, 2000. I'm at home, in bed, my eyes propped open with toothpicks. Last night -- as the networks called Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Florida for Al Gore -- I revived the moonwalk in my glee. Now the networks have called the election for George W. Bush, and I'm thinking the moon wouldn't be such a bad place to be right now, with or without oxygen.
The Bush supporters in Austin, with all the class of an obnoxious football crowd, are doing the "Na Na Na Na, Hey Hey Hey, Goodbye!" chant. I doze off. When I wake up, my nightmare has begun. The Bushies have already started in on their "Sore Loserman" campaign to stop vote counting.
We all know the history of the next five weeks, of course. Florida turns out to be a statistical tie, and the Republicans, holding the decisive power cards of Secretary of State, a majority on the U.S. Supreme Court, and a Republican mob in Miami-Dade, install George W. Bush as president.
In the days leading up to the inauguration, the Republicans start calling on Americans to forget the questionable circumstances of Bush's ascendancy. When anyone challenges Bush's mandate or legitimacy, they recite the unofficial Bush Inaugural theme: "Get over it."
Unable to follow their orders, I try to soothe myself with one thought: If Gore had become president, I reckon, the sore losers in Congress would have begun investigating him on January 21 and not stopped until he left office. At least under Bush, we won't have to live through more foam-mouthed congressional inquiries into alleged executive branch scandals. (There were at least 31 during the Clinton Administration.)
Perhaps that is an okay tradeoff, I muse: A partisan Supreme Court helped Bush steal the election, but at least we don't have to listen to House Government Reform Committee Chairman Dan Burton and his cronies screech about how everything the president does -- sign a bill, not sign a bill, meet with his staff, brush his teeth, etc. -- is shamelessly corrupt. And we won't have to give Congress millions of federal dollars to investigate Republicans' wild conspiracy theories.
I was wrong. Even as former President Clinton swatted golf balls in Florida, getting some rest for the first time in Lord knows how many years (did anyone else notice that, by the night of his farewell speech, the bags under his eyes had annexed his forehead and were going for his hairline?), Reliable Dan Burton called for another investigation into Clinton -- this time, into his pardon of Marc Rich.
Not to be outdone, Republican Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania said Congress could still impeach Clinton -- even though he's out of office. "President Clinton avoided a conviction on impeachment the last time around because he had not lost the confidence of the American people, and we didn't want to shake up the government," reasoned Specter on Fox News Sunday, "but he's not in office anymore." (Republican Senator Don Nickles of Oklahoma suggested just reducing Clinton's pension and other benefits.)
In one of his final acts as President, Clinton pardoned a guy who hasn't even set foot in America in 17 years to face the charges against him. This pardon, coming in the wake of Rich's ex-wife giving Clinton a gift and donating "an enormous sum" to the Clinton Presidential Library, smells bad. But that's not the question. The question is what the heck does it have to do with Congress or Reliable Dan?
Burton is the Indiana Congressman who has spent the last eight years investigating everything from the Waco disaster to alleged White House e-mail cover-ups. He has, over the years, used his chairmanship of Government Reform to look into anything and everything about Clinton and his crowd; at one point, his fixation with Vince Foster's death compelled him to perform an amateur ballistics test with a .38 and a pumpkin in his backyard. Now he wants to know about the Rich pardon.
Any president has, of course, the constitutional right to pardon anyone he wants for whatever reason he wants. So why the hearings? "The purpose of these hearings," Burton Press Secretary John Cardarelli told me, "is to illuminate for the American public the situation surrounding the Marc Rich pardon."
Cardarelli agreed that, since Clinton is now a private citizen, the committee has no legal jurisdiction over him. Okay, so let's take the worst-case scenario (and the only one that could possibly be illegal considering presidents' unlimited pardoning powers) -- Rich's cronies bribed Clinton to pardon Rich. Is that what the committee is getting at? And, if so, isn't that a matter for a prosecutor, not a congressional committee?
"We're not saying anything like that happened," Cardarelli emphasized. "But if anything were to develop, we would refer something like that to the Justice Department -- they would decide whether to proceed. We have an oversight responsibility. This has some very curious surroundings, and we are constitutionally obligated to look into it." What constitutional obligation would that be? The responsibility to hound ex-presidents?
Could Cardarelli think of any precedent of a government official being investigated by a congressional committee after leaving office? "I can't think of any right now, offhand," he said, adding that the history of such a thing wasn't really his area.
So let me get this straight: No one disputes a president's right to pardon whomever he chooses. Burton's staff doesn't believe there was any bribery involved and understands that, even if there were, it would not fall under their jurisdiction to investigate it. Basically, the committee isn't doing anything in public that the proper authority -- the Justice Department -- couldn't do in private. Except, of course, try to smear Bill Clinton.
Likewise, there seems to be no rational purpose for impeaching a president who has already left office. Even Specter's office doesn't produce one; when asked what the purpose of impeaching an ex-president would be, Specter's press secretary Bill Reynolds said, "I don't know." Like holding hearings, impeachment would be wasteful of congressional time and money. Specter may be right that impeachment now wouldn't shake up the country terribly -- but it wouldn't accomplish anything either. Except smearing Bill Clinton.
While Republicans whine that Democrats need to get over an election that was appropriated two months ago, Burton and his Republican colleagues are still fighting the -- utterly undisputed -- elections of 1992 and 1996. They couldn't stand Bill Clinton being president, and now they can't stand that he ever was. Clinton, as usual, makes an easy target with some of his actions, but you know what? He's gone. It's time to move on.
Get over it.