Field Notes

WHEN POLITICIANS ARE outraged about the academy, they dismantle museum exhibitions or pass Congressional resolutions. When academics are outraged about politics, they sign petitions. In the last six months, as intellectuals watched the impeachment proceedings against President Clinton, there was plenty of outrage to go around. Accordingly, there have been plenty of petitions.

There have, for starters, been petitions by lawyers: The constitutional scholars Susan Low Bloch of Georgetown and Jed Rubenfeld of Yale got more than four hundred legal experts to agree that only crimes against the state warrant impeachment, while Cass Sunstein of the University of Chicago garnered 250 signatures for a one-sentence brief saying the charges against Clinton aren’t "appropriate" grounds for ousting him.

There have been petitions by theologians, too: Max Stackhouse of Princeton Theological Seminary, Jean Bethke Elshtain of the University of Chicago, and 160 other religious (mostly Christian) scholars have signed a statement (to be found at the portentous Web address admonishing that Clinton’s pleas for forgiveness shouldn’t get him off the hook.

But above all, there have been petitions by historians. Of all the statements circulated, the most controversial one appeared in a New York Times advertisement on October 30 bearing the signatures of more than four hundred historians. "The historians’ petition," as some call it, has thrilled the White House, peeved the Republicans, and led to a wrangle within the history profession that reveals much about academic politics today.

The story begins with a conversation last October between Princeton historian Sean Wilentz, a nineteenth-century scholar, and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. of the CUNY Graduate Center, who has been for decades the best-known historian in America. As calls for Clinton’s impeachment escalated, Wilentz and Schlesinger, both liberal Democrats, agreed the press was ignoring the historical issues at stake. Though neither man liked Clinton much, they worried less about the president’s misdeeds than about what they considered an illegitimate, partisan campaign to oust him. An authoritative opinion from eminent scholars, they thought, might refocus the debate.

With editorial assistance from the civil rights historian Taylor Branch and others, and with the imprimatur of Yale’s C. Vann Woodward–"the conscience of the profession," as Wilentz and Schlesinger both called him–they proceeded to draft a statement. Though their argument has by now become quite familiar, back in October few were making it: "The Framers explicitly reserved [impeachment]," Wilentz and his co-authors wrote, "for high crimes and misdemeanors in the exercise of executive power." Only crimes that a president committed in his capacity as president warranted this extreme measure; and by that standard, they argued, the charges against Clinton fell short. In pressing ahead anyway, the Republicans in Congress were creating a "theory of impeachment...unprecedented in our history."

Schlesinger and Wilentz began calling, faxing, and emailing colleagues. "At 11:16 a.m. on October 19, I sent out my first batch of emails to a total of ten people–Pauline Maier, Drew Gilpin Faust, Jack Rakove, Michael Kammen, a few others," says Wilentz, scanning his computer logs and citing some leading historians of the early American republic. "By October 22, I had more than two hundred, almost three hundred, emails that had come in."

Wilentz and Schlesinger say they were astonished by the spontaneity, volume, and range of the response. According to Wilentz, the signatories included Democrats, Republicans and Independents and scholars at schools ranging from Yale and Stanford to Arkansas State and Tennessee Technological University. The list included Edmund Morgan, John Hope Franklin, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Garry Wills, James MacGregor Burns, James McPherson, David Kennedy, Alan Brinkley, Robert Dallek, Linda Kerber, and roughly four hundred others. "It displayed the width and breadth of the historical profession," Wilentz says, adding after a pause, "except the hard left and the hard right."

Indeed, critics on the left and right didn’t like the petition one bit. They felt the petitioners were trying to fob off an essentially political claim as an "objective" historical judgment. "I think you could have gotten the exact same names to sign a petition for impeachment if Richard Nixon had done what Clinton did," says the Harvard historian Stephan Thernstrom, a former New Left historian who has moved rightward.

Robert Bork, the former judge and champion of original-intent Constitutionalism, shared Thernstrom’s view. He cobbled together his own lineup of "lawyers, law professors, political scientists and historians, most of whom have made careers studying the Constitution."

Bork’s petition argued that, contrary to Wilentz and Schlesinger’s claim, it was not the impeachment inquiry but a dismissal of the inquiry that "would permanently disfigure and diminish not only the Presidency but the American system of government."

"The main sentence of [the Wilentz] statement is a lie," says Thernstrom. "My copy of the Constitution–and I’ve looked at it pretty closely–does not explicitly say that ‘high crimes’ involve only the exercise of presidential power. But that is what their statement claims." Where Wilentz invoked James Madison, the main architect of the Constitution, Bork’s statement cited Alexander Hamilton, who allowed for impeachment for "injuries done immediately to the society itself." Eventually ninety-six conservatives, including political scientists Harvey Mansfield, Walter Berns, and Thomas Pangle, and law professor Lino Graglia (as well as the Republican politicians Ed Meese and William Bennett), signed the declaration. The Wall Street Journal published it on December 10.

More caustic than the challenge to the Wilentz-Schlesinger petition from the right, however, was the challenge from the left. While a number of decidedly left-wing scholars put their names to The New York Times ad, a good many refused. One abstainer was a man Wilentz called "an old friend," the historian Jesse Lemisch of New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice.


Lemisch, a respected Colonial historian, has long been active in politics within the profession. In 1969 he helped a fellow radical historian, Staughton Lynd, run an insurgent (and losing) campaign for the presidency of the American Historical Association. In a scathing essay in the December 4 Chronicle of Higher Education, Lemisch attacked Schlesinger, a former adviser to President Kennedy, as "a lifelong Democratic Party flack" (previously, he had referred to Schlesinger as a "codpiece"); Woodward for his "angry response to the ’60s"; and Wilentz as "a talented former historian on the left who writes frequently in the rightward-surging New Republic." In a seemingly unintentional irony, he ridiculed the historians’ "somewhat Borkian" reverence for the Constitution. To kowtow before the Constitution and the strong presidency it enshrined, he argued, is to endorse the Framers’ aristocratic predilections over the more democratic system of government that has evolved in America since 1789.

In what he intended as a gesture of courtesy, Lemisch sent Wilentz a heads-up email, along with his Chronicle article, explaining that the barbs were "nothing personal." Wilentz fired back on December 5, taking umbrage at Lemisch’s "sneering, ad hominem...opening paragraphs" and false protestations of "nothing personal." He urged Lemisch to remove his ideological blinders. "By falsifying the Constitution, the far right is on the brink of completing a bloodless coup d’etat. We four hundred (now closer to five hundred) historians have tried to stop it. (At the risk of sounding personal, What have you done to stop it, Jesse?) To see our statement as anti-democratic or ludicrous."

Lemisch countered on December 16, just after Clinton launched a new round of bombing attacks on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. "What now, Sean?" Lemisch taunted. He went on to question "whether [Wilentz’s] concern for defending the Constitution extended to this."

"As I supported the attack on the fascist Hussein, and found it constitutional," Wilentz replied, "my defense of the Constitution was not in peril.... But even if I thought the opposite regarding Iraq, it would not change what I had to say about the Lewinsky impeachment one iota. So, concerning that issue, to argue about Iraq is irrelevant." Wilentz calls Lemisch’s posture "pathetic": "He’s hanging on to a kind of lefter-than-thou politics. The issue is not my politics or former politics, or my talents or former talents, but what could be done to stop these right-wing creeps from trampling on the Constitution."

Seeing that he was getting nowhere with Wilentz, Lemisch had one recourse: He drafted a petition of his own. At the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Washington, D.C., in early January, Lemisch circulated a statement criticizing the impeachment of Clinton over the Lewinsky affair but at the same time urging his impeachment for bombing Iraq and, last summer, Sudan and Afghanistan. Roaming the halls with a clipboard, he had no trouble attracting support. "People just started grabbing their pens, saying, ‘I’ve been looking for a petition that said just this,’" Lemisch recalled. "I was overwhelmed by the response." Eventually he garnered more than two hundred names, including those of Lawrence Levine, Eileen Boris, Linda Gordon, and Leo Ribuffo (Boris and Gordon signed Wilentz’s petition as well). He recently published the statement in The Nation and its fellow left-wing magazine In These Times.

Lemisch believes that the petition rift "reflects the grim state of liberalism today." It’s pitiful, he says, that so many on the left make common cause with Clinton, who has hardly been a model of liberal, let alone left-wing, governance. For his part, Wilentz, who testified against impeachment before Congress in December, sees the four hundred-plus signatures as indicative not of co-optation by the Establishment but of "the most important academic political effort in the last thirty years." The spontaneous coming together of hundreds of historians, he points out, represents what the New Left always dreamed of: "a movement." "Never before have historians acting as historians had this much of an impact on a public event. We actually did something. This is real politics."

Yet what did the historians’ petition achieve? It didn’t stop the House Republicans from impeaching Clinton. Wilentz ventures an answer. "We made the intellectual case for what most of the American people knew instinctively–that these were not impeachable offenses." He contends that the historians’ and constitutional lawyers’ petitions altered the debate–and forced the Republicans to argue, as they eventually did, that Clinton’s misdeeds amounted to crimes against the state.

The presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, who has been harshly critical of Clinton but signed Wilentz’s petition, agrees that the statement made a difference. "It became part of the general argument that impeachment should be reserved for injuries against the state that only impeachment can remedy. The petition lent authority to that larger argument, and at the end of all this, that larger argument will have prevailed."


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