The debate had been long and contentious, but the written words that emerged were clear and resolute. It was time for a dishonest occupant of the Oval Office to follow the lonely path trod only by Richard Nixon, decades earlier, and resign the presidency.
The president, wrote the Inquirer editorial board, “should resign because his repeated, reckless deceits have dishonored his presidency beyond repair. He should resign because the impeachment anguish that his lies have invited will paralyze his administration, at a time when an anxious world looks to the White House for sure-footed leadership.”
The words sound depressingly current, but actually the ink is starting to fade on the Inquirer’s Sept. 12, 1998, editorial calling on Bill Clinton to resign after then-special prosecutor Kenneth Starr reported to Congress his allegations that the 42nd president committed perjury and obstructed justice. And Philadelphia’s largest daily newspaper was hardly alone in that regard; the New York Times (which, by the way, did not call for Clinton to step down) reported that at least 115 newspapers, or nearly one-in-ten, including bigger ones like USA Today and the Chicago Tribune, had also urged resignation in the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
Bill Clinton, of course, didn’t resign and successfully fought all the way through his 1999 impeachment trial, leaving office with a sky-high approval rating. Exactly 20 years later, America is struggling to come to terms with a president whose tsunami of lies about matters both large and small have made Clinton’s Lewinsky lies look like a lonely mud puddle. The Washington Post recently determined Donald Trump has publicly made 6,420 “false or misleading claims” in less than two years as president (UPDATE: It’s actually now 7,645), with the pace of his lies accelerating as 2018 wound down. And the Post is more conservative than other fact checkers.
Of course, none of those 6,000-plus lies had to do with, um, getting … uh, you know, oral sex. How else to explain that after watching The Donald do his thing for the last 102 weeks, not one major U.S. newspaper has called for Trump’s resignation? Yes, one can argue that one Bill Clinton lie under oath (in a civil suit that didn’t involve his actions as president ) trumps 6,420 garden-variety lies by the 45th president, even though he, like his predecessors, was elected by citizens who have a right to expect honesty from the White House.
But it’s not just the lies. America’s editorial writers have been handed conclusive proof linking Trump to an obstruction-of-justice rap worse than what was on the Richard Nixon “smoking gun” tape that ended that presidency (Trump’s admission that the Russia probe was behind the firing of FBI chief James Comey) and, also similar to Nixon, that the president is a coconspirator in a campaign-finance, hush-money felony crime with Michael Cohen. So what are America’s newspapers waiting for?
I spoke this week with two of the nation’s leading journalism critics — Jay Rosen of New York University and Northeastern University’s Dan Kennedy — as well as Jane Eisner, who was the Inquirer’s editorial page editor in 1998 and now is editor-in-chief of The Forward, the iconic magazine for Jewish Americans. If there was one thing they agreed on, it’s that America’s opinion writers are waiting on the same thing America itself is waiting on: Robert Mueller.
“If the Mueller report is released to the public and shows that Trump committed impeachable offenses, I’m sure many newspapers will call for his resignation,” Kennedy, author of the recent newspaper tome The Return of the Moguls, said. “I also think that House Democrats will believe it’s their duty to impeach him if he doesn’t resign, whether they think it’s wise politically or not.”
But Kennedy also wondered if newspaper opinion sections just have a vastly different view of their place in the media ecosphere than they held in 1998. “It would be like everything else: their core audience would agree, Trump’s core supporters would call it ‘fake news,’ and it would be forgotten within a week,” he said, while considering whether the more liberal editorial boards also hold some qualms about giving Mike Pence the 46th presidency and a head start on 2020.
Rosen, who’s been a powerful voice pressing journalists to develop new strategies for the challenges of the Trump presidency, also agreed that the temptation to wait on the Mueller report, which some say will come in February, trumps what’s happened so far. “Cohen’s guilty plea was important,” he said, “but I don’t think it disturbs the consensus that we are waiting for the evidence.” He noted that roughly 98 percent of American newspapers, including many with conservative leanings, endorsed Hillary Clinton over Trump in 2016.
A chat with Eisner, the Inquirer’s editorial-page chief in 1998, is a reminder of how complicated it can be to compare presidencies. She remains defiantly proud of the Clinton resignation editorial and even published a 2017 piece affirming that — not because of anything to do with Trump but because she believed it anticipated the zeitgeist of today’s #MeToo movement. But she also said Starr’s assertion that Clinton lied under oath about Lewinsky is a bar that hasn’t yet been cleared with Trump.
Eisner said much of what’s so troubling about Trump’s behavior “was known before the election — and he won anyway. Did he win fair and square? That’s why we’re waiting for the Mueller report.” She said the questions of whether both Clinton and now Trump broke the law is important because “the legalistic argument may seem small and even petty, but it’s important if you do believe in the rule of law.”
That’s understood, but it also lines up with an increasingly worrisome tendency in the intersections of journalism and politics over the 40-plus years since Watergate — when investigative reporting and legal legwork aligned to take down an amoral presidency in what now looks, through the lens of history, like a bit of a fluke. Quickly, political investigative reporting devolved into a chase for the most objective, binary, true-or-false lie … like an extramarital affair. The 1987 “witch hunt” to take down a thoughtful presidential candidate, Gary Hart, over his personal life seems ridiculous in hindsight (and thus the subject of a recent film). But even more ridiculous is that the American political system had no good way to process the lies of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney that literally killed hundreds of thousands of people (and kinda puts the whole oral sex thing in perspective, no?).
Our Founders wanted to make it very hard to remove an elected president — and they succeeded. On the surface that seems like a triumph for “the will of the people,” but the reality on the ground is much, much more complicated. That’s because the Founders also believed a rogue president would be held in check, both by the constitutional powers of Congress and the judiciary and by the unspoken balance of a free press and an informed citizenry. One by one, those institutions have been gutted or eroded — a cowed and highly partisan legislative branch rigging the courts in its own image, and a media weakened by both economics and political bullying which in turn has made that citizenry less informed.