by Jeffrey Feldman, Tue Feb 28, 2006 at 08:34:13 PM EST
U.S. Ports Security Scandal Leads To Talk Of Impeachment, Media Runs With Story For First Time
Two weeks ago, nobody would have believed that a back page business deal between foreign companies would ignite a mainstream media, national debate about impeaching the President. But it looks like that is where we are headed.
Out of curiosity, after listening to Lou Dobbs' inspired coverage of the controversial ports affair, I ran a search on Google News--just on a hunch--to see how many news stories I would get when I entered 'impeach' and 'Bush.' The search brought back 394 articles. The next day, it brought back 413. The number of stories on impeachment is increasing by the hour, but soon it will be increasing by the minute--and all because of the ports scandal.
Meanwhile, in the non-virtual world, Harper's leads this month with a cover story on "The Case for Impeachment" against President Bush, featuring a provocative essay by Lewis Lapham. And as if that were not enough, Harper's has also organized a panel discussion called "Is There a Case for Impeachment" sponsored by the magazine for this Thursday (March 2, 2006) at Town Hall in New York City.
Murmured calls for impeachment had been kicking off sparks in the blogsever since the domestic spying scandal broke. And even before that, one could occasionally hear cries for impeachment flaring up in a discussion about the CIA leak and Valery Plame, or about the absence of WMDs in Iraq, or about the absence FEMA during hurricane Katrina. But these cries for impeachment had never crossed over into the a seriouis public debate.
Never, that is, until this week.
The U.S. ports security scandal--coupled with grim poll numbers and a growing rift between U.S. soldiers and the President--is fanning the flames of impeachment into a mainstream media firestorm. As a result, 'impeach the President' could very well be the frame that engulfs both the White House and the American public in the week to come.
But what exactly do Americans mean when they say 'impeach' President Bush?
What becomes clear whenever calls to 'impeach' the President emerge in political debate is that the public means something very specific when they use this word. And what they mean is not exactly what is listed in the dictionary.
tr.v. im·peached, im·peach·ing, im·peach·es
1. To make an accusation against.
2. To charge (a public official) with improper conduct in office before a proper tribunal.
3. To challenge the validity of; try to discredit: impeach a witness's credibility.
This definition,which may be accurate, is not exactly what we mean when we write, read or say 'impeach President Bush.' In fact, Dictionary.com includes an extra, extended discussion of what we actually mean, as opposed to what the definition actually says. And this note gets us to the heart of the matter (emphasis mine):
Usage Note: When an irate citizen demands that a disfavored public official be impeached, the citizen clearly intends for the <u>official to be removed from office</u>. This popular use of impeach as <u>a synonym of "throw out"</u> (even if by due process) does not accord with the legal meaning of the word. As recent history has shown, when a public official is impeached, that is, formally accused of wrongdoing, this is only the start of what can be a lengthy process that may or may not lead to the official's removal from office. In strict usage, an official is impeached (accused), tried, and then convicted or acquitted. The vaguer use of impeach reflects disgruntled citizens' indifference to whether the official is forced from office by legal means or chooses to resign to avoid further disgrace.
The usage, of course, and not the actual definition is the key to our understanding how the word 'impeach' can frame a political debate.
In popular usage by an 'irate citizen,' the call to 'impeach' a President follows this basic metaphor:
[to impeach] is [to throw out]
And even that concept is bound by a second common sense metaphor that we all understand even if we never really discuss it:
[to fire someone] is [to throw them out]
These two metaphors are so fascinating because the actual process of impeachment is closer to an initial act that leads to a legal process. We are not 'throwing out' anything when we impeach, technically. We are instead, standing up and reading their name in front of a august body of other elected officials.
The actual process of impeachment is pretty dull--the stuff of parliamentary procedure. Important to the well-being of a republic, without question. But dull, dull and dull.
But back to the frame.
When we as Americans read the line 'impeach President Bush' in a newspaper or hear it on a newscast, we cannot help but see an image of a man being 'thrown out' of office. It is an image that I associate with the 'Go Straight To Jail' card in the board game Monopoly--a bald guy with a big mustache, lifted by his coat tails and 'thrown out' of the game and into jail. It's an image we all know well.
In this call to impeach President Bush just posted by Garrison Keillor at Salon.com, we can see how the logic of impeachment as 'throwing out' gets used. Keillor writes:
The man was lost and then he was found and now he's more lost than ever -- and he's taking us into the darkness with him. It's time to remove him.
"Remove," as used by Keillor, is a word we associate with trash. And trash is something we 'throw out.' But Keillor does something quite fascinating. Clearly, Garrison Keillor understands the actual definition of 'impeachment' to be much more technical than he describes in the opener of this essay. But he knows that the great power of a rhetorical call for impeachment is not the invocation of legislative process--not the idea of impeachment as an initiation of a judicial proceeding--but the visceral cry to 'throw the bum out.'
Democrats fed up with President Bush's habit of breaking the law, and Republicans in Congress sick of being treated as an extraneous branch of government should follow Keillor's example.
The temptation of every Senator and Representative in Congress is to talk to the American public using the technical definition of 'impeachment.' But to lead this debate, to create momentum, the members of Congress should not talk like members of Congress. They should talk like regular Americans and use the metaphor of 'throwing out' the President when they mention this topic.
For example, in speaches about impeaching President Bush, Senators should just say: 'Impeach President Bush,' not 'impeach and hold proceedings.'
Better yet, anyone who holds public office and wants to lead the debate on impeaching President Bush, should just say this:
throw him out
Just say 'throw him out.' It is so straight forward, everyone understands what it means, and everyone can repeat it.
Why should Americans and our elected officials say 'throw him out' this week? For answers to that question, take a look at Elizabeth Holzman's article "The Impeachment of George W. Bush" in The Nation. Holzman lists all the reasons to impeach the President much better than I could. Even if you do not agree with her, it is a good compendium of the misdeeds and missteps by President Bush, some of which legitimately call for Congress to throw him out, while others do not.
But whatever we say, we should all notice how the impeachment storm unfolds this week in the media and remember that 'throw him out' is a powerful idea--strong enough to capture and control the debate. Undoubtedly, there will be an attempt by the White House to throw cold water on this story, and an effort to switch to another frame. We cannot blame them for trying, but we can be prepared when they do.
© 2006 Jeffrey Feldman