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National Vigil Against Impeachment

"... a sign of the common folks fighting back.
They sort of like being able to elect their own presidents"

Remarks of Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Sr.
U.S. Capitol, Washington, D.C.

Rev. Jesse L. Jackson. Photo by Nic Paget-ClarkeFollowing are the remarks of Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Sr. at the National Vigil Against Impeachment, U.S. Capitol, Washington, D.C., December 17, 1998.

We gather today at the confluence of two extraordinary events; the possible and perhaps likely impeachment of the President of the United States and the bombing of Iraq. This is an extraordinary day, a day for reflection, a day for prayer, a day for a renewed commitment to do justice.

We must pray for the American soldiers overseas, risking their lives so that American interests might be defended and promoted.

We must pray for the Iraqi people, that they might someday come to live in peace and in freedom.

We must pray for the people of the Middle East, that they might enjoy security from the willful acts of despots.

We must pray for our President, that he might be strong and wise in the face of his enemies and our nation's foes.

We must pray for the Congress and our elected leaders, that they may do justice and be merciful.

We must pray for America., that it might grow ever better, ever more inclusive, ever more true to its essential promise.

And when we're done praying, we must work to do justice.

Justice must be proportional. That is, the penalty must not exceed, nor fall short of, the severity of the offense. We do not give the death penalty to shoplifters. We do not cut off the hands - in this nation - of petty thieves. We view such penalties as barbaric. And so, we ought not to impeach, we ought not to recommend for removal from the highest office in our land. We should not act to overturn the outcome of two fairly-held elections for President, on such narrow and shallow grounds as these.

The President stands accused. He stands accused of not stating the whole truth during a deposition before a hostile and highly political inquiry, of splitting legal hairs in a clear attempt to avoid a perjury trap, of being less than candid, less than truthful, less than forthcoming about an affair that he knew would cause his family great pain.

Yes he has done wrong. He deserves to be rebuked. To be reprimanded. But to demand his ouster on grounds that fall so woefully short of what our founding fathers had in mind as a legitimate basis for impeachment would do violence to the Constitution. There is no way his behavior comes even close to a high crime and misdemeanor, of a treasonous act, of the sort of thing that should disenfranchise the hundreds of millions of people who went to the polls and elected Bill Clinton not once, but twice, to be our President.

His behavior was wrong, but it was all too human. The far greater offense to our nation, the far greater offense to our constitution, to our most fundamental values as a democracy is to take our vote away. The right to vote is a precious one. I say to Congress, give us back our votes. They are not yours to do with as you wish. Give us back our votes. Give us back our President! We elected him. Give us back our votes.

Justice must be considered, temperate, not done in haste. But consider this: the bills of impeachment designed to brand Bill Clinton forever are the work of a lame duck Congress, speeding down a fast track, striving to finish its job before the new Congress takes its place, a Congress with a smaller Republican majority, a Congress that would in all likelihood fail in this appointed task.

Surely, this rush to judgment severely diminishes the validity of the impeachment. And surely, this rush to judgment by a lame duck Congress stands in defiance of the results of the midterm elections, the will of the American people, and the test of history.

Justice must be blind to partisanship. Would anyone argue that the process that has led us to this point has been anything other than the most highly-charged partisan enterprise of recent memory? Should we impeach a President on a straight party-line vote? What does that say about the strength of the charges brought against the President, that so very, very few House Democrats, looking at the same set of facts as the Republicans, cannot find merit in the Republican brief? Surely, this is not due to some new found affinity among Democrats for tight discipline in the ranks!

No, a highly partisan strategy of impeachment does violence to the Constitution. It does violence to democratic values. Democracy requires compromise. It requires a willingness to work together. Democracy does not thrive where bitterness reigns, where divisiveness is the order of the day, where losers in an election do not respect the validity of the result. To overturn an election requires a bipartisan appreciation of the gravity of the offense. And so I say to the House Republicans, Give us back our vote!

Yes, the very same group that tried to shutdown the government a couple of years ago is back. And this time, they're trying to paralyze government. The tactics are different, but the desired outcome is the same. It didn't work then. It won't work now. Give us back our vote. Give us back our government.

Justice must not be done out of vengeance, hate, mistrust, but with a sense of charity.

At another critical juncture in American history, a time of far greater bitterness than even our age can muster, Abraham Lincoln said of the North and South in the Civil War: "Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes his aid against the other ... the prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes."

He then goes on to say, "With malice toward none, with charity toward all; with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in."

This is the sentiment that should animate our work today.

Justice requires that we not artificially exclude options that might give us a purchase on truth.

There is of course an option for the meting out of justice that would be proportional, that would permit bipartisanship, that would be temperate, that is consistent with the wishes of the public, and, I am convinced, would stand the test of time.

That is the option of censure. The failure to permit consideration of such an option on the floor of the House speaks volumes about the fundamental lack of fairness that is at the heart of the Republican attempt to remove the President from office.

Justice requires an eye to history. How will those who seek to impeach be judged by history? In their haste to tarnish Bill Clinton's legacy, they will surely destroy their own. And what a waste. What a waste of a golden moment, when the richest nation on earth, the preeminent power in the world, might have acted to do some good. We are on the verge of blowing it. And history will not treat those who blow it very kindly.

This might have been the Congress known for rebuilding our nation's schools, providing health care for all our nation's children, of preserving Social Security, for leaving no American behind. But no-that won't be the case. This will be known as the Congress that hounded Bill Clinton from office; that had no agenda other than the prosecution of this President; that stood in defiance of the will of the people of this great nation ... a dreary, uninspiring legacy to be sure.

Justice requires consideration of the opinion of the public. Alexander Hamilton wrote of impeachment that it must be reserved for "crimes against society." If this constitutes such a moment, why, then doesn't society have a greater sense of urgency for the offense Bill Clinton has supposedly committed against it? There is an answer for this. The public understands that we must have a broader definition of what constitutes morality in public life than that which seems to energize the Republicans. It is too limiting to see it just in terms of whether a man, Bill Clinton, in his frailty, in his shame, sought to split legal hairs during questioning from a hostile prosecution.

Yes we need a broader appreciation of morality. And the American people do not view Bill Clinton as a bad man. They see him, for all his flaws, as a good man. A man "who feels their pain," a line the Republicans always laugh at, but a line that in a very real way explains what they see as good and decent about Bill Clinton.

It is Bill Clinton, not his tormentors that fought to protect Medicare?

It is Bill Clinton, not his tormentors, that put 100,000 new teachers in the schools and 100,000 new police officers on the streets.

And that is why two-thirds of the American public oppose impeachment.

There is great pain in our land today, the pain that is felt when people feel violated, when one of the most cherished rights of any American - the right to vote - is cheapened, is stolen away.

But we must turn our pain into power. Yesterday, today, and in the days to come, rallies, teach-ins, seminars will be held in towns and cities all across America. That is a sign of the common folks fighting back. They sort of like being able to elect their own Presidents.

So something good may come of this yet. We must register more voters ...

It may be dark ... but the morning cometh.

Published in In Motion Magazine January 24, 1999.

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