11 Books to Help You Make Sense of the Impeachment Process

If you imagine discussion of current events as one of those text clouds in which the size of the word reflects its frequency of use, the word “impeachment” would currently need to be carved into the side of a mountain. But hearing a word a hundred times a day doesn’t necessarily mean you understand it, or its implications—especially since impeachment, despite being engraved in our constitution, is exceedingly rare, having only been formally invoked twice in history, and has never resulted in a sitting president being removed from office. As lawmakers consider whether they are going to engage the process for a historic third time, here are 11 books that will give you insight into how impeachment works—and how it has affected Presidents in the past.

Impeachment Overview

Impeachment: A Citizen’s Guide, by Cass R. Sunstein
Cass R. Sunstein is a recognized expert on the subject of impeachment—he gave expert testimony during Bill Clinton’s impeachment hearings in 1998—and his book is an excellent overview of the mechanism, purpose, and results of the process. Sunstein explains that the Founders—particularly Alexander Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin—considered it vital that a democracy have a way to remove a chief executive if a good reason to do so was extant, and insisted that impeachment be part of the new government. The author goes on to review the impeachment proceedings against both Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton. Writing in an accessible and down-to-earth style, Sunstein tells you everything you need to about the process, and provides insights drawn from his own experiences with it.

Impeachment: An American History, by Jon Meacham, Timothy Naftali, Peter Baker, and Jeffrey A. Engel
Four of our smartest living historians contribute to this thoughtful book, each taking a different angle. Jeffrey A. Engel offers a look back at what the framers of the constitution were thinking when they envisioned impeachment—concluding that their biggest concern was entanglement with foreign powers—and speculates on the chances of a modern-day impeachment success. Pulitzer Prize-winner Jon Meacham examines Andrew Johnson’s impeachment while Peter Baker handles Bill Clinton’s; the motives for bringing both cases are examined and deemed flawed, thus dooming them to failure. Then Naftali offers up an intriguing what-if, speculating intelligently on what a Nixon impeachment might have looked like. All in all, it’s a solid primer on what impeachment was meant to be versus the ways it has actually been used.

To End a Presidency: The Power of Impeachment, by Laurence Tribe and Joshua Matz
With the mere notion of a presidential impeachment growing more politically fraught with each passing day and every new tweet, it’s helpful to consider the process in apolitical terms—and that’s just what Harvard constitutional law Professor Laurence Tribe and constitutional lawyer Joshua Matz set out to do with this book, which aims to be the definitive guide to impeachment in the modern day. The authors recognize both the great import of the process and the political toll it takes on a government and its citizens. and attempt to place it in its proper context, above the political fray of jockeying congresspeople and sensationalizing television pundits. This revised edition, released in March (which feels like a decade ago) includes a new epilogue giving special consideration to our current headlines.

Andrew Johnson’s Impeachment

The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation, by Brenda Wineapple
Wineapple explores the circumstances surrounding our country’s first attempt at impeaching a president, framing Johnson’s trial as a familiar-sounding struggle between a president and congress with opposing political agendas. After the Northern victory in the Civil War, Johnson worked to undermine unification efforts and help the former Confederacy regain its prestige and power, while those in congress wished to punish and extract true political dominance over the rebels. This clash led directly to Johnson’s impeachment, and Wineapple does a great job of examining the background forces at work while keeping her focus on the proceedings themselves, using contemporary writing to give color to the personalities on display. It’s useful to see how similar the political world was even more than 150 years ago—certainly there’s a chance this book will make understanding what’s happening today much easier.

Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln’s Legacy, by David O. Stewart
Stewart offers a deeper dive into the party politics involved in Johnson’s impeachment—and offers few inspiring portraits, concluding ultimately that the impeachment proceedings against our 17th president were corrupt and poorly handled from the jump. It’s easy to imagine that our current political situation is uniquely depressing, but Stewart makes it clear that in 1868, the question of impeachment was just as fraught, the politicians were just as self-interested, and the machinery of the government was just as arcane. While this might be cold comfort for all of us as we live through another chapter of tumultuous history, Stewart provides plenty of insightful takeaways that apply to what’s happening in Washington right now.

The Case Against Richard Nixon

All the President’s Men, by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward
Richard Nixon resigned before he could be impeached, but impeachment was clearly the next stop on his life’s wending political journey—and examining the frantic leadup to his resignation might actually be our closest historical analogue to what’s happening in Washington, D.C. right now. There’s no better resource concerning the events of Nixon’s truncated second term than this seminal work by legendary journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the men who did the reporting that slowly eroded Nixon’s position and revealed the true scope of the relatively minor Watergate break-in and the entirely consequential coverup the Nixon White House engaged in. Considering how often you will hear the suffix “-gate” in reference to the political scandal du jour (up to and including the case against Donald Trump), it’s essential we all understand how things went from a minor headline about a break-in at a hotel to a president resigning for the first time in U.S. history.

Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes, by Stanley I. Kutler
One of the most startling aspects of the whole sordid Watergate scandal was the fact that Nixon recorded most of the incriminating conversations he held in the Oval Office. Even more startling is that it took a lawsuit and 25 years to get those tapes released. While this book is partially a transcript of those damning magnetic reels, Kutler offers commentary on what we’re “hearing” throughout—but the real reason to read it is for the window it opens into crisis management at the highest levels. We’re all flies on the wall as Nixon and his closest allies discuss how to manage the growing scandal and keep the president safely walled off from its legal implications. If you’re trying to imagine the conversations happening in the White House right now, this book will give you an excellent place to start.

The Bill Clinton Affair

An Affair of State: The Investigation, Impeachment, and Trial of President Clinton, by Richard A. Posner
The presidency of Bill Clinton will always be connected in history with the scandal that arose after his affair with Monica Lewinsky,  one that gave his political enemies all the ammunition they needed to bring impeachment proceedings against him. Posner wrote this book while everything was happening, lending it a sense of immediacy that brings this recent history to life and underscores the clunky and often byzantine rules and procedures that are dusted off when a president is impeached. A federal judge, Posner displays scorn for the legal opinions (and political capabilities) of everyone involved, from Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr to the president himself, even as h explanations of the relevant laws and constitutional mechanisms is clear and thorough. The better you understand the events of 1998, the better you’ll understand the events of 2019.

Contempt: A Memoir of the Clinton Investigation, by Ken Starr
Ken Starr is far from an objective observer due to his role directing investigation into Bill Clinton—both the Whitewater scandal and the Monica Lewinsky affair—and the impeachment case that resulted. Here, however, Starr offers something rare—the retroactive perspective of someone directly involved with an impeachment. Starr’s opinion of the Clintons hasn’t improved with time, and he very clearly believes that the president got away with something in 1998 despite the fact that Starr never assembled sufficient evidence to actually charge Clinton with a crime. Though there is clear partisanship on display, this window onto the workings of an investigation of this scale and import, as well as the impeachment that followed, will be invaluable to anyone trying to understand what’s might happen in the next few weeks and months.

Impeachment in 2019

The Case for Impeaching Trump, by Elizabeth Holtzman
With news stories about the case for impeachment of President Trump emerging daily, it’s hard for ordinary most of us to keep up. Elizabeth Holtzman’s book, published last year, provides an opportunity to look at an argument in full, though one made before more recent news has broken. The former congresswoman—who voted in the impeachment proceedings involving Richard Nixon—argues that an impeachment inquiry into Trump is necessary because of what the author perceives as a pattern of consistent and purposeful attacks on the norms and rule of law. Walking carefully through the evidence to support her position, Holtzman’s book will certainly give readers a lot to consider.

The Case Against the Democratic House Impeaching Trump, by Alan Dershowitz
Taking the opposite stance, legendary attorney Alan Dershowitz sees the current debate as partisan bickering run rampant, and argues forcefully that if the president were a Democrat pursuing a different agenda by the same means, members of her or his party would not be so worried. He further suggests that months or years of an impeachment circus would serve only to further fracture a country already roiled by partisan divisions, and warns that an impeachment case could boil over into something very ugly. Readers already opposed to impeachment may nod along, but even those who think it’s a necessary course of action will want to pick this book up, if only to fully weigh the merits of Dershowitz’s counter-argument.

 

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