At last Wednesday’s hearing before the House Judiciary Committee, both committee members and the panel of constitutional scholars repeatedly invoked the names of the nation’s Founding Fathers, who, for all their faults and flaws, were in large part educated people.
Unlike some of the committee members, the founders knew a thing or two about history: why governments rise and fall, the evil men do and how we need to protect a fragile democracy and its people with checks, balances and the rule of law.
It is, as we sing in The Star-Spangled Banner, a perilous fight, especially in these days of Donald Trump, the manchild who would be king.
As Wednesday’s testimony began and the heated arguments for and against impeaching Trump commenced, committee chair Jerry Nadler quoted founders George Washington, John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, the man who presciently advised, ”When a man unprincipled in private life, desperate in his fortune, bold in his temper, possessed of considerable talents… known to have scoffed in private at the principles of liberty — when such a man is seen to mount the hobby horse of popularity — to join the cry of danger to liberty—to take every opportunity of embarrassing the General Government & bringing it under suspicion . . . [i]t may justly be suspected that his object is to throw things into confusion that he may ‘ride the storm and direct the whirlwind.’”
The next morning, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also conjured the spirit of the founders as she officially asked the relevant committee chairs to proceed with articles of impeachment against Trump. She cited Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, Gouverneur Morris and George Mason.
True, for good or ill—Republicans did the same thing when impeaching Bill Clinton—conjuring the spirit of the founders is the backstop of American politics, “borrowed gravitas,” as Esquire’s Charlie Pierce calls it. But as I kept hearing the familiar litany of Revolutionary War-era names and the fusillade of references to the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, I thought of another who’s given insufficient credit: Abigail Adams.
An astute intellectual and activist, she notably wrote to her husband John in the weeks before the Declaration, “Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”
Just so. For throughout this current crisis, what’s become clear is that it’s the wisdom of the majority of American women, honed by centuries of enduring and resisting the ignorance and bad behavior of the rest of the nation’s population, that will save us from ourselves and keep this republic afloat.
I was there in Washington in 1974 when a different House Judiciary Committee voted articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon. I remember the words and deeds of committee members Elizabeth Holtzman of Brooklyn, who described “a seamless web of misconduct so serious that it leaves me shaken,” and the legendary Barbara Jordan, African-American congresswoman from Texas.
Speaking of the framers of the Constitution, Jordan said, “I was not included in that ‘We, the people.’ I felt somehow for many years that George Washington and Alexander Hamilton just left me out by mistake. But through the process of amendment, interpretation and court decision I have finally been included in ‘We, the people.’”
She continued that now “My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total. I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution… The subject of its jurisdiction are those offenses which proceed from the misconduct of public men.”
(For what it’s worth, as I reread her 1974 speech, I noticed that just as with the 2019 committee, Jordan said they had been cautioned “that perhaps these proceedings ought to be delayed because certainly there would be new evidence forthcoming from the President of the United States.” Fat chance, she replied.)
From those women who were members of (and staffers for) the judiciary committee during the Watergate scandal, you can draw a straight line to the women working in government or academia today who, despite it all, struggle to uphold the importance of service and commitment to what’s right and just, often to their own personal detriment. They’ve persisted.
From the opening moments of the Trump years, when millions of women around the world marched in defiance of his fledgling regime, the gender he so crassly scorns and abuses has stood in resistance. Just days after Trump’s swearing-in, acting Attorney General Sally Yates, a career prosecutor and government employee, told then-White House counsel Don McGahn that national security advisor Michael Flynn had lied to the FBI about his contacts with Russia. Then she was fired by Trump because she refused to implement an unconstitutional travel ban on visitors from Muslim-majority countries. (This now seems like a century ago, doesn’t it?)
Many others publicly have stood up, including in recent days Nancy Pelosi and the women who testified before the House intelligence committee last month—especially ex-National Security Council adviser Fiona Hill and former US Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, the woman unjustly fired in an effort to grease the wheels for the reelection scheming of Count Donald and his penny ante Renfield, Rudy Giuliani.
To this honor roll, now add now the name of Pamela Karlan, constitutional law professor at Stanford University, one of the four scholars who testified on Wednesday. Defending the proposed impeachment, she described Trump as, “A president who has doubled down on violating his oath to faithfully execute the laws, and to protect and defend the Constitution. The evidence reveals a president who used the powers of his office to demand that a foreign government participate in undermining a competing candidate for the presidency.”
“What happened in 2016 was bad enough. There is widespread agreement that Russian operatives intervened to manipulate our political process. But that distortion is magnified if a sitting president abuses the powers of his office actually to invite foreign intervention.”
The right immediately zeroed in on Karlan, largely ignoring the two male professors who also spoke out in favor of impeachment at the hearing. They described her as a “babe who is making up stories” (Rush Limbaugh), a “psychotic individual” (Sean Hannity) and “a moron” (Tucker Carlson). Thus, enraging the Three Stooges of Fox News Misogyny was proof positive that Karlan had hit the mark.
But what far too many obsessed on was a small joke she made to prove a point: “I’ll just give you one example that shows you the difference between [Trump] and a king, which is the constitution says there can be no titles of nobility. So while the president can name his son Barron, he can’t make him a baron.”
There was a collective gasp of feigned outrage. How dare she? First Lady Melania Trump tweeted, “Pamela Karlan, you should be ashamed of your very angry and obviously biased public pandering, and using a child to do it.” Kellyanne Conway went on Fox and Friends: “If you went to work today to manicure nails, to manicure lawn, if you went to work with a jackhammer or a welding machine… that woman yesterday looks her nose down on you… who the hell are you, lady?”
To which Columbia Law Professor Kamal Greene aptly replied, “Pam Karlan hates working people so much that she parlayed her Supreme Court clerkship into a huge $0 bonus and tony middle class salary litigating civil rights cases at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.”
You can argue that it may not have been the most elegant comparison Karlan could have made and she did apologize (unnecessarily in my opinion). But come on, she was not making fun of the president’s son. She was making a point about Trump’s assuming the faux-ermine cloak of royalty, pretending to be what he must never be—a monarch who can do no wrong because his tenure is a divine right, not the result of a few twists in the Electoral College that ran counter to the popular vote.
There was disingenuous sanctimony from far too much of the mainstream media and from the right, especially from Republicans whose president has bragged about grabbing women by their genitals, claimed if Ivanka Trump was not his own daughter he would date her and used to call himself John Barron, a “go-to alias,” The Washington Post reported, when Trump “was under scrutiny, in need of a tough front man or otherwise wanting to convey a message without attaching his own name to it.”
What’s more, when it comes to abuse of children, infinitely worse is this administration’s gross maltreatment of immigrant young people—including that newly reported 16-year-old Guatemalan who died from flu last spring in a Texas holding cell—and poor American youth who can’t get enough to eat.
It wasn’t about the Trump kid. Get real. To paraphrase Harry Truman, Pam Karlan didn’t just give the Trump gang hell. She told the truth and it felt like hell, so they lashed out with all their child-strength venom.
With her testimony, Pam Karlan confirmed her membership in the ranks of American truthtellers. Bless and praise these women professors, the women office holders, the candidates, the advocates, the women who will vote to throw the rascals out and do their utmost urging others to do so, too.
Without them, we’re goners.
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Michael Winship is the Schumann Senior Writing Fellow for Common Dreams. Previously, he was the Emmy Award-winning senior writer for Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com, a past senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos, and former president of the Writers Guild of America East. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWinship.