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A Time to Heal Our Nation

By Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter

This op-ed appeared in the Dec. 22, 1998, edition of The New York Times.

It is proverbial that old men plant trees as an act of faith, precisely because they know they won't themselves live to sit under their shade. In this spirit, we believe the time has come to put aside political differences and plant seeds of justice and reconciliation. There is precedent for this, for during our presidencies each of us made difficult and controversial decisions - the pardoning of President Richard Nixon and the granting of amnesty for those who had avoided the Vietnam draft - in efforts to heal national divisions.

In the wake of President Clinton's impeachment by the House of Representatives, America once again suffers from a grievous and deepening wound. Our people are angrily divided. Our political institutions are called into question. Public confidence erodes under waves of personal smearmongering. Against such a backdrop of inflamed emotions, we are convinced that the public good requires a prompt and fair resolution of the impeachment issue. While our acts of pardon or clemency are not directly analogous to the decision pending before the Senate, how that body resolves the issue can have similar benefits of healing and finality.

Fortunately, Senate procedures, through their flexibility and freedom, provide the means to end this national ordeal in ways that can uphold the rule of law without permanently damaging the presidency. Before the senators make history, we hope they will first turn to history for help in devising what would be, in effect, a unique punishment for a unique set of offenses. 130 years have passed since the last impeachment of an American president. At the time of Andrew Johnson's 1868 trial, Senate Standing Rules and the Rules of Impeachment permitted almost all motions and matters of evidence to be determined by a majority vote. (By way of example, early in the proceedings, Chief Justice Salmon Chase, who presided over President Andrew Johnson's Senate trial, put to a vote the question of whether to delay the trial for forty days as requested by Johnson's lawyers. Members responded by granting only ten days.)

More recent impeachment cases involving judges have been resolved expeditiously by having a trusted bipartisan committee hear the evidence, either in public or private sessions, before making a recommendation to the full body for its consideration. How might all this bear on the current situation? In addition to immediate dismissal of the charges against President Clinton, there are four alternatives for the Senate to weigh: a trial followed by acquittal; a trial followed by conviction and removal from office; a trial followed by censure; or censure without a trial.

As intended by the founders, a two-thirds majority presents a formidable obstacle for the advocates of conviction and removal. Moreover, the sharp divisions rending the House of Representatives, though sincerely held and based on principle, do not bode well for a quick or clear decision on either acquittal or removal from office. However one now supposes a trial may end, it seems inevitable that by rehashing the lurid evidence of President Clinton's misconduct, we will only exacerbate the jagged divisions that are tearing at our national fabric.

Somehow we must reach a conclusion that most Americans can embrace and that posterity will approve. For make no mistake, the judgment of history does matter. It matters profoundly. And impeachment by the full House has already brought profound disgrace to President Clinton. Whatever happens in the near future will do little to affect history's judgment of him. But he is not alone in standing before the bar of judgment. Our political system, too, is on trial. Can we find within ourselves the will, the vision, the generosity and, yes, the courage to resolve the present crisis in a way that makes Americans proud of their leaders, their institutions, and themselves?

It is with this in mind that we personally favor a bi-partisan resolution of censure by both houses of Congress. Under such a plan, President Clinton would have to accept rebuke while acknowledging his wrongdoing and the very real harm he has caused. The Congressional resolution should contain language stipulating that the President's acceptance of these findings, including a public acknowledgment that he did not tell the truth under oath, cannot be used in any future criminal trial to which he may be subject. It may even be possible for the Special Prosecutor to forego the option of bringing such charges against the president when Mr. Clinton leaves office.

Some may object that a censure can be repealed by a future Congress, and is hereby rendered meaningless. They underestimate the power of the modern news media to foster indelible images in the public memory. In any event, no one can undo President Clinton's impeachment by the full House.

It is the genius of our Constitution that its authors provided us a governing charter whose legal mechanisms permit the nation to heal itself, so long as the end result is both justice and grace. It is clear that the American people expect and desire an outcome that is firm, fair, and untainted by partisan advantage. That is the challenge before us. How we meet that challenge will go a long way toward healing our divided nation.

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