Burt Constable at the bar: 'Everyone asks to turn the channel' from impeachment trial
The impeachment trial of President Donald John Trump should be a seminal moment for democracy in the history of the United States. Are we, the people, up for that challenge?
"Democracy requires both discipline and hard work," wrote Eleanor Roosevelt in her 1963 book, "Tomorrow Is Now."
In a 1980 Newsweek essay, a more cynical Issac Asimov suggested democracy was falling victim to ignorance.
"There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge,'" Asimov wrote.
Forty years later, Americans on both sides of the current impeachment trial can nod their heads in agreement about their knowledge and their opponents' ignorance.
In our nation's first presidential impeachment trial in 1868, Americans were riveted to every development in the case against Republican Andrew Johnson.
"All these steps were highly dramatic. The newspapers reported every incident with relish, and huge crowds sought admission to the Senate," wrote historian Hans Louis Trefousse in his 1989 biography of Johnson.
During the 1999 impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, the public and even the politicians might not have been as invested in the proceedings.
"If there is anything funny about impeachment hearings, it is 100 U.S. senators trying to stay awake," my column buddy Jack Mabley wrote on Jan. 18, 1999. Mabley wrote of the Republican-dominated trials: "Boring. BOREing. Boring not just the jurors in the Senate, but most of the nation."
That might be even more true today. Stopping at a few suburban watering holes to talk to people watching the historic trial on television, I couldn't find a single TV showing the trial.
At Eddie's, a longtime staple in Arlington Heights, the main TV behind the bar was tuned to the Game Show Network's airing of a 1970s "Match Game" episode with host Gene Rayburn.
"It's pretty much anything else," says bartender Amanda Miller, noting customers are not just passively uninterested in the Washington spectacle. "If it happens to be on, everyone asks to turn the channel."
Just as the Democrats and Republicans seem to have made up their minds before the trial started, so has the American public.
When the Watergate scandal first broke, most Americans believed President Richard Nixon was innocent, and he won a landside victory to reelection in 1972. Nixon had a 60% approval rating and the support of the Republican Party. In July 1973, just about 20% of Americans thought Nixon should be impeached, according to research by fivethirtyeight.com.
But facts changed that.
That November, Nixon assured the American people, "I'm not a crook." On Aug. 8, 1974, a couple of days after a visit from a Republican contingent led by Sen. Barry Goldwater, a former staunch supporter, Nixon resigned before an impeachment vote could be taken.
In today's climate, where it is ridiculously easy to seek out only those opinions that mirror and support your own, it might be harder for people and politicians to gather evidence and change their minds. But we should try to watch and read about the trial, and educate ourselves on reasons for and against impeachment.
As Ralph Nader said, "There can be no daily democracy without daily citizenship."