In the March 1976 issue of The Atlantic, Elliot Richardson, the former attorney general, made a silver-lining argument about the then-recent constitutional crisis:
Beyond its own sordid confines, Watergate has been redemptive—a disguised stroke of good fortune … The good fortune may yet turn to ashes, but I am one of those whom H. L. Mencken called the “optimists and chronic hopers of the world,” and I see gain for this country in the reassertion of old ideals and the renewal of government processes.
Richardson had resigned his post in 1973 rather than follow President Richard Nixon’s directive to fire the first Watergate special prosecutor, Archibald Cox. The “Saturday Night Massacre,” as it became known, placed Nixon firmly on the path to disgrace.
When Yoni Appelbaum, the editor of The Atlantic’s Ideas section and a historian of American institutions, recently made an argument to us about the efficacy of impeachment, I turned to our Watergate-era archives. Yoni’s argument is in one way similar to Richardson’s. Impeachment, as I had previously understood it, seemed like a formula for chaos, the sort of chaos no fractured nation needs. But impeachment, Yoni said, is actually an antidote to chaos. The Framers provided in the Constitution an orderly, evidence-based process that allows the American people, through their elected representatives, to determine whether a president has displayed the character and moral fitness to continue to serve as the nation’s chief executive. Yoni’s view is that we should take the debate over President Donald Trump’s fitness out of the court of public opinion and place it where it belongs: in Congress. This “renewal of government processes” might itself be redemptive, and would certainly be clarifying.
Here at The Atlantic, we are caught in an eternal dilemma. Our founding manifesto promises readers that we will be of no party or clique. This is why The Atlantic is generally so hesitant to endorse candidates for any office. And yet our founding editors also promised that The Atlantic would stand for impartial liberty and wage war “against despotism in every form.” The magazine endorsed Abraham Lincoln in 1860 (but not, for reasons lost to history, in 1864). In 1964, faced with a candidate for president temperamentally unsuited for office, The Atlantic came out in favor of the incumbent, Lyndon B. Johnson. And in 2016, we endorsed Hillary Clinton. As in 1964, this most recent endorsement was more of an anti-endorsement. We argued that Trump was “spectacularly unfit” for office. “His affect is that of an infomercial huckster,” we wrote in November 2016. “He traffics in conspiracy theories and racist invective; he is appallingly sexist; he is erratic, secretive, and xenophobic; he expresses admiration for authoritarian rulers, and evinces authoritarian tendencies himself.”