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September 20, 1998 - Impeachment - 2002-02-12

INTRO: Now for a look at American English, with VOA's wordmasters, Avi Arditti and Rosanne Skirble. They talk about the meaning of the word "impeach," which as they discovered even has some Americans confused.

AA: I'm Avi Arditti.

RS: And I'm Rosanne Skirble. In his report to Congress about President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, independent counsel Kenneth Starr outlines eleven acts by the president that he says -- and we quote -- "may constitute grounds for an impeachment."

AA: So what does the word impeach really mean? I decided to take a lunchtime walk near the Capitol building and ask some people passing by. This was a typical response:


MAN: "To remove an official from office."

AA: "What do you think?"

WOMAN: "The same."

AA: "I pull out my dictionary definition. Does it say anything about removing?"


RS: No, it doesn't. Impeach, according to our American Heritage Dictionary, simply means "to charge with malfeasance in office before a proper tribunal."

AA: And in the case of the president, that's the House of Representatives. If the House does decide to impeach -- in effect, to indict the president -- then it's up to the Senate to hold a trial to decide if the president should be removed from office. And presiding at that trial, should it take place, would be the chief justice of the United States.

RS: That's what Father Robert Drinan, a priest who teaches law at Georgetown University, told us. Twenty five years ago he was a congressman from Massachusetts serving on the House Judiciary Committee during impeachment hearings against President Nixon. The committee approved articles of impeachment against the president. But in the end, Richard Nixon resigned before the full House could vote on sending the case to the Senate for trial.

AA: We asked Father Drinan to walk us through the impeachment process.


DRINAN: "If the House impeaches by a simple majority vote, it goes to the Senate where he has to be convicted by two-thirds of the vote. It's a trial in the Senate.

Technically it's only a hearing of some kind in the House.

AA: "I was just out at the Capitol talking to people and asking them what does impeach mean, and a lot of them were saying it means to remove from office."

DRINAN: "The person is not removed from office until he is convicted by the Senate. And the Framers [of the Constitution] very wisely wanted to make this very, very rare."

AA: In fact, only one American president has ever been impeached, and that was Andrew Johnson. Andrew Johnson was impeached in eighteen-sixty-eight. But the Senate fell just one vote short of convicting him -- so he kept his job.

RS: We asked Father Drinan if there were any other words related to the present situation that might be confusing.


DRINAN: "Well, we lawyers keep them obscure so we can keep up a monopoly. I'm certain [people] wonder about the term 'the subornation of perjury.' That means that he ordered it or arranged it or expedited it and they also wonder about the subpoena, that document that means you have to appear before the court designated."

RS: "Are there words that we're likely to hear in the coming days that perhaps we're not familiar with?"

DRINAN: "We'll I'm afraid that most people, especially those under 40, have never really focused on the terms in the Constitution that the president can be impeached only for bribery, treason and -- listen to this -- 'or other high crimes and misdemeanors.' That's a consecrated phrase that comes to us from English law."

RS: Father Robert Drinan at Georgetown University. He mentioned "high crimes and misdemeanors." What are high crimes and misdemeanors? The Founding Fathers who wrote the Constitution didn't answer that question. So it would be up to Congress to decide.

AA: Which brings us to another word coming up in the congressional debate about President Clinton, and that is the word "censure" ['sen-shur].

RS: Censure -- c-e-n-s-u-r-e, not censor c-e-n-s-o-r ['sen-sir. ] A censure is one of the possible punishments that Congress could take against the president. It would be a reprimand, but n o t impeachment or removal from office. To censure is to reprimand, whereas to censor is to suppress.

AA: I suppose you could censure an overzealous censor. Anyway, that's Wordmaster for this week.

RS: Next week -- some stock market slang. I'm Rosanne Skirble.