The last time Washington was in the grip of an impeachment inquiry, there was a leading Republican lawmaker who wanted us all to view the news through the eyes of a child.
Henry Hyde, who chaired the House Judiciary Committee during the impeachment of President Clinton, read aloud a letter he said he received from a third grader in Chicago.
The student wrote: “If you cannot believe the president, who can you believe?”
The words, read by Hyde in 1999, clearly echo twenty years later, at a time when President Trump’s unbelievable claims cause confusion and frustration.
Trump’s distortions of the truth have repeatedly come up in the impeachment inquiry that started in the House Intelligence Committee and is now moving to the Judiciary Committee.
That’s why I revisited Hyde’s closing remarks from the Senate impeachment trial of Clinton, during which Hyde led the House prosecutors.
Near the end of Hyde’s remarks, he held up a letter from William Preston Summers, 8, from Chase Elementary School in Chicago.
“I am writing this letter because I have something to tell you. I have thought of a punishment for the president of the United States of America,” young William wrote. “The punishment should be that he should write a 100-word essay by hand.”
William’s father suggested that his son write the letter to Hyde.
“I have to write an essay when I lie,” William wrote. “It is bad to lie because it just gets you in more trouble. I hate getting in trouble. It’s just like the boy who cried ‘wolf’ and the wolf ate the boy.”
“It is important to tell the truth,” the 8-year-old continued. “I like to tell the truth because it gets you in less trouble. If you do not tell the truth, people do not believe you.”
Then he made the key point that was politically useful for Hyde: “It is important to believe the president because he is a important person. If you cannot believe the president, who can you believe? If you have no one to believe in, then how do you run your life?”
Hyde invoked William and returned to the point about the president’s truthfulness in the wind-up to his remarks.
The made-for-TV moment on the Senate floor wound up getting William booked on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” The third-grader explained that he didn’t think Clinton should be impeached, but he should “just have to write, like, an essay. Like I did.”
After I quoted from William’s letter in CNN’s “Reliable Sources” newsletter, Howard Mortman of C-SPAN posted the original video clip of Hyde speaking on the Senate floor. Conservative columnist and CNN political analyst Matt Lewis, who supports impeachment, tweeted wistfully in response, “I remember when conservatives believed this.”
There is something inherently powerful in having the TV archives of the last impeachment inquiry handy — so people can compare and contrast what was being said then versus now.