Not So Impeachy

"Impeachment": a clarification

When the Illinois House of Representatives voted to “impeach” Governor Rod Blagojevich, a number of blogs carried public comments like “thank heavens he’s gone!”

Of course, he’s not gone, at least not unless he’s convicted by the Illinois Senate or he resigns. And fortunately, most news outlets recognized that “impeachment” is only the first step to removing a public official from office.

So it’s puzzling why so many people equate “impeachment” with an official’s removal, or a least a verdict of guilt. After all, it’s not as if no one has been “impeached” recently. Bill Clinton was “impeached” just ten years ago, though the Senate narrowly acquitted him, and he seems to have survived quite nicely, thank you. Richard Nixon was about to be “impeached” in 1974, but quit first. Even so, a large part of the citizenry thinks someone who has been “impeached” has been run out of office in disgrace.

“Impeachment” derives from the French empêchement, which roughly translates to “an unexpected obstacle.” (While some claim “impeachment” comes from the Latin impetere, meaning attack, the Oxford English Dictionary says there is no etymological evidence for that.) For a governing body, an official accused of misuse of public office, criminally or otherwise, is indeed “an unexpected obstacle” and must be dealt with.

“Impeachment” doesn’t just show up in governmental circles, however. It’s most often heard—with a positive spin—as “unimpeachable,” meaning “above suspicion,” “not to be called in question” or “exempt from liability to accusation.” Among its synonyms are “blameless.”

Thus, any public official who is not blameless is, in theory, “impeachable.” And if every public official not without blame were “impeached,” perhaps there would be less public confusion over the process.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.