‘They had their minds made up’

‘They had their minds made up’

Attorney general during the Johnson administration, Nicholas Katzenbach reflects on his role in the impeachment of President Clinton

Among other roles during a long career in government, Nicholas Katzenbach served as the 65th Attorney General of the United States under President Lyndon Johnson. On December 8, 1998, he testified before the House Judiciary Committee during the Clinton impeachment hearings. He sat down with the Miller Center's team of oral historians on November 29, 2005, for the Edward M. Kennedy Oral History. Here, he remembers his role in impeachment.

Q: You testified during the [William] Clinton impeachment hearings in Congress and I was wondering how that came about, who asked you to testify?

Katzenbach: Lloyd Cutler.

Q: Were you there principally as a former Attorney General?

Katzenbach: I think so, yes.

Q: Do you think you had a persuasive effect on the Congress?

Katzenbach: On that committee? Ha!

Q: I had to ask. 

Katzenbach: I don’t even know why they bothered to have me; they had their minds made up. There wasn’t anything you could say.

Q: Did [Henry] Hyde chair the hearing when you testified?

Katzenbach: Yes. It was a very different committee than years ago, and much less courteous.

Q: Oh really. Is that right?

Katzenbach: There just was no and you know, there’s little things. I had never, never been asked to take the oath when I testified. Never.

Q: They made you take an oath?

Katzenbach: Yes. I think you ought to assume that a Cabinet officer is telling you the truth, or, if you will, that he's not going to change his story because he’s taken an oath. Either one.

Q: When you testified during the Bork hearing?

For the most part, all you’re doing is giving a lot of opinion anyhow.

Katzenbach: I may have taken an oath then. I never did when I was Attorney General or when I was Deputy, in either the House or the Senate. Nobody ever made you take an oath. It’s sort of silly. It depends on the investigation, what you’re doing. For the most part, all you’re doing is giving a lot of opinion anyhow. If you look at something like the testimony I made on the impeachment, how could I tell a lie? Almost impossible. I mean, I’m giving an opinion as to whether or not what has happened is something for which there should be impeachment. That is so totally opinion that I don’t see how the oath could make any difference. Is it your honest opinion, I guess? That was too bad, that whole business. They really ruined the second term, Clinton’s second term. He was a pretty good President. 

Q: We have an ongoing history project looking at his Presidency, so I figured I’d take the opportunity to ask you this question.

Katzenbach: I would hazard a guess that Bill Clinton is as intelligent as any president we had in that century, perhaps the most intelligent. I think as good a politician as any one of the other presidents.