1995: The year the future began
Since the impeachment case against President Donald Trump sputtered to its inevitable conclusion early this month, the analogy has circulated that Trump’s acquittal should be considered akin to the popular verdict in the 1995 O.J. Simpson double-murder trial: Although he beat the rap, he was still guilty.
A skit on Saturday Night Live suggested that analogy (see nearby). So, too, did the BBC’s New York correspondent, who wrote: “In some ways, the impeachment of Trump has felt like a presidential version of the OJ Simpson trial.”
Besides a few superficial similarities — Alan Dershowitz, for example, was on Simpson’s legal “Dream Team” and was one of Trump’s defense lawyers — the comparison is absurd. It’s inventive and cute, perhaps, but altogether untenable. A false equivalence.
To make such a comparison is to overlook critical differences — notably that Simpson didn’t exactly get away with murder. He was tried in civil court in 1996-97 and found liable for the slayings of his former wife and her friend and ordered to pay $33.8 million to the estates of the victims.
Other differences are similarly stark.
Simpson’s acquittal in 1995 came as a surprise to many people, given all the forensic DNA evidence arrayed against him. Trump’s acquittal, however, was a foregone conclusion.
While prosecutors amassed considerable evidence that pointed to Simpson’s guilt, Democrats in the House of Representatives prepared an extraordinarily thin, highly partisan case against Trump. Indeed, Trump’s accusers never identified a crime the president supposedly committed. Nor did they offer more than a speculative motive for his supposed misdeeds of pressing Ukraine to investigate suspected corruption by former Vice President Joe Biden.
The country essentially stood still as verdicts the Simpson case were about to be read on October 3, 1995. The national vigil was impromptu and extraordinary. The same hardly can be said when U.S. Senate voted to acquit Trump on February 5. Many Americans paid little if any attention; they didn’t believe it much mattered.
The duration of the trials was another stark difference. Simpson’s criminal trial in Los Angeles stretched for months across much of 1995 and attracted large audiences that followed the case on television. The trial’s plot twists and turning points — not to mention its leading figures and oddball characters — became the stuff of national conversations. Trump’s impeachment trial was over in less than two weeks and has rapidly receded as a national preoccupation (if it ever was a preoccupation).
Trump’s defenders invoked the hit 1990s sit-com Seinfeld in saying the impeachment was about nothing. No one called the Simpson proceedings a “Seinfeld trial,” a trial about nothing: the victims had been brutally slashed to death.
Somewhat stronger parallels to the Simpson case can be found in another impeachment trial — that of President Bill Clinton. He was accused of specific crimes (perjury and obstruction of justice) stemming from his clandestine affair with a White House intern 27 years his junior.
There was little doubt Clinton lied under oath and attempt to cover up his dalliance with the intern, Monica Lewinsky. There was substantial evidence against him, notably the 453-page report prepared by independent counsel Kenneth Starr (who was on Trump’s legal team).
Clinton was impeached in December 1998 but acquitted at a Senate trial in February 1999. Nonetheless, the case has reverberated for years. It was a factor in the presidential election of 2000 (Democratic candidate Al Gore kept a distance from Clinton) and 2016 (Trump turned Bill Clinton’s treatment of women into an issue against Clinton’s wife and Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton).
More recently, his affair with Lewinsky has led to a reckoning of sorts for Clinton, and to speculation that his presidency would not have survived the sex-and-lies scandal, had it unfolded 20 years later.
Emblems of the Clinton scandal — such as Lewinsky’s semen-stained blue dress, which conclusively proved the sexual affair that Clinton had denied — live on in popular consciousness. So, too, do moments like Clinton’s brazen finger-wagging denial-lie. Nothing quite as memorable emerged from Trump’s impeachment and trial.
Clinton’s impeachment trial also is a subject of enduring popular fascination, not unlike the Simpson double-murder case. The FX cable channel inaugurated its American Crime Story series in 2016 with a 10-part dramatization of the Simpson case. Next up for American Crime Story: The impeachment of Bill Clinton, the episodes of which are to air starting late this year or early next.
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