House Democrats Want a Watergate Repeat. Don’t Count on It.

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The House Judiciary Committee’s public deliberation on the impeachment of President Richard Nixon is recalled in history as a reaffirming moment for American democracy.

There was very little snark in those days of summer 1974. The members, Republican or Democrat, for or against impeachment, joined in keen legal sparring and cloaked their arguments in lofty sentiment. The drama was real, the atmosphere solemn; the verdict was not preordained. There was a persuadable “middle” of conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans who would determine the outcome, Judiciary Chairman Peter Rodino, Democrat from New Jersey, said as the hearings began. Nielsen later gauged that 9 out of 10 Americans had watched or heard at least some portion of the debate.

The committee’s sterling performance, when combined with the investigatory spectacle of the previous summer’s televised Senate Watergate hearings, helped form a national consensus that Nixon had to go. And once Nixon resigned, a little more than a week after the panel had approved three articles of impeachment, the prevalent sentiment among Americans was that the system had worked.

There have been but three realistic attempts to force an American president to leave office before the end of his term. The two that failed—those targeting Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton—are generally viewed as excessively partisan endeavors. The Nixon model is our gold standard. Can today’s representatives—as they prepare for public impeachment hearings regarding President Donald Trump—match the performance of their predecessors, from that summer of 1974? It is unlikely. The times, the norms, our politics have changed. A look back to 1974 shows just how.

The Judiciary panel was not a select committee, yet it attracted more than its share of lawyers, and it handled issues—civil rights, constitutional amendments, criminal justice—that were a cut above cotton quotas or highway bills. Several on the committee, like Texas Democrat Barbara Jordan treated the public to flights of eloquence as they deliberated over articles of impeachment against Nixon. As an African American, Jordan said, she was well aware that the Constitution in 1787 would have counted her merely as three-fifths of a white citizen. Yet through an inspirational process of correction, she said, that injustice was erased and someone like her could be elected to Congress. And so, when considering the charges that Nixon had abused the august powers of his office, Jordan said, “My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total. And I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution.”

Others engraved their names in our political vernacular with succinct distillation. James Mann, a conservative Democrat from South Carolina, was a member of a bipartisan “fragile coalition” of Southern Democrats and moderate Republicans who held the balance of power on the committee. If presidents were not held to high standards of conduct, Mann argued, it opened a door to tyranny. And “the next time,” he warned, “there may be no watchman in the night.”

The president’s defenders were no slouches either. When the Democratic majority introduced one article of impeachment, indicting Nixon for obstructing justice, Charles Wiggins, a Republican from California, and Charles Sandman, a GOP colleague from New Jersey, almost carried the day by demanding, from a majority caught unaware, the specifics of date and time for each obstructing act. “If Wiggins was the minority’s rapier, slicing at the soft spots in the majority argument, then … Sandman … was their blackjack, thudding relentlessly around his opponent’s head and shoulders,” wrote newsman J. Anthony Lukas in his book Nightmare: The Underside of the Nixon Years.

But the majority rallied overnight. William Hungate, a Democrat from Missouri, offered a memorable, folksy retort to the “specificity” charge: “I’ll tell you, if a guy brought an elephant through that door, and one of us said, ‘That is an elephant,’ some of the doubters would say, ‘You know, that is an inference. That could be a mouse with a glandular condition.’”

It is important to note that the Judiciary Committee in 1974 did not bear the burden of educating the public about Watergate. By the time the Judiciary Committee opened its doors to the television cameras on July 24, two years had passed since the break-in. Three formidable institutions—the media, the courts and the U.S. Senate—had spent months educating the citizenry with newspaper articles and television specials, legal opinions and judicial decisions, and, in the case of the Senate, a “Watergate summer” of widely watched televised hearings by the Watergate Committee. In the October 1973 “Saturday Night Massacre,” Americans had seen Nixon fire a special prosecutor in a rash, doomed attempt to keep control of secret White House tape recordings. The public outrage that followed was widely dubbed a “firestorm” and set Congress on the path to impeachment. The House Judiciary Committee, then, had little to teach. Nixon—and the tapes that the Supreme Court compelled him to release amid the Judiciary Committee deliberations—did the teaching.

Months passed as a staff of 100 Judiciary lawyers assembled evidence, briefed the committee and heard witnesses behind closed doors. Only the final debate, on whether to approve articles of impeachment, was telecast in July. By then, the first groups of tapes had been released. The voters—the ultimate jury in a political transaction like impeachment—had read transcripts of conversations that made the Oval Office sound, as columnist Joseph Alsop put it, like “the back room of a second-rate advertising agency in a suburb of hell.” The committee needed only present closing arguments. And in the last days of July, the Judiciary panel approved three articles of impeachment: One charged Nixon for obstructing justice, the second for abusing the powers of his office and the third for refusing to furnish materials subpoenaed by the committee. In a week, according to a Louis Harris poll, the number of Americans favoring impeachment had risen by 13 percentage points.

It is not at all clear America will be treated to a repeat performance with Trump’s potential impeachment. Only seven weeks have passed since the partial transcript of Trump’s call to the Ukrainian president was released. And while that transcript serves as a sort of “smoking gun,” showing him abusing the powers of his office to blacken the reputation of a Democratic rival—and fits his pattern of inviting foreign interference in U.S. elections—seven weeks is not a long time to educate generations of busy, jaundiced Americans in the rules of impeachment or the turns of the alleged plot. Democratic Representative Adam Schiff, who chairs the Intelligence Committee, and his colleagues must, in the space of a few weeks or months, do what the Senate Watergate Committee, the federal courts, a special prosecutor and the House Judiciary Committee spent a year of private and public hearings to accomplish. They must investigate and educate, as well as argue.

Schiff’s efforts as educator will be further complicated by the format. The Judiciary panelists in 1974 interrogated witnesses in private and offered written, prepared remarks when the TV lights came on. When the nation is watching and a gaffe can lead to fatal ridicule, it’s safer for a politician to read a statement or engage in a planned colloquy. Even that collection of Judiciary lawyers in 1974 left the actual debating to a cohort of bright and nimble-minded members of Congress who excelled at rhetorical give and take.

The Intelligence Committee’s chore this week is a more complicated task. The committee similarly interviewed witnesses in private, but it now will repeat the exercise on-air. Its members can ask arch and demeaning questions, interrupt and voice outrage. Both parties have shown their abilities, in today’s more partisan and polarized era, to disrupt, divert and distract—and to employ slanted cable TV shows and the uncurated yack of social media to help them do so.

Despite differences between 1974 and now, there are stark similarities between the Nixon and Trump defenses. Impeachment, Nixon’s defenders on the Judiciary Committee argued, was a most consequential act—to be undertaken only in response to indictable criminal acts and not for common political offenses. The evidence of criminal behavior must show intent, they argued, beyond a reasonable doubt. The president should be given due process, with the right to have his lawyers call and cross-examine witnesses. The proceedings should be open to the public. A president must not be impeached for the freelancing criminal actions of aides, and the testimony of those aides could be shielded by executive privilege. A president, if not above the law, had a constitutional standing above that of mere citizens.
“A common jaywalker charged with jaywalking any place in the United States is entitled to know when and where the alleged offense is supposed to have occurred,” said Representative Delbert Latta, a Republican from Ohio. “Is the president of the United States entitled to less?”

Democrats on the Judiciary Committee were outraged by the cynical “everybody does it” aspect of Nixon’s defense. “Are we so morally bankrupt that we would accept a past course of wrongdoing?” Mann asked. Walter Flowers, a Democrat from Alabama, asked: “What if we fail to impeach? Do we ingrain forever in the very fabric of our Constitution a standard of conduct in our highest office that in the least is deplorable and at worst impeachable?” Hearkening back to the 18th century and Edmund Burke’s definition of impeachment, Rodino said the process was one in which statesmen judged statesmen and was not reliant “upon the niceties of a narrow jurisprudence” found in municipal courtrooms.

Then, as now, it was difficult for Republicans to join in the impeachment of a Republican president. But there were enough to provide the crucial sheen of bipartisanship, without which impeachment must fail. Seven Republicans joined 21 Democrats in voting for at least one count of impeachment.

Republican Representative Caldwell Butler of Virginia, another member of the “fragile coalition,” said: “Watergate is our shame. Those things have happened in our house, and it is our responsibility to do what we can to clear it up. It is we, not the Democrats, who must demonstrate that we are capable of enforcing the high standard we would set. … Power appears to have corrupted. It is a sad chapter in American history, but I cannot condone what I have heard; I cannot excuse it, and I cannot and will not stand for it.”

When the Supreme Court ruled that Nixon had to turn over subpoenaed White House tape recordings to a special prosecutor and the public heard Nixon order a cover-up, Republican support collapsed. “The magnificent public career of Richard Nixon must be terminated involuntarily,” Wiggins told the media. Many on the Judiciary Committee felt betrayed by Nixon. So, they wrote a note to future generations, to history. When the panel’s final report was released in late August, a dozen Republicans added a “minority view.” They anticipated Nixon and his admirers might one day claim a plot, or a “witch hunt,” had railroaded him from office.

“We know that it has been said, and perhaps some will continue to say, that Richard Nixon was ‘hounded from office’ by his political opponents and media critics,” they wrote. “We feel constrained to point out, however, that it was Richard Nixon who impeded the F.B.I.’s investigation of the Watergate affair. … It was Richard Nixon who created and preserved the evidence of that transgression and who, knowing that it had been subpoenaed by this committee and the special prosecutor, concealed its terrible import. … And it was a unanimous Supreme Court of the United States, which in an opinion authorized by the Chief Justice whom he appointed, ordered Richard Nixon to surrender that evidence to the special prosecutor, to further the ends of justice.

“It is striking,” they continued, “that such an able, experienced and perceptive man, whose ability to grasp the global implications of events little noticed by others may well have been unsurpassed by any of his predecessors, should fail to comprehend the damage that accrued daily to himself, his Administration and to the nation, as day after day, month after month, he imprisoned the truth about his role in the Watergate cover‐up so long and so tightly within the solitude of his Oval Office that it could not be unleashed without destroying his Presidency.”

It is a remarkable message, from people of conscience who honored truth and history, to their descendants—one of many reasons Americans should be proud to look back on the summer of 1974. These Republicans had endured a staggering betrayal by a president for whom, at first, they had risked both conscience and career. It is something today’s Republicans might want to keep in mind.

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