Katy Burns: Impeachment works best when it’s necessary
Forty years ago Friday, my friend Ed and I sat in an empty political campaign office in Columbus, Ohio, and on a cheap little black and white TV we watched Richard Milhous Nixon inform the nation that the next day he would resign the presidency of the United States.
Around the nation, millions of others tuned in, aware (as Ed and I were) that history was being made before our eyes.
For the two of us – decidedly no fans of the 37th president – it could have been a moment of celebration. Oddly, it wasn’t. The most we felt was a certain sad satisfaction that the whole ugly mess was over.
And by then it had become inevitable that Nixon, one way or another, would go. Had to go.
The speech (along with the resignation itself) was so anticlimactic that the others from the office were off doing what they’d signed up to do – campaigning for John Glenn, who later that year would be elected a United States senator.
What began as a bizarre burglary at the Democratic National Committee offices at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C., had, over two years, grown into the massive web of high-level corruption and base criminality that we now know as the Watergate scandals.
In the end, more than 40 people – from clumsy burglars and low-level officials in the wonderfully named Committee for the Re-Election of the President (CREEP) to top White House advisers and even the attorney general of the United States – had been convicted of criminal acts.
Nixon himself might well have been tried in criminal court – and likely convicted – had not his successor, Gerald Ford, pardoned him unconditionally.
And he most certainly would have been impeached in the House of Representatives and convicted in the Senate. Then, for the first time since the country’s founding, a president would have been removed from office without an election.
It was a deadly serious affair, as it deserved to be. Officeholders from both parties approached the issue cautiously. There was no casual talk of impeachment.
In fact, Congress was well into the various investigations – both criminal and congressional – before the whole idea of impeachment was even broached by serious politicians. After all, it had been unthinkable for so long.
It had only been attempted once before. In the aftermath of the Civil War and President Lincoln’s assassination, his unpopular successor, Andrew Johnson, had escaped conviction and removal by the Senate, albeit by only one vote. The entire affair was inextricably linked to the passions surrounding that seminal time in our history.
In the case of Watergate, it took nearly two years of hearings – first in the Senate in 1973 and then in the House of Representatives in 1974 – before the amazing scope of the lawlessness became obvious. The wrongdoing by the president and his men was breathtaking in its breadth and depth.
Among the crimes: break-ins and burglaries; destruction of evidence and manufacture of false evidence; promises of clemency and payments of hush money to participants; theft of government documents; and corruption of federal agencies, including both the FBI and the IRS.
One of Nixon’s top advisers even seriously proposed firebombing the Brookings Institution, apparently a nest of perceived enemies.
By the summer of 1974, the overwhelming evidence of criminality – in part revealed by subpoenaed tapes made by the secret taping system installed by Nixon in the Oval Office – persuaded a majority of House Judiciary Committee members, including six Republicans and three conservative Democrats, that they had to act.
One of those Republicans, M. Caldwell Butler, a conservative lawyer from Virginia who had deeply admired Nixon, stunned fellow committee members when he dramatically announced that he would vote for impeachment.
“For years we Republicans have campaigned against corruption and misconduct. But Watergate is our shame,” Butler, who died just a few weeks ago, said. Afterwards, he told friends, he wept.
In the end, the committee voted to approve three articles of impeachment. It was a foregone conclusion that the whole House would follow suit, impeaching a president for only the second time in our history. And when key Republican senators told Nixon that there were likely enough votes in the Senate to convict and remove him, the president resigned.
After taking office Aug. 9, 1974, as Nixon’s successor, President Gerald Ford declared that “Our long national nightmare is over.” And a month later, Ford granted Nixon “a full, free and absolute pardon” for any crimes that Nixon “committed or may have committed” while in the White House.
Two years later, Ford lost to Jimmy Carter, and a lot of people believed then and believe now that it was Ford’s pardon of Nixon that doomed his quest for a full and elected term. But my husband and I were among those who thought then and now that Ford did the right thing.
Watergate and the entire impeachment drama were traumatic to the body politic. To see a former president – one duly elected by a solid majority of Americans – in the dock could only have traumatized the country more. Nixon left office in disgrace, and history will ever record that, no matter how much he tried to rehabilitate himself in later years.
Most of us who lived through that impeachment drama hoped never again to witness such a thing in our lifetimes.
But clearly once the impeachment genie was uncorked, it couldn’t be put back.
Thus we had the unedifying spectacle of the impeachment of President Bill Clinton in late 1998, when a politically motivated “investigation” of the president’s clearly tawdry – in fact disgusting – personal behavior was elevated to the level of “high crimes and misdemeanors” the Constitution cites as grounds for impeachment.
After a Senate trial presided over by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, decked out in a gold trimmed robe that gave the proceedings the air of a Gilbert and Sullivan comic operetta, Clinton was acquitted. And the Republicans who cooked up the farcical affair were severely dealt with in the next congressional elections.
But that didn’t stop the impeachment talk. Not too many years later, it was a few House Democrats who proposed impeaching President George W. Bush. Then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi quickly ensured that the resolution was sent to die in committee.
Now it is Republicans who are back on the impeachment bandwagon, so eager to destroy their nemesis, President Barack Obama, that many of them propose impeaching now and figuring out the grounds later.
Speaker John Boehner has insisted that he has no interest in impeachment, but as long as he and the rest of the GOP leadership persist in painting Obama as a tyrant and dictator who routinely tramples on the Constitution and our laws to destroy our very nation, the backbenchers – along with a growing majority of Republican voters – will continue their beating of the impeachment drums.
And so the further trivialization of our national government continues.
(“Monitor” columnist Katy Burns lives in Bow.)