Republicans Defending Trump on Impeachment Should Fear the Judgment of HistoryRoundup
tags: Watergate, impeachment, Nixon, Trump
Michael Luo is the editor of newyorker.com.
The House Judiciary Committee began debating articles of impeachment against President Richard Milhous Nixon on the evening of July 24, 1974. In his introductory remarks, the committee chairman, Peter Rodino, a New Jersey congressman who had become a national figure during seven months of impeachment proceedings, said he had been guided throughout by “the principle that the law must deal fairly with every man.” Rodino called this “the oldest principle of democracy” and implored each member of the committee to “act with the wisdom that compels us in the end to be but decent men who seek only the truth.” Shortly afterward, Harold Donohue, a Massachusetts Democrat, moved that the committee “report to the House a resolution together with articles of impeachment, impeaching Richard M. Nixon, President of the United States.”
By this point, the members had sat through eleven weeks of closed hearings. The committee’s staff had summarized the evidence against the President in several dozen thick black notebooks. The President’s approval ratings had sagged to about twenty-five per cent, and a majority of Americans supported impeachment. Nevertheless, most Republicans on the committee refused to abandon the President. “The closer President Nixon comes to impeachment, the louder his supporters proclaim his innocence,” James Reston wrote, in the Times. “If you say he is innocent often enough, maybe you can make people believe it.”
At the time, these members’ defense of Nixon seemed desperate and futile. Decades later, and long after many of their congressional careers had ended, their support for Nixon would continue to linger over their legacies, an inalterable epitaph. It was the leading item in almost all of their obituaries, if not in the headline. From the Times, on August 27, 1985: “Ex-Rep. Charles Sandman, Nixon Supporter, Dies.” From the Times, on May 22, 1991: “Former Rep. Joseph Maraziti, 78, Defender of Nixon on Watergate.” From the Times, on March 8, 2000: “Charles Wiggins, 72, Dies; Led Nixon’s Defense in Hearings.” From the Los Angeles Times, on June 6, 2007: “Wiley Mayne, 90; House GOP Member Who Voted Not to Impeach Nixon.”
This week, as the current Judiciary Committee begins impeachment hearings on President Donald Trump, these obituaries might serve as a reminder to the committee’s Republican members that the consequences of their decisions in the coming days will likely extend far beyond the next election. The Judiciary Committee debate on articles of impeachment against Nixon lasted six days. The tone of the hearings was at times soaring and at other moments opaque––alternately invoking the nation’s highest ideals, the fine-grained details of the accusations against the President, and the arcana of legal standards and legislative proceedings. But the significance was clear throughout. “This is no ordinary set of speeches,” Elizabeth Drew wrote, for The New Yorker. “It is the most extraordinary political debate I have ever heard––perhaps the most extraordinary since the Constitutional Convention. And perhaps the most important political debate since that one. These people are drawing on history, attaching themselves to it, and becoming part of it.”
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