Friday, August 08, 2014

Anniversary: When Impeachment Was Real

Doonesbury: the stonewall (1974)
On this day in 1974 President Richard Nixon went before the nation and offered his resignation, effective the next day.  Gerald Ford, recently installed as Vice President, would be sworn in as President on August 9.

What began as an investigation into a puzzling break-in at the Democratic Party's headquarters in the Watergate Office Complex in June 1972 turned into a revelation of reckless law-breaking by a political campaign awash in slush money, political dirty tricks, warrant-less wire-tapping, interdepartmental warfare reaching well into the White House itself, and Paul Newman being on Nixon's Enemies List.

The rot with the Nixon administration was top-down, but up to a certain point most of the damage to Nixon himself wasn't threatening to his position (when the November 1972 vote was held, Nixon still won because most voters didn't think Watergate or the cover-up attempts involved him).

By 1974 the situation changed.  The revelation in 1973 that Nixon had been taping all conversations in the Oval Office (it was actually a practice begun during the FDR years, but not to the extent Nixon set up) created a Constitutional crisis.  The relationship - the system of checks and balances - between the three branches of the federal government were strained to a point not seen since the start of the Civil War, especially between the Executive and Legislative branches.  Court fights over the tapes and transcripts carried on for over a year.  By the time the Supreme Court ruled 8-0 in US v Nixon in favor of releasing the tapes, we were facing the likelihood of a President openly defying SCOTUS as well as defying Congress itself.

Impeachment - the removal of the President for criminal or unethical misconduct - was openly discussed.  And seriously - as opposed to other moments - considered...

The history of impeachment itself as a mechanism for cleaning corrupt officials out of power is kinda checkered.  For non-elected and (usually) non-partisan officials like judges, the system was even-handed.  There'd only been 62 proceedings in the House to consider impeachments, with only 19 proceeding to the Senate since 1789 up to today, making it a rarely used process.  But when it comes to the big chair of the Presidency... well...

In the review of Presidential character I did last year, I pointed out - in cases like John Tyler and Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton - that the partisan nature of the fights between the White House and Congress skewed the need to impeach.  As I said in a follow-up:
...Congress talked impeachment only rarely: in a case like John Tyler (when Tyler seemed to betray the Whig Party on a personal level); and in a case like Andrew Johnson (when party foolishness put a Democrat in the line of succession, leaving a Radical Republican Congress to reach for any excuse to purge him). The impeachment process against Tyler went nowhere because the Whigs couldn't garner enough votes in the House: the impeachment against Johnson came one vote shy of success, which historians still argue was the closest we'd ever gotten to a political coup in our nation's history. Both times, impeachment was used as a means to remove a President simply because of ideological conflict: neither one really broke the law (technically Johnson broke the Tenure of Office Act, but that law was specifically written against him, and the courts ruled it unconstitutional), they both were radically opposed to what Congress wanted...
This is the danger of impeachment: meant to be a tool to remove a powerful political figure that might otherwise be above the law, impeachment has rarely been used as such (only once)...
You'll notice that I gave one exemption ("only once"): that exemption was Nixon.

As Watergate's revelations unfolded, even the partisan backers of his own party - Republicans - began to step away.  Unlike Tyler and Johnson, there was something criminally wrong with Nixon's White House that even the most biased supporter couldn't defend.  It didn't help Nixon that the Congressional investigations especially in the Senate were fronted by respected pols - Sam Ervin and Howard Baker - known for their bipartisan work.

As long as Nixon kept hidden any evidence of criminal wrong-doing, of unethical activity, he was still safe behind the argument that Watergate was a political witch-hunt.  Which was why he and his lawyers fought hard to keep those tapes away from the public.  When the Supreme Court said that the tapes had to come out, there was nowhere to hide.  Other than outright law-breaking, full shutdown of the government, a White House coup making Nixon full-on dictator...

If there was anything in Nixon's soul, even it balked at taking that one step.  Nixon turned over the tapes.

The House Committee considering impeachment charges voted on July 27 to charge Nixon with obstruction of justice with a 27-11 vote, with enough Republicans on the committee voting for it.  The "smoking gun" tape - the one that caught Nixon telling six days after the Watergate break-in to get the CIA to block the FBI investigation, specific proof of obstruction - went public August 5th.

Word was, even Barry Goldwater and other GOP leaders were warning Nixon he was "toast."

Rather than face the ignominy of being the first President ever impeached - a legitimate possibility, one even Andrew Johnson was able to avoid - Nixon resigned.

It's never been that close a call.

In Andrew Johnson's defense, the law he was getting impeached over was a sham.  In Bill Clinton's defense, his actions trying to hide his affair with Monica Lewinsky didn't rise to an impeachable offense.  In all the other cases where impeachment was argued, pursued, wished for - Tyler, Bush the Lesser, and Obama (present tense) - the stench of partisan obsessiveness made it too reckless and either failed on a floor vote or failed (and should fail in Obama's case) in committee.

It was forty years ago, we came this close to a genuine impeachment trial, and for all that meant.  It was forty years ago our nation pulled back from a very dangerous political cliff.

We still have morons desperately trying to drive us back over that political cliff for all the wrong partisan reasons.

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