Civics Lessons in the Crucible
Jerry Moran came to the District as an intern the year Nixon resigned. What the future legislator saw shaped his career.
By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 13, 2004; Page B01
Jerry Moran had traveled a long way from Plainville, Kan., and he didn't mind waiting. Who knew when he would pass this way again?
The 20-year-old congressional intern milled in line outside Room 2141 of the Rayburn House Office Building, its stone-tiled floors offering some relief from the summer heat that wilted his shirt and tie.
The wood-paneled chamber had another name, of course: the hearing room of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee. That summer of 1974, its 38 members weighed the impeachment of President Richard M. Nixon.
Day after day, perhaps a dozen altogether, the University of Kansas student waited for a seat to watch committee Chairman Peter W. Rodino Jr. (D-N.J.) solemnly wield his gavel, to hear James St. Clair, Nixon's attorney, clash with former White House counsel John W. Dean, and to bear witness as six key Republican members evolved from embarrassment to deep anger at the president's conduct.
Moran came to Washington at the urging of his parents, an oil field worker and an electrical company clerk, who told him "to see the world." He saw more of it than he could have expected. Twenty-three years later, he would return to the House of Representatives, this time as a freshman Republican congressman, and cast his own votes to impeach a president.
"I think of the summer of 1974 as a watershed," said Moran, a golden-haired product of western Kansas's emptying prairie. "It was one of the things that changed my life. For the first time I thought maybe it was possible for me, a small-town kid from Kansas, to come to Congress and make things better."
Moran's road to Washington began in high school. As student body president in Plainville (population about 2,000) he invited his congressman, Rep. Keith G. Sebelius, a Republican who was an influential House agriculture expert and a member of a politically powerful Kansas family, to a dinner for parents and students.
Moran later wrote to Sebelius, who eventually offered him a $500-a-month internship. He moved into a big red-brick building on I Street SW from which he walked to work every day.
Moran lovingly documented his summer of firsts. He kept the "occupied" seat card from his flight to Washington. He snagged a matchbook from the Capitol Hill Club, a Republican haunt that struck him as "the height of fine dining and high society." He got the autograph of then-Republican National Committee Chairman George H.W. Bush.
The job itself was often tedious: sorting mail, drafting replies and running home state tourists through the U.S. Capitol to see the statue of Dwight D. Eisenhower (raised in Abilene, Kan.) in the soaring Rotunda.
But it also was instructive. One task of enduring value was sorting 25,000 responses to a constituent survey by each of the district's counties, which at the time numbered 54.
"I still know every town in my congressional district and what county it's from," Moran said with a wink. He spends every August driving to each of his district's 69 counties, a tradition passed down to him by Sebelius.
But then as now, he said, "I remember the whole summer as revolving around Watergate."
Moran didn't think the world could be any more chaotic and unnerving than it was in his middle and high school years -- the assassinations, the Vietnam war, the riots.
Now this. Making his way home one day from Sebelius's office on Independence Avenue, he passed waves of demonstrators defending and attacking the president. He felt defensive, then shamed.
"Your first reaction is to defend the president. He could not have made these mistakes," Moran said. "And then through the trial, it became clear that he did."
On July 9, the hottest day of the summer at a sweltering 96 degrees, eight members of the U.S. Supreme Court decided unanimously in private conference that Nixon's Oval Office tapes would have to be made public. Fifteen days later, the court issued its opinion in United States v. Nixon.
On July 27, 29 and 30, Rodino's committee approved three articles of impeachment, with a half-dozen Republicans joining the Democratic majority on the most important. On Aug. 9, after meeting with Republican members of Congress, Nixon resigned.
"It was very emotional," Moran said. "I can remember wondering as a 19-year-old what the future of the country would be. And just then it seemed that it was coming apart at the seams. What was holding it together?
"I asked my dad, 'Can our country survive?' I remember what he said: 'This will be fine,' that we'll make it, we'll all hold together. My dad was right."
After the summer, Moran went home and got his economics degree from the University of Kansas, became a banker, earned a law degree (also from KU), got married and raised a family. But his political appetite was whetted.
Moran served eight years in the Kansas Senate, becoming majority leader. He would keep in touch with Sebelius, and with Sebelius's chief of staff from all those years ago, Pat Roberts, who succeeded Sebelius in Congress. When Roberts ran for Senate in 1996, Moran's phone rang.
He didn't miss a vote as a freshman. Among them were articles of impeachment against President Bill Clinton in December 1998. During the bitter debate, he joined about 30 members in not announcing their votes beforehand. These were the most important votes of his career, Moran said, and he would wait until all the evidence was in. He sided with the majority on all counts, voting to impeach for perjury and obstruction of justice and voting against the two other articles.
Moran, who once told constituents his "goal is to return to the days of 'The Andy Griffith Show,' though I don't know how we get there," said that for all the high drama of that summer long ago, Washington seems much more partisan now.
"Things were better then," he said.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company