By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 8, 2005
Peter W. Rodino Jr., 95, the Democratic New Jersey congressman and House Judiciary Committee chairman who rose from relative obscurity to national prominence while presiding over articles of impeachment that led to the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon in 1974, died May 7 of congestive heart failure at his home in West Orange, N.J.
Mr. Rodino, who represented a Newark district from 1949 to 1989, was among those whose reputations were enhanced through television coverage of the impeachment hearings. A dapper man with a slow and deliberate speaking style, he was seen as a calm and nonpartisan presence in one of the country's most politically charged episodes.
In 1972, several men linked to the Nixon White House had broken into the Watergate office complex, where the Democratic National Committee had offices. In February 1974, the House of Representatives voted to allow the Judiciary Committee to review grounds for impeachment of the president and gave the committee unlimited subpoena power -- which it used to obtain Oval Office tapes of Nixon's conversations with aides.
Mr. Rodino spoke before the House that February: "Whatever the result, whatever we learn or conclude, let us now proceed with such care and decency and thoroughness and honor that the vast majority of American people, and their children after them, will say: 'That was the right course. There was no other way.' "
In July 1974, the Judiciary Committee approved three articles of impeachment against Nixon. The president resigned in August, before the full House voted whether to approve the articles for a Senate trial.
Although Mr. Rodino voted for impeachment, the outcry against him was much more muted than it might have been. He was known for letting all sides contribute to the debate but made it clear he did not want speeches.
Mr. Rodino considered himself a reluctant overseer. "People thought we would impeach Richard Nixon," he said years later. "That was the furthest thing from my mind. I was hopeful, I was prayerful that we wouldn't, that what we would find out was exculpatory."
He added that after he voted for the third article of impeachment, he went to a back room, called his wife and cried. "And I said, 'I hope we've done the right thing.' "
He was a largely untested figure on the national scene when he became Judiciary Committee chairman a year before the impeachment hearings began. He considered it a fluke that he got the chairmanship, which came after the surprise election defeat in 1972 of Emanuel Celler (N.Y.), who seldom had ceded authority in two decades as chairman.
"If fate had been looking for one of the powerhouses of Congress, it wouldn't have picked me," Mr. Rodino said.
The hearings made him all but a household name. His new celebrity helped him fight attempts in his district to unseat him. In the 1980s, he used his Judiciary Committee seniority to contest what he viewed as efforts by the Ronald Reagan administration to limit the reach of civil rights laws as well as movements to ban abortion, allow school prayer and end school busing.
Throughout the 1980s, he faced increasing pressure to retire and yield power to the rising black majority in his district. He decided not to seek reelection in 1988 and was succeeded by Newark city councilman Donald M. Payne (D), who became the state's first African American representative.
Born June 7, 1909, Peter Wallace Rodino Jr. was a Newark native whose father was an Italian immigrant toolmaker. The younger Rodino received a bachelor's degree from the University of Newark and was a 1937 graduate of what became Rutgers University law school.
Mr. Rodino, who learned oratory by reading Shakespeare with a mouth stuffed with marbles and stones, taught public speaking and citizenship classes in Newark before taking up the practice of law in the late 1930s.
He served in the Army in North Africa and Italy during World War II and was one of the first enlisted men to receive a battlefield commission as an officer. He was discharged as a captain in 1946, having been awarded the Bronze Star.
In 1946, he ran unsuccessfully against incumbent Fred A. Hartley Jr. (R-N.J.), co-author of the famed labor legislation called the Taft-Hartley Act of 1946. Mr. Rodino won the seat two years later, when Hartley decided not to run again.
Over the years, Mr. Rodino made his name through his strong constituent services policy and his work on veterans affairs and civil rights issues.
He supported landmark civil rights legislation in 1957 and was one of the primary sponsors of the Civil Rights Act of 1966. In the mid-1960s, he helped lead an effort to end immigration quotas and enact fair-housing standards. He wrote the 1982 extension to the Voting Rights Act.
He also took part in the House select committee hearings investigating the Iran-contra matter, in which U.S. officials covertly sold arms to Iran to win the release of U.S. hostages in the Middle East and used some of the profits to support Nicaraguan rebels known as the contras.
Mr. Rodino also played significant roles in making Columbus Day and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday national holidays.
Late in his legislative career, he helped lead impeachment proceedings against two U.S. District Court judges, Harry E. Claiborne of Nevada in 1986 and Alcee L. Hastings of Florida in 1988. Hastings later was elected to the House of Representatives.
After leaving Congress, Mr. Rodino taught at Seton Hall University law school, which houses his papers and memorabilia, including the desk and gavel he used during the Watergate hearings. During the impeachment of President Bill Clinton in 1999, Mr. Rodino delivered a series of well-attended lectures at the law school.
"There was not a single day of his professional life," said Seton Hall law school dean Patrick E. Hobbs, "when he didn't carry a copy of the Constitution in his pocket."
His first wife, Marianna Stango Rodino, whom he married in 1941, died in 1980.
Survivors include his second wife, Joy Rodino, whom he married in 1989, of West Orange; two children, Margaret Stanziale of West Orange and Peter Rodino III of Naples, Fla.; three granddaughters; and two great-granddaughters.
Staff writer Matt Schudel contributed to this report.