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Then-Rep. Trent Lott
Trent Lott, now Senate majority leader, served on the House Judiciary Committee during its Watergate hearings. (AP)

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Related Links
_ Republicans Wary of Plan for Starr Panel (Washington Post, March 20)

_ House Group Would View Starr's Evidence (Washington Post, March 19)

_ Legal Guide: Untangling the Issues

_ Special Report: Watergate Remembered

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Watergate-Era Members Recall Impeachment Lessons Learned

By Gebe Martinez
LEGI-SLATE News Service
Tuesday, March 24, 1998

FREDERICK, MD. – The former Republican congressman stands in front of his 18th century colonial home in far suburban Maryland, offering clear evidence of the passage of time: a mid-section that has expanded since he left Congress 23 years ago and thick reddish-brown hair that has dissolved to white.

What has not faded, however, is his painful memory of one of the most tumultuous times in his life: the summer of 1974, when he defied party loyalty and voted, as a member of the House Judiciary Committee, to impeach President Richard M. Nixon.

"I would not want to go through that again. Absolutely not. It was a very trying time," says former Rep. Lawrence Hogan, the first conservative Republican to come out publicly against Nixon and the only Republican on the panel to vote for all three articles of impeachment that the committee sent to the House.

Like others who served on that historic Judiciary Committee, Hogan replays the past in his mind with more frequency these days – reminded every time he picks up a newspaper and reads about the independent counsel's criminal investigation of President Clinton or about the House of Representatives preparing for a possible impeachment inquiry.

Should Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr turn over his evidence against Clinton to the House, former committee members who heard the evidence against Nixon warn that there will be no easy answers.

But there are experiences and lessons learned by the most liberal Democrat to the most conservative Republican on the 1974 panel, who struggled with their own internal and political consciences as they decided whether Nixon's removal from office was warranted and in the best interest of their country.

Those who served on the legislative equivalent of a grand jury in the Nixon era say that current members of Congress will have to decide for themselves how to define an "impeachable offense" and "high crimes and misdemeanors." They will have to learn how to keep bitter partisanship out of a process that is inherently political. They will come to know, like never before, how to face conflicts with voters back home, who will render verdicts of their own on those who sit in judgment.

"Make it fair. Make it absolutely fair, because over time, the American people's choice for president is a very, very serious matter. And it should be done only with substantive offenses, with evidence beyond a reasonable doubt," Hogan says.

Charles E. Wiggins, one of the last conservative Republican hold-outs for Nixon on the Watergate panel who is now a federal judge, continues to view with distaste the media pressure, politics and process that he believes unfairly forced Nixon to become the first U.S. president to resign from office.

"I was sorry to have participated in that," says Wiggins, who now serves on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Nevada.

Current House members should strive for objectivity and Republicans should avoid partisan attacks against Clinton, Wiggins advises. "If you think [Clinton] should be impeached, impeach him. If not, get off his back."

Beyond objectivity, the Republican majority must seek help from Democrats, just as the Democrats won the support of Republicans in the Nixon case, says former Republican Rep. Thomas F. Railsback of Illinois. Railsback, a moderate, was a member of the bipartisan "fragile coalition" on the 1974 Judiciary Committee that rewrote the Democratic majority's original articles of impeachment to garner more GOP votes.

House Republicans, who now control Congress, "are going to have to have some Democratic support or it's not going to sail," Railsback says. "Pete Rodino (the Democratic chairman of the 1974 Judiciary Committee) needed us because we were the difference. We made it a sellable case."

Indeed, the first article calling for Nixon's impeachment for committing "high crimes and misdemeanors" was approved by the House Judiciary Committee by a vote of 27 to 11, with six of 17 Republicans and all 21 Democrats on the panel voting in favor of impeachment.

Were the past members of the 1974 House Judiciary Committee to gather today around the hearing room dais, there surely would be disagreement over what meets the threshold of evidence to consider impeachment.

Each brought a different standard of proof to the table 24 years ago, and many think they did not leave enough guidance for those who would face a similar task in the future.

"There's really no standard other than that which pleases the House. There are no rules," Wiggins says.

Railsback remembers that the committee did adopt a criminal standard of "clear and convincing evidence," but nothing further. "Clear and convincing evidence of what? "Does [the evidence] arise to a 'high crime and misdemeanor?' The answer is that that's up to Congress to decide," he concludes.

The Nixon impeachment inquiry was only the second in history and lacked legal guidance from the first. In 1868, President Andrew Johnson's impeachment investigation was prompted by his firing of Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. Johnson held on to his office by one vote in the Senate, which fell short of a two-thirds majority required to oust him.

Nixon's own firing of Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox and the immediate protest resignations of Attorney General Elliott Richardson and his deputy, William Ruckleshaus – in what became known as the "Saturday Night Massacre" – created a storm of public criticism and an impetus for the House Judiciary Committee to begin formal consideration of articles of impeachment, the former members say.

For about nine months, the committee met privately and sifted through numerous black binders filled with evidence previously gathered by other sources: the 1973 Senate Watergate Committee hearings, civil suits and secret grand jury testimony. The committee also issued its own subpoenas to witnesses and to obtain Nixon's secret Oval Office tape recordings.

During private talks, moderate Republicans began siding with Democrats. The first was Rep. M. Caldwell Butler of Virginia, followed by Rep. William Cohen of Maine, who went on to the Senate and now serves as Clinton's Secretary of Defense. They were quickly followed by Republican Reps. Hamilton Fish Jr. of New York and Railsback.

As the July committee vote neared, the four Republicans and three conservative Democrats – Reps. Walter Flowers of Alabama, James Mann of South Carolina and Ray Thornton of Arkansas – became the "fragile coalition" that secretly negotiated the terms of impeachment.

Butler remembers setting for himself three criteria to meet the "impeachment" standard: Did the actions of the president violate the Constitution, did they violate criminal law, and did they fail a "moral" test – the reasonable expectation of the American people that the president should be truthful. Additionally, Butler wanted to ensure that charges brought against the president would be supported by the Senate.

Railsback sought, and found to his satisfaction, "clear and convincing evidence."

Hogan, the conservative, pro-Nixon Republican who ultimately decided to vote for impeachment, believed the standard should be that of a trial jury, "beyond a reasonable doubt." He also felt impeachment was warranted if the president's conduct had "at least some aspects of criminality, and it had to be so grievous that it would make the president unsuitable for continuing in office."

The opinions of the liberal Democrats and the pro-Nixon Republicans differed even more widely.

Father Robert F. Drinan, who was then a Democratic congressman from Massachusetts, says he considered obstruction of justice in the context of "abuse of power" as president. Drinan introduced the first impeachment resolution against Nixon in July, 1973, for the clandestine bombing of Cambodia, and he quickly decided that the president obstructed justice in the Watergate case.

"He obstructed justice by calling off the FBI's investigation. Abuse of power was implicit in this thing," Drinan remembers. "There was nothing against Mr. Nixon's personal life and whether he had obstructed justice," Drinan adds, so the panel rejected an impeachment article related to Nixon's alleged improper deductions on federal tax returns.

Meanwhile, the Republican Nixon hold-outs, including Wiggins, Wiley Mayne of Iowa and (current Senate Majority Leader) Trent Lott of Mississippi, demanded the strongest proof of an alleged misdeed.

"I felt a very strong case had to be made before I would be willing to vote for impeachment," Mayne says. "I felt many of the things that the Democrats on the committee were complaining about had been committed to an even greater degree by other presidents," he said, and that the impeachment process was being used "as a tool to criticize" Nixon.

Wiggins defined "high crimes and misdemeanors" as felony-level crimes, and believed that the criminal violations had been committed by White House subordinates, not by Nixon himself.

Lott, who may one day sit in judgment of Clinton if the House approves an impeachment resolution, said in an interview that in 1974, what he "looked for and waited for was some evidence of obstruction of justice...obstruction of justice is always a very serious matter."

The proof Lott and other conservatives sought did not materialize until after the committee ended its deliberations, when the "smoking gun" Oval Office audio tape of June 23, 1972, was released publicly. In it, Nixon is heard approving the plan to block the FBI probe of Watergate.

"I learned the hard way, as a member of the House Judiciary Committee," Lott said. "I guess it was that sometimes all the facts don't come out until the very end, and you better wait until you see them all."

Now, Lott vacillates between wanting to wait for all the facts before making a judgment in the Clinton case and drawing a parallel to Nixon, maintaining that Clinton is "hiding something" when he invokes executive privilege on grand jury testimony, just as Nixon did during Watergate.

Given the high standard of proof Lott insisted upon in Watergate, Butler says the Senate leader "is going to have to change his tune if he is going to go after Clinton." In Butler's view, the ongoing presidential investigation is "light years behind" the case against Nixon.

The former members disagree on the severity of the Clinton case as it now stands when compared to Watergate.

Mayne, for example, who demanded the strictest proof in 1974, argues that if the charges against Clinton "get into perjury and concealment of evidence, that could well be considered whether or not it's an obstruction of justice."

Should Starr decide to turn over his evidence to the House, the decision on whether to proceed with impeachment will be made in an atmosphere that is perhaps as rancorous, or even more so, than the Watergate era Judiciary panel, some of the former members observe.

In 1974, conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans were willing to bridge the gap between both sides. Today, the Judiciary Committee is considered one of the most partisan House committees – one reason that House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., has considered assigning a preliminary review of the Clinton case to a smaller task force or select committee, according to House sources.

Gingrich's private talks with House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde, R-Ill., about an alternative to the Judiciary panel drew protest from the committee's ranking member, Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich. Conyers is the only current committee member who served on the 1974 panel.

"Every morning – put yourself in my place – I wake up trembling and nervous not knowing what's in the newspapers about what Speaker Gingrich or anybody else in this place have decided we may do in terms of the work product of Kenneth Starr," Conyers said recently. "It politicizes a judicial process that's already accused of being politicized."

Democrats who will find themselves defending the President should muster the courage to consider the evidence as objectively as possible, suggests Butler, who was in a similar position in the Nixon case.

"This is your president and it happened on your watch and it's your responsibility to make the basic decision as to whether to impeach him or not," Butler says.

And to those who will want to remain loyal, even if the evidence and public sentiment turns overwhelmingly against Clinton, Mayne suggests: "Man the life boats."

The pro-Nixon hard-liner lost his re-election bid that year, a defeat that he believes was caused by his decision to stick by the president until the "smoking gun" audio tape was released.

There were political consequences on the other side of the Nixon vote.

Hogan was accused by the Nixon White House of becoming the first announced Republican against Nixon in order to bolster his campaign for Maryland governor. "It killed me politically," says Hogan, who did not even survive the GOP primary.

The former congressman still remembers the chill he felt as he walked past Republican colleagues in the cloakroom. He recalls receiving packages of human excrement, and also two sets of 30 dimes, signifying the silver for which Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus.

Republicans also are advised not to abuse their status as the majority party. "Don't move until you have got strong support among the American people," as there was following the Saturday Night Massacre, Butler says. "Be very cautious."

Even the most partisan members will find themselves searching their consciences as they decide whether the country would be better served by removing the president from office, according to some members of the Watergate-era committee.

Wiggins recalls feeling "just terrible" when the "smoking gun" tape was released. Though he still backed Nixon, he felt the need to announce on the House floor that he would vote for the president's impeachment.

"I was in a bad state of agitation that the president was going to resign and I felt he had to resign to save the country the trauma of a protracted trial," he adds.

Drinan, the first to call for Nixon's impeachment, nevertheless recalls the process as painstaking and painful.

"It was still agonizing to say we should get rid of this guy," Drinan recalls. "When anybody goes to Congress, you do not go there thinking that you are going to impeach the president."

© Copyright 1998 LEGI-SLATE News Service

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