Is History Revised
By Guy Gugliotta and George Lardner Jr.
It was different during Watergate. House members used to get along. And when it came time in 1974 to decide whether to throw President Richard M. Nixon out of office, they resolved their differences in a spirit of lofty bipartisanship.
It is a nice story, and both Republicans and Democrats are constantly retelling it as they prepare to open an impeachment inquiry into President Clinton's activities. But it is revisionist history, as any glance backward quickly shows. It turns out that the current and past impeachment proceedings are not so different when it comes to unseemly grappling between a greedy majority trying to seem generous and a wheedling minority demanding its "rights."
The difference is that the majority and the minority have switched places, so when both sides make the same arguments that their opponents made in 1974, it begins to sound more like situational ethics than high-minded statesmanship.
Thus the Judiciary Committee's ranking minority member, John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), complained yesterday that the Republicans were planning an impeachment inquiry that had no time limit and an unlimited scope. "This cannot be a never-ending fishing expedition," he said, that commits the country "to a process that could last months or years -- who knows?"
Rep. Robert McClory (R-Ill.) made the same plea at a Jan. 31, 1974, meeting, offering an amendment requiring the Judiciary Committee to finish in three months. "Uppermost in the minds of the American people, [is] to get this subject resolved one way or another," he said. Conyers, already a subcommittee chairman at the time, voted with the Democratic majority to kill the amendment.
During the 1974 debate, Rep. Jack Brooks (D-Tex.), the committee's future chairman, first damned the amendment with faint praise -- "I think it is quite obvious that everybody wants to get this done as soon as possible," he said -- then pulled the plug.
"But to fix a date, to set a date is erroneous and unrealistic, and I would say this is not a pregnancy," Brooks said. "[T]o try and fix an arbitrary date for the delivery is at this point an irresponsible and unrealistic position."
Current Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) used the same technique earlier this week in response to a reporter's question. "I don't particularly want to have this [be] an endless inquiry," he insisted. But "we have a real duty to look at things if they pertain to the question of the president's fitness for office. So, you have to judge each item on its own merits."
Then, as now, the committee minority was intent on getting the majority to grant them the right to call witnesses of their own. In Watergate, the Democrats seemed to agree, except that Chairman Peter Rodino (D-N.J.) reserved the right to call the full committee to vote on any minority subpoena he didn't like.
Rep. Charles Wiggins (R-Calif.) correctly observed that this was the kiss of death. "The minority must go hat in hand to the majority seeking its approval, and I anticipate that in such cases the majority would tend to support its chairman and would vote down the request of the ranking minority member," he said.
The only thing perhaps surprising about Wiggins's remark today is that he bothered making it. Hyde last Monday said, "I don't envision abusing subpoenas to the extent that Mr. Conyers wouldn't have the right to subpoena as he wishes," but implicit in his answer was the understanding that the GOP intended to "follow Watergate."
"Following Watergate" has turned out to be a two-edged sword, especially for Democrats, whose 1974 pronouncements are coming back to haunt them. To help reporters find the contradictions, Hyde's office yesterday circulated a sheet of "talk" and "double talk" statements showing how Democrats have changed their tune on time limits, scope of the inquiry and other items.
Wading through this morass may have been what caused Conyers suddenly to describe as "preposterous" at least part of the Watergate comparison. "Watergate involved a wholesale corruption of government which extended through the FBI, the CIA and other federal agencies," Conyers said Sept. 30. "This matter involves the concealment of a private affair for which the vast majority of facts are already known."
Still, the fact is that the Republicans have the votes, and in the House, that's all that's necessary. "We're still the majority," Hyde said. "We can't let them run the committee, much as they would like to, but we're being fair."
"Fair," as Wiggins pointed out in a recent interview with the Gannett News Service, means the minority gets an opportunity to make a stink and not much else. "They are getting the treatment I received as the minority in 1974," said Wiggins, now a senior federal appeals court judge in Nevada who feels the Democrats' pain. "They pounded things down our throat."
Democrats have had some success, however, tweaking the Republicans as right-wing zealots out to "get" Clinton. "The Republicans' . . . dilemma is how do you satisfy your own people, who want impeachment, [when] the general public [doesn't]," Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) said last week. "The Republicans are kind of mad at the public, and we're all going to have to wait around while they try to work this out."
Republicans tried the same approach in 1974, suggesting that the committee's investigation of Nixon was a liberal hatchet job. Judiciary's ranking minority member, Edward Hutchinson (R-Mich.), in a Newsday interview, blamed "some Eastern newspapers" for Nixon's troubles, adding that he didn't think Nixon should be removed "for every little impeachable offense."
Hutchinson said later that he had been misquoted. His actual words, he said, were "every little indictable offense."
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