- Historic Sites
I. The Hour Of The Founders
In which a President fails to fulfill his constitutional duty to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” And a reluctant Congress acts.
June/july 1984 | Volume 35, Issue 4
On May 7 Pennsylvania’s Hugh Scott, Senate Republican Minority Leader, pronounced the revelations in the transcript “disgusting, shabby, immoral performances.” Joseph Alsop, who had long been friendly toward the President in his column, compared the atmosphere in the Oval Office to the “back room of a second-rate advertising agency in a suburb of hell.” A week after Nixon’s seeming coup Republicans were once again vainly urging him to resign. On May 9 the House Judiciary Committee staff began presenting to the members its massive accumulation of Watergate material. Since the presentation was made behind closed doors, a suspenseful lull fell over the Watergate battleground.
Over the next two months it was obvious that the Judiciary Committee was growing increasingly impatient with the President, who continued to insist that, even in an impeachment proceeding, the “executive must remain the final arbiter of demands on its confidentiality.” When Nixon refused to comply in any way with a second committee subpoena, the members voted 28 to 10 to warn him that “your refusals in and of themselves might constitute a ground for impeachment. ” The “partisanship” of May 1 had faded by May 30.
On July 7 the Sunday edition of the New York Times made doleful reading. “The official investigations seem beset by semitropical torpor,” the newspaper reported in its weekly news summary. White House attacks on the committee, said the Times , were proving effective in the country. In March, 60 percent of those polled by Gallup wanted the President tried in the Senate for his misdeeds. By June the figure had fallen to 50 percent. The movement for impeachment, said the Times , was losing its momentum. Nixon, it seemed, had worn out the public capacity for righteous indignation.
In March, 60 percent of those polled wanted the President tried; by June, only 50 percent did. The movement for impeachment was losing its momentum.
Then, on July 19, John Doar, the Democrats’ counsel, did what nobody had done before with the enormous, confusing mass of interconnected misdeeds that we labeled “Watergate” for sheer convenience. At a meeting of the Judiciary Committee he compressed the endlessly ramified scandal into a grave and compelling case for impeaching the thirty-seventh President of the United States. He spoke of the President’s “enormous crimes.” He warned the committee that it dare not look indifferently upon the “terrible deed of subverting the Constitution.” He urged the members to consider with favor five broad articles of impeachment, “charges with a grave historic ring,” as the Times said of them.
In a brief statement, Albert Jenner, the Republicans’ counsel, strongly endorsed Doar’s recommendations. The Founding Fathers, he reminded committee members, had established a free country and a free Constitution. It was now the committee’s momentous duty to determine “whether that country and that Constitution are to be preserved.”
How I had yearned for those words during the long, arid months of the “smoking gun” and the “hand in the cookie jar.” Members of the committee must have felt the same way, too, for Jenner’s words were to leave a profound mark on their final deliberations. That I did not know yet, but what I did know was heartening. The grave maxims of liberty, once invoked, instantly took the measure of meanness and effrontery. When the President’s press spokesman, Ron Ziegler, denounced the committee’s proceedings as a “kangaroo court,” a wave of disgust coursed through Congress. The hour of the Founders had arrived.
The final deliberations of the House Judiciary Committee began on the evening of July 24, when Chairman Peter Rodino gaveled the committee to order before some forty-five million television viewers. The committee made a curious spectacle: thirty-eight strangers strung out on a two-tiered dais, a huge piece of furniture as unfamiliar as the faces of its occupants.