- 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
Chairman Rodino made the first opening remarks. His public career had been long, unblemished, and thoroughly undistinguished. Now the representative from Newark, New Jersey, linked hands with the Founding Fathers of our government. “For more than two years, there have been serious allegations, by people of good faith and sound intelligence, that the President, Richard M. Nixon, has committed grave and systematic violations of the Constitution.” The framers of our Constitution, said Rodino, had provided an exact measure of a President’s responsibilities. It was by the terms of the President’s oath of office, prescribed in the Constitution, that the framers intended to hold Presidents “accountable and lawful.”
That was to prove the keynote. That evening and over the following days, as each committee member delivered a statement, it became increasingly clear that the broad maxims of constitutional supremacy had taken command of the impeachment inquiry. “We will by this impeachment proceeding be establishing a standard of conduct for the President of the United States which will for all time be a matter of public record,” Caldwell Butler, a conservative Virginia Republican, reminded his conservative constituents. “If we fail to impeach … we will have left condoned and unpunished an abuse of power totally without justification.”
There were still White House loyalists of course; men who kept demanding to see a presidential directive ordering a crime and a documented “tie-in” between Nixon and his henchmen. Set against the great principle of constitutional supremacy, however, this common view was now exposed for what it was: reckless trifling with our ancient liberties. Can the United States permit a President “to escape accountability because he may choose to deal behind closed doors,” asked James Mann, a South Carolina conservative. “Can anyone argue,” asked George Danielson, a California liberal, “that if a President breaches his oath of office, he should not be removed?” In a voice of unforgettable power and richness, Barbara Jordan, a black legislator from Texas, sounded the grand theme of the committee with particular depth of feeling. Once, she said, the Constitution had excluded people of her race, but that evil had been remedied. “My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total and I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution.”
On July 27 the Judiciary Committee voted 27 to 11 (six Republicans joining all twenty-one Democrats) to impeach Richard Nixon on the grounds that he and his agents had “prevented, obstructed, and impeded the administration of justice” in “violation of his constitutional oath faithfully to execute the office of President of the United States and, to the best of his ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States, and in violation of his constitutional duty to take care that the laws be faithfully executed.”
On July 29 the Judiciary Committee voted 28 to 10 to impeach Richard Nixon for “violating the constitutional rights of citizens, impairing the due and proper administration of justice and the conduct of lawful inquiries, or contravening the laws governing agencies of the executive branch. …” Thus, the illegal wiretaps, the sinister White House spies, the attempted use of the 1RS to punish political opponents, the abuse of the CIA, and the break-in at Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office—misconduct hitherto deemed too “vague” for impeachment—now became part of a President’s impeachable failure to abide by his constitutional oath to carry out his constitutional duty.
Lastly, on July 30 the Judiciary Committee, hoping to protect some future impeachment inquiry from a repetition of Nixon’s defiance, voted 21 to 17 to impeach him for refusing to comply with the committee’s subpoenas. “This concludes the work of the committee,” Rodino announced at eleven o’clock that night. Armed with the wisdom of the Founders and the authority of America’s republican principles, the committee had cut through the smoke screens, the lies, and the pettifogging that had muddled the Watergate crisis for so many months. It had subjected an imperious Presidency to the rule of fundamental law. It had demonstrated by resounding majorities that holding a President accountable is neither “liberal” nor “conservative,” neither “Democratic” nor “Republican,” but something far more basic to the American republic.
For months the forces of evasion had claimed that impeachment would “tear the country apart.” But now the country was more united than it had been in years. The impeachment inquiry had sounded the chords of deepest patriotism, and Americans responded, it seemed to me, with quiet pride in their country and themselves. On Capitol Hill, congressional leaders reported that Nixon’s impeachment would command three hundred votes at a minimum. The Senate began preparing for the President’s trial. Then, as countless wits remarked, a funny thing happened on the way to the forum.