“The people of the United States are entitled to assume that their President is telling the truth.”
Excerpt from the House Judiciary Committee debate concerning the impeachment of Richard Nixon.
Drew, Elizabeth. Washington Journal: Reporting Watergate and Richard Nixon’s Downfall. New York: Overlook Duckworth, 2014.
After lunch, Hogan begins his fifteen-minute statement. We heard him at his press conference, so the attention wanders. But suddenly one realizes that Hogan is speaking with even more passion than he did two days ago, and saying some striking things. He says, “I was accused of making a political decision,” and he goes on, “If I had decided to vote against impeachment, I venture to say that I would also have been criticized for making a political decision. One of the unfortunate things about being in politics is that everything you do is given evil or political motives. That I personally resent.” As he says this, his voice quavers, and the room goes silent. Speaking of Nixon, Hogan says, “It is impossible for me to condone or ignore the long train of abuses to which he has subjected the Presidency and the people of this country.” Addressing himself to Sandman and the others who say there is no evidence of direct Presidential involvement, Hogan says, “What they are looking for is an arrow to the heart…. We do not find in the evidence an arrow to the heart. We find a virus that creeps up on you slowly and gradually until its obviousness is so overwhelming to you. It is like looking at a mosaic and going down and focusing in on one single tile in the mosaic and saying, ‘I see nothing wrong in that one little piece of this mosaic.'”
Then it’s time for James Mann to speak. Mann, the tall, courtly, soft-spoken South Carolina conservative with wavy gray hair, is perfectly cast for the part of definer. He looks like a lineal descendant of what we want to think the framers looked like. Mann gazes right into the camera and gives a little talk about the committee (“You know, it is important that the American public have respect for these proceedings”) and about government. Several of the things he says echo the concerns he expressed in a conversation I had with him earlier this year. He talked then about the power of ” the electronic throne” at the White House, and about the question in his mind as to whether the people really want self-government. Today, he is raising these questions before the people, on television. He is saying, “In this era of power that our governmental system has brought us to in the world, where our involvement in foreign trade and foreign affairs puts the President out in front as the symbol of our national pride and as the bearer of our flag, and here we have in the House of Representatives four hundred and thirty-five voices speaking on behalf of different constituencies, with no public-relations man employed by the House of Representatives, and I wonder if the people still do want their elected representatives to fulfill their oath to ‘preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.’ Do you want us to exercise the duty and responsibility of the power of impeachment?… Are we so morally bankrupt that we would accept a past course of wrongdoing or that we would decide that the system that we have is incapable of sustaining a system of law because we aren’t perfect?”
This is Mann’s moment to try to reach the public, and he is bringing all his powers to bear on it. The room is hushed; there is admiration for his performance. But, beyond that, he has caught up many in the room in what he is saying, his words cutting through whatever cynicism there is here, some of it affected – the sense that this is a show. He says, with some emotion now, “Our country has grown strong because men have died for the system…. We have built our country on the Constitution…. That system has been defended on battlefields, and statesmen have ended their careers on behalf of the system.” And then Mann talks about how much he would have liked to have more evidence. He speaks slowly, his voice getting softer and softer, and Rodino is watching attentively, and other people in the room are straining to hear every word. Mann’s face seems paler than usual; there are long pauses between phrases. He says he expects others to disagree with what he will do but asks them to “recognize my role and their responsibility to know the facts as I know them.” Then, marching right up to one of the questions that the committee members have had the most difficulty with, he says, “We’re faced in the future with a very, very serious problem”: can we permit “a President to escape accountability because he may choose to deal behind closed doors or to deal between two close, longtime, alter-ego, trusted subordinates?” He says, “We must examine our options to preserve our freedom,” and then he speaks again of the evidence, saying that he would still like to have more of it. “I am starving for it,” says Mann impassionedly, and then, quietly and abruptly, he concludes, “But I will do the best I can with what I’ve got.”
As Caldwell Butler begins to speak, I glance back at Mann. there are tears in his eyes. Butler speaks quickly and without emotion. Butler, Republican from Virginia, talking of Nixon, points out that there are many who believe that he himself would not be in the Congress “if it were not for our joint effort in 1972,” and says, “I am not unmindful of the loyalty I owe him.” Therefore, he says, this proceeding is very “distasteful.” The proponents of Proposition B having been propitiated, he turns to Proposition A. He points out that “for years we Republicans have campaigned against corruption and misconduct in the administration of the government of the United States by the other party,” and he goes on, “But Watergate is our shame…. These things have happened in our house, and it is our responsibility to do what we can to clear it up.” Butler – black hair, egg-shaped face with receding chin, black-rimmed glasses- reads on quickly: “There are frightening implications for the future of our country if we do not impeach the President of the United States. Because 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. If we fail to impeach, we will have condoned and left unpunished a course of conduct totally inconsistent with the reasonable expectations of the American people; we will have condoned and left unpunished a Presidential course of conduct designed to interfere with and obstruct the very process which he is sworn to uphold; and we will have condoned and left unpunished an abuse of power totally without justification.”
Butler continues, “The people of the United States are entitled to assume that their President is telling the truth.” Then he recounts some instances in which Nixon was not. The emphasis in these proceedings on Nixon’s lying is interesting and somewhat surprising. Politicians know that politicians, including Presidents, lie. Perhaps this, too, bears witness to the wisdom of the framers in putting the impeachment process in the hands of politicians – a point that William Hungate has made to reporters a number of times. Politicians know when some line has been crossed. Butler goes on to observe that “throughout the extensive transcripts made available to us of intimate Presidential conversation and discussion there is no real evidence of regret for what occurred, or remorse, or resolution to change, and precious little reference to, or concern for, Constitutional responsibility or reflection upon the basic obligations of the office of the Presidency.” Then, with startling directness, he says, “In short, power appears to have corrupted. It is a sad chapter in American history. But I cannot condone what I have heard; I cannot excuse it, and I cannot and will not stand still for it. The misuse of power is the very essence of tyranny.”