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.
"THERE ARE NO RULES"
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
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,"
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.
"CLEAR AND CONVINCING EVIDENCE"
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
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.
WAITING FOR ALL THE FACTS
"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.
WAKING UP TREMBLING
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
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."