Watchmen in the night : the House Judiciary Committee’s impeachment inquiry of Richard Nixon
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When the Judiciary Committee initiated its impeachment inquiry of Richard Nixon for his complicity in Watergate, it was the first time that the House of Representatives had commenced such a proceeding against a president since Andrew Johnson in 1868. Johnson’s impeachment and subsequent Senate acquittal was widely regarded as an example of Congress run amok, its partisanship so blatant and its failure so grand that many Americans assumed that presidential impeachment had become obsolete. But impeachment, by its nature, is political, and each Congress defines the bounds of high crimes and misdemeanors in light of the current political climate. For the House in October 1973, Nixon’s Watergate scandal threatened to breach those limits. From the outset, Judiciary Chairman Peter Rodino recognized that if his Committee were to recommend impeaching President Nixon without bipartisan support, the American public would interpret it as another Johnson-like fiasco, and a threat to the constitutional system of government. To thwart suspicion that the Democratic majority would impeach Nixon exclusively for its own political gain, Rodino preached fairness to the President, even as Nixon refused to comply with the Committee’s investigation. Despite Rodino’s assurances, however, his procedural proposals—designed in consultation with the Committee’s Special Counsel, John Doar—did not always seem fair enough to many Republicans. At the same time, many Democrats believed that Rodino and Doar had already accorded Nixon too many rights, which encroached upon the House’s constitutionally guaranteed “sole power of impeachment.” Ultimately, Rodino conceded that he could not marshal a bipartisan majority without making compromises with members who expected more fairness than he and Doar had initially offered. Despite pressure from their congressional leadership, constituents, and the White House, seven southern Democrats and moderate Republicans formed a “Fragile Coalition” to vote their conscience in favor of three articles of impeachment. In doing so, they convinced a fearful and cynical American public that impeachment could be just, and in the case of Richard Nixon, necessary.