Nixon impeachment hearings began this week.
Not THAT Nixon. Not President Richard Milhous, who resigned 40 years ago this August rather than face House votes on three articles of impeachment. This time, the Nixon under discussion is Gov. Jeremiah Wilson “Jay,” who remains very much in power as a Missouri House committee begins consideration of three articles of impeachment against him.
Beyond the jolt of déjà vu you might get from the headline, there’s little to connect the political drama of 1973-74 and the political theater playing out now.
For one thing, it’s hard to imagine that the governor will be forced from office. As St. Louis Public Radio’s Marshall Griffin reported, even state Rep. Stanley Cox, a Republican and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, expressed doubts about the first article of impeachment. It asserts that the governor violated Missouri’s constitution by allowing same-sex married couples to file joint state tax returns. Cox thinks the governor is wrong and may be guilty of misconduct, but he’s not sure the offenses are impeachable.
A second article faults the governor for failing to fire Department of Revenue officials after they shared with authorities names from the state’s list of people approved to carry concealed weapons. A third article says the governor took too long to set special election dates for vacant legislative seats.
You may have noticed that gay marriage and guns are hot button issues in the state and that the timing of elections can have political benefits. In other words, the list of grievances against the governor has a partisan tone. That’s quite a contrast to the historic sweep of the case against the president, which raised fundamental questions about abuse of power and the rule of law.
Of course, politics was hard-fought in the Watergate era, too. Then as now, the country was deeply divided on matters of culture and principle – especially so in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement and other cultural earthquakes. But the parties then were ideologically mixed, including liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats.
During congressional investigations of Watergate, Republicans raised some of the most devastating questions. “What did the president know, and when did he know it?” became the mantra of Sen. Howard Baker, a Tennessee Republican. And it became the focal point of the issue as well.
On the House Judiciary committee, seven of 17 Republicans voted for at least one of the three articles of impeachment. That was in July 1974. In August, the president was forced to release the “smoking gun” tape – the one that caught him plotting with advisers to get the FBI off the case on grounds of national security. In the face of this evidence, the president’s remaining Republican support crumbled. He resigned, avoiding actual impeachment. Sadly, you have to wonder whether evidence would trump partisanship in Washington these days.
Forty years ago, a president was held accountable when legislators reached beyond partisanship to uphold principle. We’ll soon see whether those involved in the second Nixon impeachment hearings step up to the same high standard.