Monday, November 26, 2007

When Republicans Had a Conscience

Vincent Rossmeier at looks back at the time when Republican members of Congress had other priorities than party loyalty and allegiance to a president of their party.

The Bush era has drawn various comparisons with the Nixon era, but what seems forgotten from that time is the courage exhibited by a handful of lawmakers, once fiercely loyal to the president, who ultimately decided to impeach him. In recent interviews with Salon, some of those former congressmen spoke about their reasons for risking their political career and taking a principled stand, the kind that seems so unlikely on Capitol Hill today.


One them was M. Caldwell Butler of Virginia. In Nixon’s 1972 landslide reelection, Butler’s district had voted 73 percent in Nixon’s favor. In an interview given for a 1984 PBS documentary titled “Summer of Judgment: The Impeachment Hearings,” Butler said that when the Judiciary Committee began its deliberations, he was “still very defensive of the president.” Yet, by the end of that summer, he became one of the decisive Republican votes that sealed Nixon’s fate.

Behind his large, Coke-bottle glasses, Butler gave a rousing and emphatic speech to the committee that today seems both resonant and remote:

If we fail to impeach, we have condoned and left unpunished a course of conduct totally inconsistent with the reasonable expectations of the American people. We will have condoned a presidential course of conduct designed to interfere with and obstruct the very process he has sworn to uphold. We will have condoned and left unpunished an abuse of power totally without justification. In short, a power appears to have corrupted. It is a sad period 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.

Now 82, Butler told Salon in a recent interview that impeachment was “warranted because of the president’s conduct.” From his perspective, the impeachment was never a partisan issue. “I didn’t have any problem separating the Republican problem,” he said. “It was my first term in Congress, and I wasn’t all that crazy about the job anyway … I think it would have been a terrible thing if we had decided to vote strictly along party lines in the committee.”

However, Butler did feel pressure from his constituency to vote against impeachment. “Everyone one of us Republicans and Southern Democrats were from areas that had strong Nixon support in the previous election, so we all felt in jeopardy.”

Other Republicans who voted for articles of impeachment were Tom Railsback of Illinois, William Cohen of Maine, Harold Froehlich of Wisconsin, Lawrence Hogan of Maryland, Robert McClory of Illinois and Hamilton Fish of New York.


It should not seem far-fetched for a politician to put conscience before party loyalty or political prospects. As Butler and Railsback put it, and as Mann Jr. said about his father, they and the other lawmakers who held Nixon accountable were only doing their job. But it is hard not to label their efforts as heroic in light of today’s inaction on Capitol Hill.

Near the close of the Watergate committee’s proceedings, James Mann Sr. issued a prophetic statement. He said, “If there be no accountability, another president will feel free to do as he chooses, but the next time, there may be no watchmen in the night.”

Of course, when the Republicans had the chance to impeach a president, they went at it hammer and tongs because as we all know, a blow job is much more of a threat to the Constitution than starting a war based on lies, instituting warrantless wiretapping, and condoning torture in violation of the UCMJ and the Geneva Convention. It was also all about Bill Clinton, and this time it’s our Dear Leader. But remember, IOKIYAR! (It’s OK If You’re A Republican.)