It happened today - July 27, 2015
Can it really be 41 years since the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee voted the first article of impeachment against Richard Nixon over Watergate? Yes. And I suppose to some people, as our historical perspective flattens and vanishes, it might as well be 410 years ago. Nixon? Nixon who?
To me it is obviously not so distant. Not only because I’m still steaming about Richard III and that was over five centuries ago. But also because I wrote my doctoral dissertation on Nixon and am acutely aware of his extraordinary virtues and his outsized flaws.
Because of that, and my second-hand involvement in controversies over Vietnam and the 1960s Counterculture (I wasn’t aware of them at the time, but was in the arguments in the next couple of decades), I’m also acutely aware of just how turbulent that period was.
I remember waaaaay back when George W. Bush was president and people said America was more divided than at any time in its history. Bosh, I responded. What about the 1960s? Or the 1850s? Even the years immediately before and after 1800 were at least as bitterly partisan. (And frankly I don’t see that the nation is any less divided under Obama than it was under Bush; it’s just that as liberals are now winning they’re smiling smugly instead of grimacing and fulminating.) And the way the 1960s culminated in the Nixon presidency and the divisions it engendered, on issues from Vietnam to college riots to welfare, was genuinely frightening in ways people forget today.
In 1970 Norman Mailer and Orson Welles claimed on TV that Nixon might cancel the 1972 elections. And as he prepared for his first Inaugural Address, Daniel Patrick Moynihan seriously suggested the new president reassure blacks that he did not in fact plan to establish concentration camps for them.
It may be that such talk always sounded absurd to what was then “Middle America”. But there was no doubt that as the Watergate scandal was gradually uncovered, concerns about the deliberate conspiratorial subversion of American constitutional processes by the White House were shown to have some legitimate substance.
What is remarkable, and remarkably healing, is that the increasingly discredited mechanisms of conventional “bourgeois” politics dealt effectively and decisively with the crisis. Congressional hearings, plodding, thorough and conventionally adversarial, led to a growing cross-partisan conviction that Nixon had indeed committed high crimes and misdemeanors and had to go.
He was never formally impeached. But that’s because senior members of his own party told him his position was untenable, forcing him to resign on August 8 1974. Which might seem a more significant date than July 27. It’s certainly a date on which the nation breathed a sigh of collective relief, as the widely mocked but spectacularly decent Gerald Ford took over the presidency. But I think historically speaking, the proof that “the system” could deal with the system was the beginning of a vital calming, restorative process that among other things made the election of Reagan possible in 1980 because traditional American values were vindicated when Nixon was driven from office. The fact that liberal journalists and politicians took the lead in driving him from office actually helped undermine the radical critique.
Now compare this process to how it’s done elsewhere. Not only with the way tyrants last forever or are assassinated in undemocratic countries, or the way Robespierre was driven from office on July 27 180 years before Nixon lost that key Congressional committee vote, and executed a day later with 21 of his followers. Compare it with the way other democratic nations have removed heads of state or government who obstructed justice and tampered with constitutional norms.
Oh wait. You can’t. The political process may bring down the odd leader like, say, Silvio Berlusconi once they descend from tragedy to farce. But the way the rule of law prevailed over Richard Nixon is almost unparalleled.
It continues to dismay me that Bill Clinton could perjure himself and commit flagrant sexual harassment and beat impeachment on a purely partisan basis. If standards slide far enough they cease to exist. But still I take comfort in Watergate.
The fall of Richard Nixon isn’t an emblem of the corruption and deceit of American politics. It’s an emblem of just how strong the commitment to the rule of law was even in those desperately turbulent days at the tail end of “the Sixties”.