Forty years after the Watergate scandal forced President Richard Nixon to resign or face certain impeachment and conviction, Washington’s increasing partisanship too often leads to politicians threatening to go there.
The consensus in 1974 was that the House Judiciary Committee’s careful, bipartisan proceedings set so high a standard for the future that presidential impeachment efforts would remain extremely rare.
Instead, the Nixon impeachment has led to more frequent legal threats to presidents, often over policy disagreements, turning impeachment into a political football where one party’s words prompt the other to use them to raise campaign funds.
Last Sunday, the third-ranking House Republican, Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, refused three times to rule out impeaching President Barack Obama for using executive authority to overcome congressional obstruction.
“We’ve made it clear we’re going to put options on the table to allow the House to take legal action against the president when he over-reaches his authority,” Scalise said on Fox News Sunday, charging that the White House “wants to talk about impeachment” to raise campaign funds.
Only six of 36 presidents before Nixon faced impeachment charges, serious and some spurious, according to Wikipedia research. The only case that went to trial charged President Andrew Johnson with numerous misdeeds, notably violating a questionable law restricting his appointment authority.
He was acquitted in 1868 by one vote.
But of the seven post-Nixon presidents, only Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter have not faced some sort of impeachment threat. In 1998, Bill Clinton became the second president ever impeached for lying about his affair with Monica Lewinsky, but he too was acquitted.
Half of today’s 318 million Americans were not born in 1974, so many may not realize how Nixon’s misbehavior differed from those of others when it comes to the Constitution’s standard of “high crimes and misdemeanors.”
Nixon faced impeachment and conviction for secretly misusing the CIA and the FBI in a futile effort to head off investigation of his efforts to protect the men hired by his campaign officials to break into and wiretap Democratic Party headquarters. The break-in was one of several surreptitious acts aimed at undercutting the 1972 Democratic campaign.
Nixon resigned after top Republicans — the party’s Senate and House leaders and Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater — told him he no longer had the votes to survive. As an Associated Press reporter covering the Senate, I was told the same thing a few days earlier in an off-the-record conversation with a senior Senate Democrat.
Since Nixon’s time, virtually every president has faced trivial or serious impeachment threats. Alleged misdeeds included lying under oath about a sexual relationship (Clinton), selling arms to Iran in for freeing American hostages (Ronald Reagan), committing the nation to an unwinnable, unnecessary war (George W. Bush) and issuing executive orders implementing measures Congress refused to consider (Obama).
Congressional leaders have sometimes kept more partisan members from launching actual impeachment proceedings.
Democrats stopped Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., the Judiciary Committee chairman, from moving against Bush for starting the war against Iraq; the House later buried an impeachment move by Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio.
Current House Speaker John Boehner is pursuing a lawsuit against Obama as an alternative to impeachment, while denouncing Democrats for using GOP impeachment threats to raise campaign funds.
In a New York Times book review Monday of former Nixon aide John Dean’s new Watergate history, presidential historian Robert Dallek cited the difference between Nixon’s offenses and improper acts of other presidents.
“These offenses were principally about money changing hands or clandestine policies lacking legal sanction or popular support,” he wrote. “By contrast, Watergate was an attempt to shape a presidential election by other than constitutional means, violating the most sacred of American institutions going back to the start of the republic: the elevation of someone to the presidency by popular choice.”