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Stony Path to Impeachment

CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT

Richard Nixon was approaching his hour of crisis. Months earlier, former White House Counsel John W. Dean III had testified that Nixon had supported paying $1 million in hush money to the Watergate burglars. The House Judiciary Committee was deep into its closed-door consideration of impeachment.

Now, on a windy March day in 1974, rumors swirled through Washington that the committee was focusing on a White House tape confirming Nixon’s personal involvement in a cover-up, something many of us still had trouble believing in that long-ago and far less cynical era.

With the uncertainty mounting, Albert E. Jenner Jr., a lifelong member of the GOP establishment and chief counsel for the Judiciary Committee’s Republican minority, had agreed to a confidential lunch with me and another Times reporter at a private club on Capitol Hill. It was a tense moment. The tape had not been released. Nixon was arguing in the court of public opinion that it was nonexplosive and ambiguous.

A White House source already had told me that Nixon was lying. But I needed a second source before I could write anything so controversial, and I asked Jenner what was on the tape.

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Calm and urbane in his customary bow tie, Jenner paused for a long sip of iced tea. He looked back and forth at us. His answer--when it came--reflected a remarkable transformation that ultimately would spread through not only the Judiciary Committee but the entire Congress.

“When you hear the tape, you have a lot more respect for Dean’s integrity and what he told the Senate Watergate Committee,” the Republicans’ chief lawyer said in a voice that did not rise above a whisper.

“It is that explosive. It is not ambiguous.”

As the great constitutional crisis of 1974 began, the partisan furor was at least as intense as that engulfing President Clinton today. As late as the spring of 1974, only four months before Nixon became the first president ever to resign, many Democrats were attacking with unbridled glee, and Republicans accused Nixon’s foes of “wallowing in Watergate.”

Yet before the scandal could run its course, players on both sides would grow steadily more sober and dispassionate--rising, as Jenner had, to meet the demands of history.

Several months after the lunch, Judiciary Committee Chairman Peter W. Rodino Jr. (D-N.J.) told me that in the panel’s long, secret sessions, “a change is taking place” among even the most partisan members. “They are feeling and sensing the seriousness of it as something that is going to stay with us for our lifetime and the lifetime of our country.”

Whether the Clinton inquiry ultimately will follow such a course remains unclear.

There are striking contrasts between the two inquiries--contrasts that go beyond the sharp differences in the nature of the allegations. The deeply partisan votes already taken in the House will make it difficult to approach impeachment dispassionately.

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At the same time, there are parallels that give grounds to expect more than sheer partisanship. If these omens prevail, today’s House Judiciary Committee, led by Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), might indeed see Republicans and Democrats put aside politics and judge the allegations calmly against the Constitution’s standard of “high crimes and misdemeanors.”

Former Rep. Tom Railsback of Illinois, a Judiciary Committee Republican who ultimately voted to impeach his friend Nixon, said in an interview that he believes bipartisanship will prevail again.

“Peter Rodino rose to the occasion,” said Railsback, who now lives in Rancho Mirage. “Henry Hyde is a class act and knows the importance of conducting the proceedings fairly.”

Nixon on Different Footing From Clinton

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Twenty-four years later, it is hard to comprehend how much Washington has changed since Watergate. Many of the changes, directly related as they are to that turbulent period, have helped shape events in the Clinton scandal.

Nixon was a hated figure among Democrats. Older liberals never forgave his Red-baiting in the McCarthy era. Younger activists despised him for continuing the Vietnam War.

Nonetheless, Nixon entered the Watergate period on a far different footing from Clinton’s at the beginning of his troubles.

Opposition to Nixon rested chiefly on political and philosophical grounds, not on his personal life or character. Missing was the moral loathing that runs through much of the criticism of Clinton.

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More important, the attitude of the news media toward government leaders was vastly different.

In April 1973, when Newsweek ran an article suggesting that Nixon might be involved in obstruction of justice, I recoiled in disbelief. Though I was an experienced investigative reporter and frequently had exposed governmental wrongdoing, I found it unbelievable that the president of the United States would be involved in a major crime.

As a result, my own standards of proof were very high. So were those of my editors and the heads of other major news organizations.

In October 1972, for instance, I landed an exclusive interview with Alfred E. Baldwin III, an ex-FBI agent who sat in a hotel room across from the Watergate office building and monitored the wiretap installed in the Democratic National Committee headquarters by the Watergate burglars.

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The resulting article was Baldwin’s sensational first-person account of how he would deliver the tape-recordings to the Nixon campaign. It was the first direct link between the Watergate burglary and Nixon’s campaign.

Baldwin also told me that he was sure former Atty. Gen. John N. Mitchell, by then head of the Nixon campaign, was involved in the scheme--an even more sensational allegation. We declined to print it, however, because Baldwin conceded he had no firsthand knowledge and we could find no corroborating source. We found it hard to believe that such a high official would be involved in criminal activity.

Such illusions died during Watergate. It turned out that, while Mitchell had not been involved in the Watergate break-in, he was deeply involved in the cover-up.

Other Watergate revelations were equally disillusioning and struck even closer to home for me.

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As it later turned out, Nixon himself had ordered his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, to have the Internal Revenue and Immigration and Naturalization services investigate The Times and its publisher, Otis Chandler.

Furious because The Times had reported that illegal immigrants were working for a company owned by Nixon’s appointee as treasurer of the United States, the president had told Haldeman: “I want this whole goddamn bunch gone after. I also want Otis Chandler’s income tax.”

The Watergate investigation also disclosed that Nixon had an enemies list and had even asked officials to keep an eye on me and Edwin O. Guthman, then The Times’ national editor. Guthman, a former top aide to Robert F. Kennedy when Kennedy was attorney general, was No. 3 on Nixon’s prime enemies list of 20 people.

In addition, Clark Mollenhoff, the White House ombudsman, had sent the president a copy of a memo to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover saying that Guthman and I were planning “a highly critical series on the FBI.”

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“This reporter is very persistent and will undoubtedly be influenced to some degree by the strong anti-FBI views of Ed Guthman. . . ,” Mollenhoff wrote to Hoover. “I think it would be advisable to give considerable thought to keeping abreast of the matters he will be dealing with and make certain that the best possible public posture is taken.”

Nixon returned his copy of the memo with this inked notation:

“Clark: good--keep an eye on these characters. They’re up to no good.”

Such revelations help explain why the news media have grown more willing to believe the worst about national leaders.

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Rodino Was Viewed as Political Hack

Summoning up the details of Watergate also reminds us that figures from that period who now look like giants were not immediately recognized as such. Rodino, praised even by Republicans after Watergate for his fair-minded handling of impeachment, was widely viewed as a political hack when the inquiry began.

“Remember,” he once told me, “they said I was an Italian out of Newark and I might be connected with the Mafia. No telling what’s in his closet. They tried to get anything they could on me. They didn’t want me to be chairman.”

Hyde, respected on both sides of the aisle, was derided by Democrats earlier in his career as a partisan blowhard, a Johnny-One-Note abortion foe and puppet for House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).

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Both chairmen had to curb members of their own parties. Rodino reined in some of the more liberal Democrats, especially Rep. Robert F. Drinan of Massachusetts, a fire-eating Catholic priest who denounced Nixon as “a fascist war criminal.”

Some liberals wanted Rodino to act on impeachment while the vice presidency was still vacant after Spiro T. Agnew’s resignation in October 1973. They hoped to replace Nixon with House Speaker Carl Albert (D-Okla.).

Rodino was incensed. “I went before the Democratic caucus and said it couldn’t be done, wouldn’t be right and the American people wouldn’t stand it,” he said in an interview.

Similarly, Hyde has distanced himself from some of the more right-wing Republican committee members, especially Rep. Bob Barr of Georgia, a harsh Clinton critic who has been urging impeachment for more than a year. Hyde also shied away from discussing impeachment in the early days, just as Rodino had.

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So worried was Rodino about seeming to consider impeachment prematurely that he once concealed his identity rather than risk such an inference. On an airplane months before the Nixon inquiry was launched, Rodino was reading “The Impeachment and Trial of Andrew Johnson” by Michael Les Benedict when a passenger in the next seat remarked, “That’s an interesting book you’re reading at this time.”

Rodino also happened to be holding an envelope with his name on it. Surreptitiously, he covered up the envelope to prevent the passenger from learning who he was.

Judiciary Panel Now More Partisan

If there are parallels that encourage hope for bipartisanship in the Clinton case, there are also striking--and less hopeful--differences.

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Once the stage of deliberation was reached, Rodino and Hyde took sharply different approaches.

For starters, today’s House Judiciary Committee is much more partisan than its predecessor. In contrast to the Rodino committee’s unanimous vote to open its inquiry, the Hyde committee’s vote to begin proceedings was strictly along party lines.

Even before the vote, the Hyde committee’s handling of evidence, especially of material from independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, was in stark contrast with what happened during Watergate.

Thirty-six boxes of Starr’s evidence of Clinton’s affair with Monica S. Lewinsky, along with a report setting out 11 possible articles of impeachment, were delivered to Congress with television cameras alerted to record it for the evening news.

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Hyde’s committee almost immediately released thousands of pages of evidence, plus Clinton’s videotaped testimony, raw FBI files and transcripts of intimate and sexually explicit conversations.

Rodino’s committee, by contrast, conducted early deliberations behind closed doors and kept evidence under lock and key until the committee began its formal debate on articles of impeachment.

Special prosecutor Leon Jaworski sent his report to Congress quietly, in a single brown leather briefcase. It included White House tapes and transcripts, an index and what Jaworski called “a road map for Congress.”

But Jaworski’s report included no recommendations about impeachment. He said the House was “the appropriate body under the Constitution, in my view, for examining in the first instance . . . whether [Nixon] should be charged with conduct justifying impeachment and removal from office.”

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Describing the contrasts between Watergate and Starr’s case against Clinton as “most stark,” James S. Doyle, the chief spokesman for the Watergate prosecution force, said that Starr sent Congress “what amounts to an indictment, a document that emphasizes the inculpatory evidence and de-emphasizes the exculpatory.”

Starr has been a major political issue in the Clinton investigations because of his tactics, his political connections and his hostile relationship with Clinton.

He infuriated Clinton by subpoenaing First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton to testify before a federal grand jury and by appearing with television evangelist Pat Robertson after Robertson had publicly predicted that Mrs. Clinton would be indicted.

Jaworski kept a relatively low profile. His tactics and political connections were never controversial.

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Clinton’s relatively high approval ratings also contrast with Nixon’s. When Hyde’s committee voted to begin the Clinton inquiry, the president’s approval rating was in the high 60s and Americans opposed impeachment by 2 to 1. When Rodino’s committee officially began its inquiry on Oct. 23, 1973, Nixon’s popularity had plunged to 32%, although a majority (53% to 37%) still opposed impeachment.

Honking for Impeachment

I had known John M. Doar, the Rodino committee’s chief counsel, since the 1960s, when I was covering the South and Doar, a moderate Republican, headed the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. Although he was a courageous presence at some of the South’s most dangerous civil rights battlegrounds, he always played his cards close to the vest, and I knew he would be of no help to me in divulging the committee’s secret deliberations.

Committee members of both parties criticized Doar’s meticulous but plodding style. “Honk for impeachment” bumper stickers sprouted, and some cars drove by the White House with horns blaring.

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As Democrats do today, Republicans worried that the longer the controversy went on, the more they would pay at the polls. Rep. Robert McClory of Illinois complained that the inquiry was “sounding the death knell” for the GOP.

Yet Rodino was still concerned that not enough Republicans would support impeachment to give it credibility with the public, just as Hyde has said that the Clinton inquiry will not have credibility if it is purely partisan.

With Rodino’s committee working in secret, most of us had only fragments of information about where it was headed.

Then one day in late June 1974, we caught a glimpse behind the curtain. The late Times reporter Paul Houston and I, along with Sam Donaldson of ABC News and Rodino aide Francis O’Brien, were standing in the reception room outside Rodino’s office when the chairman strode in, obviously in an ebullient mood.

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“Mr. Chairman,” I asked, “how are things going? Do you think you’ve got all the Democrats on the committee ready to vote for impeachment and enough Republican votes to make it credible?”

To my surprise, he answered the question--without going off the record. The evidence had convinced all 21 Democrats on the committee, he said, but at least five committee Republicans were needed to make a strong case for endorsement by the full House.

Republican members who believed the evidence was strong, he said, were “agonizing” over how they could justify voting to impeach a president from their own party. He named six Republicans he considered most likely to vote to impeach: Railsback, McClory, William S. Cohen of Maine, M. Caldwell Butler of Virginia, Hamilton Fish Jr. of New York and Henry P. Smith III of New York.

Then he walked into his office and closed the door, leaving us standing there, astonished. Donaldson walked down the hallway, and I assumed Rodino’s comments would be on the evening news.

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The next day our Page One story created an uproar in Congress. Republicans accused Rodino of “prejudging” the impeachment case. Rodino denounced The Times article in a House speech as “unequivocally and categorically . . . not true.”

Donaldson then went on ABC-TV and supported The Times story, saying that he had been present and heard Rodino’s comments. He said he had not reported the remarks earlier because he “wanted to keep lines of communications open” with the chairman. Today, it is hard to imagine Donaldson holding back.

Early Partisanship Began to Evaporate

It was clear that the early partisanship had begun to evaporate inside the committee.

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Several days before the committee began its public debate, three Southern Democrats--Walter Flowers of Alabama, Jim Mann of South Carolina and Ray Thornton of Arkansas--began conducting rump sessions with Republicans Butler, Railsback, Fish and Cohen.

The “swing seven” met morning and afternoon in Railsback’s office. Some had trouble sleeping. Samuel Garrison, the deputy minority counsel, said it was taking “an emotional and physical toll on them.”

They eventually not only supported impeachment but drew up the first two articles charging obstruction of justice and abuse of power.

When the Judiciary Committee began voting on the articles of impeachment on the evening of Saturday, July 27, the occasion was as solemn as any I have ever witnessed. It was one of the most moving scenes I have watched in almost 30 years in Washington.

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Some of the 21 Democrats, their names called first by the clerk, had moist eyes and looked away from the television camera as they intoned “aye.” Edward Mezvinsky of Iowa, a freshman who cast the conclusive 20th aye that made it a majority, blinked back tears.

All six Republicans whom Rodino had said were likely to vote for impeachment did so. I felt special empathy for Fish, whose father, a former congressman, had led a movement supporting Nixon and had written his son many strong letters urging him to vote against impeachment.

Several members asked for extra time to explain their votes. Butler, whose Virginia district had voted overwhelmingly to reelect Nixon in 1972, said, “The job is not worth voting against my conscience.”

The final vote for the first article, which charged Nixon with nine offenses in obstructing the Watergate break-in investigation, was 27 to 11.

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Still not ready to concede, a combative Rep. Charles Wiggins of California led the Republican opposition to that article and two others subsequently approved by the committee. One charged abuse of power and the other cited Nixon’s refusal to comply with four subpoenas.

Before the full House could vote, Nixon, responding to a Supreme Court order, released the rest of the Oval Office tapes. The tape Jenner had told us about, of a March 21, 1973, conversation in which Dean warned of the “cancer on the presidency” and Nixon said that hush money could be raised, already had been released. The new batch included the June 23, 1972, “smoking gun” tape that made clear Nixon conspired in the cover-up just six days after the break-in.

Wiggins, after reviewing the tape, sobbed as he announced that he would support the first article if Nixon failed to step down.

Two days later, on Aug. 8, 1974, Nixon resigned.

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Question of Whether Hyde Can Persuade

Since the Nixon impeachment hearings, I have stayed in touch with Rodino. Now 89 years old, he still teaches at the Seton Hall School of Law and lectures on impeachment.

In a recent telephone conversation, he stressed that if members of Congress vote on impeaching Clinton, they will be able to justify their vote to the American people only if they “show impartiality and objectivity in such a grave matter as attempting to remove from office a president who has been elected by the people.”

“Voting in a partisan vein won’t serve the rule of law well, won’t serve Congress well and won’t serve the American people well,” Rodino said.

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I think Henry Hyde would readily embrace that view. The question is whether he can carry the rest of Congress with him.

Times staff writers Robert L. Jackson, Ronald J. Ostrow and Richard T. Cooper contributed to this story.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Evolution of Two Scandals

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WATERGATE

1972

* June 17: Five men are arrested in the Watergate complex after burglarizing Democratic National Committee headquarters.

* Nov. 7: Nixon is reelected with more than 60% of the vote.

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1973

* April 30: Atty. Gen.-designate Elliot L. Richardson names Archibold Cox as his choice for Watergate special prosecutor.

* April 30: Nixon tells the nation: “I was determined that we should get to the bottom of the matter and that the truth should be fully brought out no matter who was involved.”

* Oct. 20: In the “Saturday night massacre,” Richardson and his deputy, William Ruckelshaus, resign rather than follow Nixon’s wish to fire Cox.

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* Nov. 1: Nixon names Leon Jaworski special prosecutor.

1974

* Feb. 6: House votes, 410-4, to give its Judiciary Committee broad power to conduct an impeachment inquiry.

* Feb. 25: Nixon rejects Watergate grand jury subpoena to testify and tells Judiciary Committee he will comply only selectively with its subpoena of documents.

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* March 1: Jaworski delivers his impeachment report to U.S. District Judge John Sirica in a single brown briefcase.

* July 27-30: Judiciary Committee approves three articles of impeachment.

* Aug. 5: Responding to a Supreme Court order, Nixon releases the “smoking gun” tape showing him conspiring in the cover-up just six days after the break-in.

* Aug. 9: Nixon resigns.

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* Sept. 8: President Gerald Ford grants Nixon a “full, free and absolute pardon.”

****

LEWINSKY

Nov. 15, 1995 to March 20, 1997. President Clinton and Monica S. Lewinsky engage in sexual activity in the White House.

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1996

* Nov. 5: Clinton is reelected with 49% of the vote.

1998

* Jan. 16: Atty. Gen. Janet Reno empowers independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr to expand his investigation to include the Lewinsky matter.

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* Jan. 26: Clinton says at a press conference: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky. I never told anybody to lie, not a single time.”

* Aug. 17: Clinton testifies before Starr’s grand jury and then acknowledges publicly that he had an improper relationship with Lewinsky but denies that he committed perjury.

* Sept. 9: Starr delivers to Congress 36 boxes of evidence supporting a report in which the lays out 11 possible grounds for impeachment.

* Oct. 8: House votes, 258-176, to authorize Judiciary Committee to conduct a broad impeachment inquiry.

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Compiled by TRICIA FORD / Los Angeles Times


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