Where are the Republicans? That’s the question the country has been hearing, and asking, during the first 15 months of the Trump presidency. Where are the GOP leaders in Congress willing to question their president when he bullies, stirs discord, and undercuts the rule of law? A few have done so, but they tend to be the ones heading for the exits, while most of those remaining stay mute.
But Trump’s behavior has grown more dangerous. He has fanned flames of a possible trade war with China, congratulated Vladimir Putin on his sham election without confronting him about Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, and suggested he has the power to fire special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerAn unquestioning press promotes Rep. Adam Schiff's book based on Russia fiction Senate Democrats urge Garland not to fight court order to release Trump obstruction memo Why a special counsel is guaranteed if Biden chooses Yates, Cuomo or Jones as AG MORE. If Republicans in Congress stand by as acquiescent observers while Trump leads us into war in Syria, attempts to destroy the Mueller investigation, or otherwise ignores constitutional constraints, the GOP will lose its standing as a great political party.
In 1940, top GOP officials urged Wendell Willkie, the Republican presidential nominee, to attack Franklin Roosevelt for sending aid to Britain and thereby bringing the U.S. closer to war. Willkie refused and stuck with his deeply held belief that the threatened democracies of Europe deserved our help. After losing the election, but with a strong enough showing to make a claim on the 1944 Republican nomination, Willkie made a courageous decision that effectively put that prospect out of reach. Over vigorous protests by the GOP, Wilkie testified forcefully before the Senate on Roosevelt’s lend lease bill providing arms and food to allies around the world. While previously in doubt, the bill passed with his strong support. Roosevelt said later of Willkie, “He was a Godsend to this country when we needed him most.”
In 1950, Margaret Chase Smith, a new senator from Maine, challenged a senator from her own Republican Party, Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin. Soldly told her colleagues, “Those who shouted loudest about Americanism all too frequently ignored such basic principles of Americanism as ‘the right to criticize, the right to protest, the right to critical thought.’” Her words made a deep impression on many, including Harry Truman who said that her “declaration of conscience was one of the finest things that has happened here in Washington in all my years.”
By the summer of 1974, the Watergate scandal was well into its second year, threatening the presidency of Richard Nixon. After scores of hearings, investigations and news reports, culpability for the crime and its cover up appeared to lead to the Oval Office. When one of Nixon’s secret tape recordings revealed the president had ordered a cover-up of the Watergate burglary, it was game over. Momentum for his impeachment appeared unstoppable but Nixon remained silent.
On Aug. 7, 1974, Senate minority leader Hugh Scott, his House counterpart John Rhodes, and Barry Goldwater, the much-admired GOP elder statesman, all paid visits to the White House. Duty called them there for a most unpleasant task. No one had to urge Nixon to resign. They simply showed him that the votes weren’t there to forestall impeachment. The next day Nixon announced he would resign his office, sparing himself and the nation the painful ordeal of impeachment.
Vice President Gerald Ford succeeded Nixon to the presidency and soon declared, “Our long national nightmare is over.” But not quite, because possible criminal charges still hung over the former president for crimes he may have committed while in office. Ford, a stolid Midwesterner known for his decency and integrity, understood that such legal proceedings could extend the “nightmare” for years and impede the country’s ability to deal with its serious problems.
On Sept. 8, 1974, Ford surprised the nation by issuing a full pardon for Nixon. There followed a political firestorm, with Democrats crying foul, and some questioning Ford’s motives. However controversial the pardon was then, it is widely seen today as an act of great courage that in fact put the Watergate episode behind us. But it may have cost Ford, as a similar act of courage had cost Willkie, the presidency.
Other Republican leaders also demonstrated political courage when the time came. Everett Dirksen, the Senate minority leader who at the critical moment in 1964 changed his mind and led 27 other Republicans to end a filibuster, helped the historic civil rights bill to become law. Howard Baker voted for ratification of the Panama Canal Treaties, a vote that may have cost him the presidency as well. These people made courageous decisions to put country first. May their examples be useful in this time of peril. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainRedistricting reform key to achieving the bipartisanship Americans claim to want Kelly takes under-the-radar approach in Arizona Senate race Voting rights, Trump's Big Lie, and Republicans' problem with minorities MORE, bless him, can’t do it alone.
Richard Moe served as chief of staff to Vice President Walter Mondale and was a senior staff member at White House under President Jimmy Carter from 1977 to 1981. He is the author of “Roosevelt’s Second Act: The Election of 1940 and the Politics of War,” published by Oxford University Press.