Republicans have shattered the bipartisan legacy of Watergate

Republicans have shattered the bipartisan legacy of Watergate
© Getty Images

In their zeal to enable President TrumpDonald John TrumpWHCA calls on Trump to denounce video depicting him shooting media outlets Video of fake Trump shooting members of media shown at his Miami resort: report Trump hits Fox News's Chris Wallace over Ukraine coverage MORE, Republicans in the House of Representatives have repudiated the bipartisan legacy of the Watergate investigations. Many Republicans participated faithfully and impartially in the congressional investigations of Richard Nixon’s transgressions, voting in the House Judiciary Committee for articles of impeachment. It was Republicans, not Democrats, who ultimately compelled Nixon to resign from the presidency.

In February 1973, the Senate voted unanimously to create a special committee to investigate the Watergate scandal. The resolution authorized the committee of four Democrats and three Republicans to investigate the Watergate break-in and possible cover-up along with “all other illegal, improper, or unethical conduct occurring during the presidential campaign of 1972, including political espionage and campaign finance practices.”

ADVERTISEMENT
The committee’s Republicans and Democrats agreed to share all information, and its vice chairman, Howard Baker, initially viewed as an ally of the president, became a relentless questioner in search of the truth. It was Baker who asked Watergate’s iconic questions: “What did the president know, and when did he know it?”

On July 24, 1973, George H. W. Bush, chairman of the Republican National Committee, charged with flimsy evidence that the Senate investigation was tainted because Carmine Bellino, the special committee’s chief investigator, had illegally wiretapped candidate Nixon’s phones to give John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE an edge in the 1960 presidential election. Not a single committee Republican backed this deflection, and a six-week investigation by the bipartisan committee staff cleared Bellino.

The committee held more than 50 days of highly-rated televised hearings that gave the American people a blow-by-blow account of the investigation. The committee issued a bipartisan final report on June 27, 1974, which detailed the its findings on presidential “corruption, fraud, and abuse of official powers.” The report looked forward no less than backward. It made specific recommendations for avoiding a reprise of the Watergate scandals, including stiffer regulation of campaign activities and contributions and the enshrinement in law of a permanent office of the special prosecutor.

In February 1974, the House voted nearly unanimously, 410 to 4, to begin an impeachment investigation of the president in the Judiciary Committee. The House rejected, by a bipartisan vote of 342 to 70, amendments to add a deadline for the committee's work and to limit the scope of its subpoena power. The committee voted 33 to 3 to subpoena the Watergate tapes, which the president refused to release, claiming executive privilege.

In July 1974, the Supreme Court unanimously rejected Nixon’s claims of executive privilege and ordered the release of the tapes to Congress and the special prosecutor. The Judiciary Committee then voted three articles of impeachment against the president for obstructing justice, ignoring congressional subpoenas, and grossly abusing his presidential powers. More than a third of the committee Republicans voted for at least one of these articles.

One of these Republicans, Lawrence Hogan of Maryland, the father of the state’s current governor, said, “It is impossible for me to condone the long train of abuses to which [Nixon] has subjected the presidency and the people of this country.” The staff of Time Magazine wrote at the time, “The degree of bipartisanship in the Judiciary Committee vote was larger than had been expected, and it effectively rebutted the increasingly shrill claims from White House officials that the impeachment inquiry was a highly partisan ‘witch hunt’ and that the committee amounted to ‘a kangaroo court.’”

A week after the committee’s vote, a delegation of Republicans, comprising former presidential nominee Barry Goldwater, Senate Minority Leader Hugh Scott, and House Minority Leader John Rhodes, warned Nixon of an inevitable impeachment by the House and conviction by the Senate, where Republican support for acquittal had dwindled a few diehards. Two days later, the ever pragmatic Nixon resigned the presidency, a positive outcome for the nation in removing a serious threat to the integrity of democracy in the United States.

“The dread word ‘Watergate,’ is not just the stupid, unprofitable, break-in attempt,” said Republican Edward Brooke in 1974. “It is perjury. Obstruction of justice. The solicitation and acceptance of hundreds of thousands of dollars in illegal campaign contributions. It is a pattern of arrogance, illegality and lies which ought to shock the conscience of every Republican.”

History is not geometry and historical parallels are never exact, but the Watergate experience demonstrates that investigations cannot be rushed. A year and a half elapsed between the establishment of the Senate Watergate Committee and the impeachment votes in the House Judiciary Committee. It also demonstrates that efforts at partisan deflection can only delay, but not end the search for truth. Eventually the truth will emerge, if not from a partisan-tainted congressional committee, then surely from the special counsel’s investigation.

Allan J. Lichtman, Ph.D., is a distinguished professor of history at American University. He is the author of “The Case for Impeachment.”