I was there that long, warm evening of July 25, 1974, in the packed hearing room of the House Judiciary Committee, when it considered articles of impeachment against President Richard M. Nixon. I’m reminded of it often these days when I hear appeals for the impeachment of George W. Bush or Dick Cheney, or both. It was quite an evening.
Every member spoke, but only one speech is remembered and is still recorded to be seen and heard as well as read. That was the speech of a junior member, Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, who represented and was raised in the black ghettoes of Houston, but who spoke as if from echoing halls of American history. [Click here for a video of the speech.]
And just as there seemed no end to the Watergate crisis in 1974, so today her words are meant for the cynics and skeptic among us—citizens, journalists and members of Congress who fear the “I” word. Her message: Impeachment is not a constitutional crisis; it is the solution to such a crisis. And she spoke during a losing war.
“Earlier today,” she began, “ we heard the beginning of the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States, “We, the people.” It is a very eloquent beginning. But when the document was completed on the seventeenth of September 1787 I was not included in that “We, the people.” I felt somehow for many years that George Washington and Alexander Hamilton just left me out by mistake. But through the process of amendment, interpretation and court decision I have finally been included in “We, the people…”
“Common sense would be revolted if we engaged upon this process for petty reasons. Congress has a lot to do: Appropriations, tax reform, health insurance, campaign finance reform, housing, environmental protection, energy sufficiency, mass transportation. Pettiness cannot be allowed to stand in the face of such overwhelming problems. So today we are not being petty. We are trying to be big, because the task we have before us is a big one.”
It’s worth watching and reading all of what she said, but in particular: “We know the nature of impeachment…It is chiefly designed for the president and his high ministers to somehow be called into account…It is designed as a method of national inquest into the conduct of public men.”
Barbara Jordan died in 1996; her talk explaining the meaning of impeachment is widely recognized as one of the great speeches of American history.
To give you some background, which could serve well today, the Judiciary Committee chairman, the late Rep. Peter Rodino, a Democratic hack from New Jersey, rose to the occasion and prevented the hearing process from becoming a circus. He hired Republican John Doar, a famed civil rights prosecutor who served in the Justice Department in the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations, to amass the evidence against Nixon. Albert Jenner, an eminent Chicago lawyer and later Sam Garrison were hired to defend the president.
Virtually all these hearings were closed, and each day, members were obliged to turn in the briefing books that the lawyers had prepared. There were leaks, of course, but generally no one on the committee played politics with what they heard. And the president continued his work, dealing with the Vietnam War.
Only after all the evidence was heard, did the committee open its sessions for debate and the votes on the proposed articles of impeachment. Jordan: “At this point, I would like to juxtapose a few of the impeachment criteria with some of the President’s actions. Impeachment criteria: James Madison, from the Virginia ratification convention. “If the President be connected in any suspicious manner with any person and there is grounds to believe that he will shelter him, he may be impeached.”
During the long closed-door hearings and in the open debate the strain showed. One member developed a case of ulcers. A conservative southerner cried as he voted. Another knew that his vote to impeach would mean his defeat in November. But in the end, on that night, the committee voted 27 to 11, with six Republicans joining the Democrats, for the first article of impeachment.
President Nixon resigned before the vote came in the full House.