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Echoes Of Watergate Today


In the aftermath of the Mueller report, President Trump and Congress have been engaged in an epic showdown about executive privilege and oversight. The two branches have tangled over their checks and balances many times before, perhaps most famously during Watergate. That fight made its way to the courts when President Nixon was forced to turn over Oval Office recordings to Congress. That led to his impeachment. It was the House Judiciary Committee that investigated Watergate back in 1974. NPR's Linda Wertheimer covered those hearings and has this look back. Listen.


LINDA WERTHEIMER, BYLINE: Some members of the Judiciary Committee would like to get on with it right now. Republican Charles Sandman of New Jersey asked the staff today if they don't have enough material to get started right now, today. But the staff and the chairman, Peter Rodino, continue to counsel the committee to wait - to wait for the material coming over from the grand jury, to wait to see what the president's lawyer intends to do with...

Did you recognize my voice? I have to say that I barely did. There are lots of echoes from that time to this. But there are also big differences. In the present day, the Judiciary Committee is not officially working toward impeachment. But they are hearing the same advice from their leaders - wait. One enormous difference is that the Congress was in Democratic hands when Richard Nixon was president. Now it's only the House. By July of 1974, members of both parties in the House Judiciary Committee struggled with the decision to impeach. I remember that their decisions were often personal. For instance, Tom Railsback, Republican of Illinois, he spoke in the committee debate about hearing from young people.


TOM RAILSBACK: If the young people in this country think that we're going to not handle this thing fairly, if we're not going to really try to get to the truth, you're going to see the most frustrated people, the most turned-off people, the most disillusioned people. And it's going to make the period of LBJ and 1968, 1967 - it's going to make it look tame.

WERTHEIMER: We talked to Congressman Railsback a few days ago. He's 87 - not well, but what he remembers is very personal, making a tough decision to vote against the president he considered a friend.

RAILSBACK: I remember that it was very hard. Richard Nixon campaigned for me twice, came to my home area and actually campaigned for me. So it was a very difficult job.

WERTHEIMER: Most but not all committee Democrats were for impeachment. Congressman George Danielson was a Democrat from California strongly opposed to the president. He talked about the president's secret White House recordings, about protecting the cover up.


GEORGE DANIELSON: We do have testimony from some of the tapes furnished to us by the White House that, at various times in the proceedings, the president counseled his aides to, if they did appear, to stonewall it, to say nothing, to say they could not recall, to take the Fifth Amendment - to do anything but not let the plan come out.

WERTHEIMER: Mr. Danielson sounds calm. But he was furious with White House efforts to impede the Judiciary Committee. The hearings in the Senate Watergate Committee and the House Judiciary Committee were broadcast. They drew huge audiences. Over more than a year, the American people were educated about what happened, about the law, impeachment and the Constitution.


BARBARA JORDAN: We the people - it's a very eloquent beginning. But when that document was completed on the 17 of September in 1787, I was not included in that we the people.

WERTHEIMER: That was Barbara Jordan, Democrat of Texas, the first black woman elected to the House from the South. An imposing person with a powerful mind and a powerful voice, she took a larger view of impeachment. She looked at the Constitution of the United States.


JORDAN: A president is impeachable if he attempts to subvert the Constitution. If the impeachment provision in the Constitution of the United States will not reach the offenses charged here, then perhaps that 18th-century Constitution should be abandoned to a 20th-century paper shredder.

WERTHEIMER: While all this was happening, I went one morning to talk to Tip O'Neill of Massachusetts, the House majority leader. And he said something dramatic to me that he had not said to any reporter.


WERTHEIMER: Now, what is going to happen, according to - to your reading of the House?

TIP O'NEILL: Well, I have to presume at this particular time that the president of the United States is going to be impeached by the Judiciary Committee, that you're going to report impeachment.

WERTHEIMER: The Judiciary Committee did vote three articles of impeachment, charging President Nixon with abuse of power, contempt of Congress and obstruction of justice. And right around the same time, everything speeded up. The members of Congress discovered a taped conversation from the White House that came to be called the Smoking Gun, which made clear that President Nixon did know about the Watergate break-in and had participated in trying to cover it up. On that Tuesday, Mike Waters, host of All Things Considered, asked me a question.


MIKE WATERS, BYLINE: What's going on at the Hill now? What is it like?

WERTHEIMER: Well, there's a riot going on. Members of Congress are coming in, one after the other, to tell the American people that they can no longer support the president. There is a veritable blizzard of press releases. There were speeches on the floor about the president. And supporters of the president that yesterday would have appeared to be unthinkable that they should have defected did defect today.

But the House never voted on impeachment. On August 9, President Richard Nixon resigned. After that, Vice President Gerald R. Ford was sworn in as the new president, and the impeachment proceedings ended. Linda Wertheimer, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: April 27, 2019 at 11:00 PM CDT
The introduction to this story incorrectly states that Richard Nixon was impeached. In fact, while the House Judiciary Committee approved three articles of impeachment, Nixon resigned, and the full House of Representatives never voted on the impeachment articles.
As NPR's senior national correspondent, Linda Wertheimer travels the country and the globe for NPR News, bringing her unique insights and wealth of experience to bear on the day's top news stories.