October 8, 1998
JIM LEHRER: Now, Phil Ponce puts today's vote into an historical context.
PHIL PONCE: Today's vote marks only the third time in the country's history that the House of Representatives has authorized an impeachment inquiry of the President of the United States. For some perspective on this occasion we're joined by NewsHour regulars Presidential Historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss and Journalist and Author Haynes Johnson. Joining them tonight is William Van Alstyne, Professor of Constitutional Law at Duke University. Welcome all. Haynes, this has only happened in the country's history twice before. Does today have the appeal of -- gravity - of an important day in the country's history?
HAYNES JOHNSON, Author/Journalist: Well, it's a sad day. It's a tragic day. Twice before there were tragedies, but the difference - I am struck so much, Phil, between remembering what it was like just 24 years ago during the Watergate process - by the time the Congress had taken its action on February 6, 1974, authorizing the formal process to begin an impeachment that we now have today, the country had already been conditioned to this great and credible building crisis, a constitutional crisis of enormous magnitude, and no one knew what was going to come out, and there was a great deal of solemnity and a breathtaking feeling of - almost of majesty. I remember talking privately with members of the Judiciary Committee at that time, Republicans and Democrats, particularly the Republicans -- young Bill Cohen of Maine, now the Secretary of Defense - Hamilton Fish, now dead, the scion of old New York stock Republican Party - Caldwell Butler, one of the classic sort of constitutional people from Virginia - they were approaching that task without the partisanship you've see now but also the country was prepared for something different. This is - it's as equally serious but it's like there was great tragedy and drama, and now it's low mellow drama but, nonetheless, tragic.
PHIL PONCE: Michael, low mellow drama this time around?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: I think it is so far. And, you know, Haynes is absolutely right. It was solemn by early 1974, but, you know, the other thing is that that was after a year of senate investigation -- Sam Irvine, the chairman of the Senate Watergate Committee and others -- and bit by bit we learned more and more of the evidence against Richard Nixon, the fact that the crimes that Nixon had committed in Watergate were of great magnitude, so that by the time you got to the House of Representatives and impeachment, we had been through a year of this and seen a lot of heroism on the senate Watergate committee and put people in a different mood. In a way, what we've all been through as Americans during the last eight months is a lot of tabloid, low melodrama about Monica Lewinsky. There's a very big difference between that and what we saw in the Irvine committee in the summer of '73.
PHIL PONCE: Doris, one of the things that we've seen in the past few days is people - a lot of people quoting history. We've heard folks quoting Barbara Jordan, Peter Rodino. How do you react to that?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN, Presidential Historian: Well, I think what's so complicated about this whole impeachment thing is fortunately because there's been so few proceedings, we don't have a body of case law, the way you do with Supreme Court decisions that give us real precedence. So sometimes history gets misused. You have the feeling that both sides -- reaches back almost like an analogy to something that bolsters their own case. For example, the White House talked about old Alexander Hamilton, who had a private affair with Mrs. Reynolds, tried to give hush money to Mr. Reynolds, and they decided that was a private affair, not an impeachable crime. On the other hand, the Republicans point to old Judge Nixon, who was convicted and impeached, for lying to a grand jury. Neither case is really analogous, but because we don't have the body of materials there, it's almost like a grab bag. The only thing I think we can do, however, is if we look back to the past, you can feel, if you go to the whole story, how did it come out. And when we look to the Andrew Johnson impeachment proceeding and afterwards, historians and the people living in those generations, asked themselves, my God, what did we do, because it really was a partisan proceeding against a man and against a president's political policies, rather than some injury to the states. And they recognized that after the fact. So the real charge, I think, to this inquiry committee and to the House now is unless they can educate and shape public opinion within Congress and the country at large, that these are injuries to the state that require impeachment, there will be no legitimacy behind the project, and then I do fear that a decade or so later we'll be saying, my God, what did we do.
PHIL PONCE: Professor Van Alstyne, looking back at the Watergate experience, how do you assess the - how do you assess the level of partisanship in 1974?
WILLIAM VAN ALSTYNE, Duke University School of Law: Well, surprisingly, if you look at the actual vote reflectively, the degree of partisanship was just about the same. It's easy to forget that even when the Judiciary Committee concluded its own proceedings and took its preliminary vote, all of the Republicans voted against all three articles of impeachment and all of the Democrats voted for them at the time. I agree with your other commentators, however, that the public was more prepared to take the matter seriously because of the background hearings in the Irvine committee, and that what is obliged, what the leadership, the Republicans will have to do is to persuade the public that in addition to four felony offenses, which - for which there is substantial evidence in the special prosecutor's report - they will have to relate that to an abusive office involving the deceit of the public and the involvement of Mrs. Currie and members of his own cabinet in attempting to perpetuate falsehoods on the public at their expense merely to conceal his own wrongdoing. That will be difficult to do.
PHIL PONCE: And Professor, drawing once more on your experience observing Watergate, what is your sense of the - of a level of bitterness, or the level of civility in 1974?
WILLIAM VAN ALSTYNE: It was better then than it is now, I agree with your commentators, that there was a degree of polemical shrillness from both sides, self-consciously aware of being covered live with eminent elections and prematurely staking out such hard bitten positions in advance of the hearings at all, that it is genuinely worrisome as to whether or not there's a kind of predetermined partisanship that will interfere, rather than advance, intelligent and civil hearings to get us to the end of this as quickly as possible.
PHIL PONCE: Haynes.
HAYNES JOHNSON: It's very difficult to compare periods of history, obviously as we're talking about here. But what Michael was saying before, it's so important to keep it in context. You had already had the Saturday night massacre where the President of the United States fired the special prosecutor, sent FBI agents to surround the office of the special prosecutor, closed the files, and then the attorney general of then United States, Elliot Richardson, was asked to fire all the other - the prosecutor, himself - refused to do so. And he resigned under protest. Then the next one in line - Mr. Ruckelshaus - the deputy - refused to do so. And finally the solicitor general, a man named Mr. Bork, who later played a role in our history, did so, and that - the study - and that was back in October, before the hearings began - so you had this leading up to the sense of a real crisis - the country coming apart. That also took place during the time of the Vietnam War, so there was a great deal of dissent and bitterness at the time that happily is absent now, although the climate in the world is not so secure either.
PHIL PONCE: So, Michael, not the same sense of drama and in quite the same way?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: No, because one of the big things that drove the Watergate scandal - and that was over a period of more than two years - was that month after month we kept on getting more and more definitive evidence of what Nixon had done. And also it became more and more clear that this was not just an effort to cover up a break-in in Democratic headquarters of the Watergate office building but a pattern of abuses that went all across Richard Nixon's ultimately five and a half years in office. So if you're talking about bipartisanship, there was an engine that drove that, because as the months wore on and the evidence mounted and mounted, more and more you saw people who were Republicans and Nixon supporters peeling away from his defense. In the spring of 1974, you saw James Buckley, senator from New York, a conservative, who voted with the Republicans coming out for Nixon's resignation or removal from office. And then finally, at the very end, these smoking gun tapes, which demonstrated that Nixon had abused the FBI and the CIA, those came out on the 5th of August, 1974. That was what really broke this, and even people who had been wildly for Nixon during the Judiciary Committee hearing saying we think Nixon is wonderful, the evidence is flimsy, one of those members said, I've come to the conclusion that the magnificent public career of Richard Nixon must be terminated involuntarily. Nixon resigned four days later.
PHIL PONCE: Doris, Michael was talking about people - people of perceived stature back during Watergate. How important is it to have - or how likely is it - or what does history tell us about the importance of people's stature who bring a tempering influence to a proceeding like this?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Oh, I think it's absolutely essential, you know, because even if we were to have gotten agreement on what constitutes injury to the state, or even if we got an agreement that that's the standard, it's changed so much over time that you need people really able to look with wisdom at what today is injury. For example, when the Congress decides to expel its own members, that standard has changed enormously over time. In the 19th century several members were considered for expulsion simply for calling their colleagues a liar. Can you imagine that today? And yet, on the other hand, when a congressman actually physically assaulted Senator Sumner, hurting him so badly that he was out of the senate for three years, that did not warrant expulsion. You didn't have any kind of sense of what it was. What we need now is what I think the Democrats were calling for. We need a sober discussion on what constitutes impeachment, what does injury to the state mean in today's context, what does lying mean in terms of the credibility of the office, what's private, what's public? I don't see where those figures are going to come from. I just hope they emerge from this process. Sometimes you don't see them right at the beginning, but they come forth. I do hope they do.
PHIL PONCE: Professor Van Alstyne, some of those figures came forth during Watergate, yes -- I mean, some of the names that we've been hearing lately - Peter Rodino and Barbara Jordan, for example?
WILLIAM VAN ALSTYNE: What? Do you want me to guess whether that will happen now?
PHIL PONCE: Well -
WILLIAM VAN ALSTYNE: Yes, I certainly hope so.
PHIL PONCE: Well, perhaps give us your assessment of the role they played in 1974, people like that.
WILLIAM VAN ALSTYNE: Well, they were more substantial, but I agree with Doris as well, that is to say, their substantiality is partly a product of the process. As they got engrossed in it and as the evidence simply began to unfold, I think all realized that merely posturing wouldn't work anymore, and it would just be the better part of politics, as well as statesmanship, finally to pay attention. So you did gradually find people acting with far more maturity and concentrating on those issues. I would like to be an optimist about these matters and hope that the process as it begins will discipline people and produce precisely that kind of coalescence of mature thinking, and they will focus on the very questions that Doris has reminded us usefully need to be addressed.
PHIL PONCE: How about that, Haynes, can the process have an impact on people and cause an evolution in thinking, an evolution in posture and that sort of thing?
HAYNES JOHNSON: Of course. Of course. And who knows how long this is going to play out? The last time it took three months after they - actually the Congress got and approved the beginnings of an inquiry before they actually started the hearings and three more months before they actually voted those three bills of impeachment. The country's attitudes changed, and when it was over, there was a great difference. But there's one thing about this case that we can't let go - the difference - Doris talked about crimes against the state. And we can all define what impeachment is or not define or argue about it. But here you have a case which is starting with private sexual relationship consenting, and that is going to be a potential dividing line, such as I don't think we've had before in this country.
PHIL PONCE: That's all the time we have. Professor, Michael, Doris, thank you all very much.