On August 8, 1974, Richard M. Nixon, fearing certain conviction by the United States Senate in an impeachment trial, resigned the office of the Presidency, the only person ever to do so.
There were good reasons to impeach him.
- He had committed the economic sin of signing and managing a leviathanate Democrat hodgepodge of wage and price controls.
- He had negotiated and signed an Anti-Ballistic Missile reduction treaty that basically advertised that we could not now, and never would, defend ourselves against ICBMs.
- He oversaw the creation of nanny-state agencies such as the EPA and OSHA.
- He created the well-intentioned but destructive minority set-aside program.
The list goes on. But he was not being railroaded out of office for those massive sins against the Constitution… and he was not being thrown out because he had failed to even try to undo the massive and crippling welfare state initiatives of the Great Society, which were not yet entrenched enough to be difficult to undo.
No, Richard Nixon was threatened with impeachment – and ultimately forced to resign – because a campaign aide had authorized a second-rate burglary, and Nixon authorized and participated in its cover-up.
In the Hands of the Legislature
This isn’t to say that Watergate wasn’t an impeachable offense. The Constitution authorizes impeachment for “high crimes and misdemeanors” – giving Congress the broadest possible range of crimes to consider as justification. It means that Congress can impeach the president for anything from embezzlement and murder down to reckless driving and public intoxication.
It’s up to the judgment of Congress. They know the disruption that a presidential impeachment will cause, and the Framers trusted them – or at least, a majority of them – to be sensible enough to weigh the pain of an impeachment against the pain of having a president who is guilty of such crimes, and most importantly, the danger of setting a precedent that such crimes in the office of a president would be tolerated.
The Constitution doesn’t require that the Congress must impeach a president who is guilty of something. With the American legal code now having grown to be larger than some states, virtually any politician can shown to be in violation of some tax rule, some campaign finance regulation, some other minor infraction.
But the Framers intended that the president would be most moral, the most principled, the most devoted to the Constitution, of all our civil servants. Their expectation was that our presidents would either be George Washingtons, or at least, try to be. If such an effort failed, the threat of impeachment would always be there, to steer any occupant of the White House back onto the straight and narrow.
The threat of impeachment is so severe – not only removal from office, but a black mark for the history books that could never be expunged – that the mere threat of impeachment should be enough to scare every president straight.
No matter the temptation to stray – no matter the lure of public support for espousing some unconstitutional but momentarily popular act – the fear that a responsible Senate might make him wear that scarlet letter “I” for all eternity would dissuade a president from violating his oath.
This theory worked for over a century, but then came the 17th Amendment, which took the role of selection of US Senators out of the hands of the state capitols and placed it in the hands of the voters.
Suddenly, the Senators no longer served their role of safeguarding the states against a leviathan national government. Suddenly, the Senators were no longer the umpires at the game, there to stop the national politicians from violating the rules. Now that the Senators were fellow national politicians themselves, the federal government was now all national, without any umpires at all to enforce the rule book!
Following that awful amendment, throughout the 20th century, the denizens of Washington D.C. gradually moved farther and farther away from their oath to uphold the Constitution. Year after year, decade after decade, the State has grown, without threat of impeachments ever pulling anyone back.
From the New Deal to the Great Society , presidents and bureaucrats grew the government with fertilizer and radiation, until the nation became utterly unrecognizable when compared with the libertarian home of prosperity and freedom for which our Founders risked, and often gave, their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor.
And then came the Nixon administration and the Watergate scandal. All of a sudden, it looked like the Senate was going to do something right. Yes, for the wrong reason, but at least, it would have been done. Just as a child sometimes needs a spanking… just as a vendor sometimes needs a threatening meeting… just as one nation sometimes has to marshall its troops along the border, just to remind an errant neighbor to obey a treaty… sometimes a republican government needs an impeachment.
In August of 1974, this nation desperately needed to see a president impeached for violating his oath and exceeding his authority, for taking the law into his own hands.
And Richard Nixon, in an understandable, but ultimately destructive and largely selfish choice, denied them the opportunity by resigning on his own.
Richard Nixon thought he was saving the country from worldwide embarrassment, during a time of sensitive foreign affairs (it was, after all, the nadir of the cold war; the west was in retreat as Communist Russia was accumulating vassals in every continent north of Antarctica). He did it for himself – to mitigate the stain on his encyclopedia entry – but he doubtless thought he was doing it for his country as well.
But on this, as on so much, Richard Nixon was wrong. This country needed an impeachment. We needed the House and Senate to put their feet down, and with a single voice, cry out “This Is Too Much!”
But they did not. They were spared the need to develop a spine, at the first time in decades when it looked like they might. And – despite the occasional minority of standouts over the years – as a body, they have remained spineless ever since.
Richard Nixon resigned, and the growth of what political scientists call “the imperial presidency” was allowed to continue to wreak havoc on our national polity.
And on to the Present:
Today, a president can violate the law on a daily basis – invading nations without Congressional authorization (e.g. Libya), nationalizing private corporations (e.g. GM), ordering the mass closures of private businesses (e.g. 3000 car dealers), banning legitimate and crucial private commerce (e.g. Keystone Pipeline), even spending billions on personal vacations in a time of skyrocketing unemployment and plummeting standard of living – and he has no fear of removal from office.
No, it would be an exaggeration to blame the entire Barack Hussein Obama administration and its myriad crimes on the failure to impeach Richard Nixon, 39 years ago. Like all sins in a republic, the fault lies with the politicians themselves, the voters who elected them, and the donors and reporters who enabled them. But it did play a role.
Our Founders knew about these risks, and planned for them. They knew that voters might make the occasional mistake, that the press might occasionally pick the wrong side, that politicians, being human, might display their flaws once elected.
But the Founders set in place the threat of impeachment, as the ultimate weapon against the dictatorial executive, and they put that final trial in the hands of the Senate, the one body in Washington which owed its existence to the states, and could therefore be trusted to stand against the national government whenever such a stand was needed.
The 17th Amendment killed that most critical of the Framers’ checks and balances. And, watching the antics of this rogue White House today, five and a half years in, with three and a half to go… oh, how we are reaping the toxic harvest of this century of error.
Copyright 2013 John F. Di Leo
John F. Di Leo is a Chicago-based Customs broker and trade compliance manager. A prior county chairman of the Milwaukee County Republican Party, he has now been a recovering politician for sixteen years (but, like any addiction, you’re never fully cured). His columns appear regularly in Illinois Review.
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