In November 1972, Richard Nixon won a blowout victory, with 60.7% of the popular vote and a 520-to-17 Electoral College landslide.
But Nixon’s term ended prematurely, a mere 19 months after inauguration. In August 1974, he resigned to avoid impeachment for his role in supporting and then covering up a break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters.
Profiles in Cowardice and Profiles in Courage
American democracy barely survived. By September 1973, the consensus was that Nixon would withstand the Watergate controversy. Put bluntly, Nixon almost got away with crimes that included FBI collusion and electoral tampering and that, in hindsight, were far worse than the public knew at the time. A Republican congressional staffer who later became a Senator and presidential candidate, Fred Thompson of Tennessee, later reflected on how close American democracy came to failing. Among other things, Thompson noted that America was saved by those Republicans in Congress and the administration who put country before party.
Maryland Congressman Lawrence Hogan, father of the state’s current governor, was outraged that Nixon tried to cover up the scandal, and voted for all three articles of impeachment in the House Judiciary Committee. Congressman M. Caldwell Butler of Roanoke helped lead the charge for impeachment. Senator Howard Baker of Tennessee famously cut through the noise of the Watergate hearings by asking what the President knew and when he knew it. All three of these men receive regular mention as profiles in courage.
Even among this group of patriots, Elliot Richardson stands out. In May 1973, as Nixon’s Attorney General, Richardson appointed a special prosecutor named Archibald Cox to investigate the Watergate matter. In July, Cox issued a subpoena demanding tape recordings Nixon had made in the White House. On Saturday, October 20, Nixon ordered Richardson to fire Cox. Richardson resigned rather than carry out the order. The public outcry over this “Saturday Night Massacre” turned the tide against Nixon. Decades later, Richardson won the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Watergate’s Heroes Simply Followed The Facts
Hogan, Butler, Baker, and Richardson did not initially believe the Watergate accusations.
On the contrary, when the Watergate crisis first began to unfold, all of them were partisan Republicans and Nixon loyalists. Butler publicly credited his own election to Congress to Nixon’s 1972 landslide. Baker campaigned in 1972 as a close friend of Nixon. Richardson had been previously appointed to two other cabinet positions by Nixon before becoming Attorney General. Hogan questioned whether the proceedings might be politically motivated (with good reason, as Democrats such as William Fitts Ryan of New York had introduced articles of impeachment even before the Watergate break-in took place).
In other words, they did not rush to judgment against Nixon. Rather, they simply supported investigations into the facts. They supported the appointment and power of a special prosecutor. They conducted hearings. They asked questions.
Lessons for this Election’s DNC Break-In
Those examples give ample cover for Republican leaders today to be skeptical and judicious in investigating President-Elect Donald Trump. We do not know if Trump’s campaign aided, abetted, or obstructed justice with regards to the election-season break-in of Democratic National Committee servers. We do not know if or how Trump and his campaign coordinated with groups in Russia or groups within the FBI.
Such appropriate skepticism, however, does not justify the craven approach on display from Paul Ryan and Reince Priebus. During the campaign, these Republicans proclaimed that America’s system of checks and balances reduced the risks associated with a candidate such as Trump. Unlike during Nixon’s second term, they control both chambers of Congress. Now that they are in power, they are violating their public duty to ensure those checks and balances work.
The known facts create a possibility that Trump and his campaign violated the law. Investigators must use their power to subpoena financial and other information to determine if American democracy was deliberately undermined.
America should not be surprised if a majority of Republicans follow the shameful path that Ryan and Priebus are charting. Even in Watergate, that was the case: as late as July 1974, House Judiciary Committee Republicans split 10-7 against recommending any articles of impeachment.
Some Republicans, however, will step up.
Unsurprisingly, Arizona Senator and war hero John McCain is talking straight, telling the public that “it’s clear the Russians interfered” and that “facts are stubborn things [and the Russians] did hack into this campaign.” McCain is calling for a special, bipartisan investigative committee made up of members from the Senate’s Intelligence Committee, Foreign Relations Committee, and the Armed Services Committee.
On the House side, Texas Republican Michael McCaul is cutting his own lonely profile in courage, calling for a forceful public investigation despite his long allegiance to Trump and his personal career opportunity to obtain a Cabinet position in the Trump Administration.
Other Republicans are still exploring. Senators Mitch McConnell (KY), Rand Paul (KY), Bob Corker (TN), and Cory Gardner (CO) have called for thorough investigations, while stopping short of endorsing McCain’s special committee recommendation.
These are the times that reveal character. All patriotic Americans should support these Republicans of character as they search for the truth about whether our democracy was attacked.