When Father Robert Drinan was swept into Congress as part of the “New Politics” surge of 1970 — which saw Democratic primary voters across the country replace pro-Vietnam War incumbents with anti-war champions such as California’s Ron Dellums and New York’s Bella Abzug–the new representative from Massachusetts arrived as a Constitutional scholar who had a bone to pick with Richard Nixon’s imperial presidency. The longtime dean of the Boston College of Law, Drinan joined the House Judiciary Committee with the stated purpose of renewing the system of checks and balances by asserting the power of Congress to constrain and, where necessary, sanction the president for overstepping his authority.

Nixon was not amused. He placed Drinan’s name high on the White House “enemies list” and the chairman of the Republican National Committee, a Nixon acolyte named George Herbert Walker Bush, declared that the dissenting Democrat’s defeat would be a top priority of the president’s party.

Drinan did not blink. The Jesuit priest, who has died this week at the age of 86, never hesitated to identify Nixon’s military adventurism in southeast Asia as both “morally objectionable” and “illegal.” And the wily and whimsical scholar–who had joked with supporters such as a young John Kerry about campaigning on the slogan: “Vote for Father Drinan or Go to Hell”–was determined to hold Nixon to account on both counts.

In particular, Drinan believed that Nixon’s secret order of a massive carpet bombing campaign against Cambodia–according to White House transcripts, the president announced to aides: “I want gunships in there. That means armed helicopters, DC-3s, anything else that will destroy personnel that can fly. I want it done!”–represented an absolute violation of the constitutional requirement that wars be authorized by Congress.

After New York Times reporter William Beecher exposed the fact that the initial carpet-bombing campaign had gone on for more than a year and killed tens of thousands of Cambodians, Drinan introduced H. Res. 513 – “Resolution impeaching Richard M. Nixon, President of the United States, of high crimes and misdemeanors”–on July 31, 1973. An embarrassment to House Democratic leaders, who were trying to mute discussion of impeachment at a time when Nixon’s approval ratings remained high, Drinan’s resolution, which citied violation of Section 1, Article 8, of the Constitution – “The Congress shall have power to… declare war, grant letters of marque and reprisal, and make rules concerning captures on land and water”–as the grounds for impeachment, was assigned to the House Judiciary Committee. Despite the fact that committee chair Peter Rodino told CBS News on the night of its introduction that the question it raised was a “serious matter,” the impeachment resolution attracted no cosponsors and languished in committee for months.

Almost exactly a year after its introduction, however, when the wheel had turned to such an extent that Nixon had in fact been impeached by the Judiciary Committee, a version of Drinan’s resolution was finally considered in the committee’s closing discussion on articles of how to act against Nixon. With support from the Congressional Black Caucus, Drinan pressed the committee to move his article of impeachment against Nixon for ordering the bombing of Cambodia without the permission of Congress. Key Democrats in Congress opposed the article, arguing that, while America people were prepared to impeach the president for the petty crimes of Watergate, they were not ready to remove him for violating the Constitutional constraint on presidential warmaking. Drinan was having none of it. To the suggestion that an article of impeachment sanctioning the president for the ordering the bombings would not “play in Peoria,” the congressman from Massachusetts asked: “How can we impeach the President for concealing a burglary but not for concealing a massive bombing?”

Drinan’s argument drew enthusiastic support from a number of the Judiciary Committee’s younger members, including the Michigan representative who would eventually become its chair, John Conyers. But the committee’s majority rejected the sanction by a vote of 26-12. The committee’s failure to send a clear signal about the limits on presidential warmaking haunt the United States to this day.

When I began to study the history of impeachment, I consulted with Father Drinan, who helped to form my understanding of the founders’ intent that the “heroic medicine” be used “to chain the dogs of war.” Drinan and I spoke often in his later years, when he taught at Georgetown University Law Center and kept a wary eye on the Capitol where he had served from 1971 to 1981, when a papal order forced him to leave the House.

Drinan was frustrated by the caution of the Congress during the presidencies of both Bill Clinton and George Bush. He really did believe in the necessity of checks and balances–calling for his successors in the House to look beyond their party affiliations to challenge the failed approaches of Democratic and Republican presidents in the Middle East. And he never lost his sense of perspective when it came to impeachment. He dismissed Republican attempts to sanction Bill Clinton as petty moralizing gone awry. And he counseled those who would seek to remove George Bush and Dick Cheney to understand and respect the process–as he noted that he had in waiting more than two years after arriving in Congress as an anti-war firebrand to move his article of impeachment against Nixon. Before there can be serious talk of impeachment, the law professor explained, newly empowered House Democrats must exercise the powers afforded by their committee assignments to genuinely investigate charges of wrongdoing, with the honest intent of separating mistakes from misdeeds and with an eye toward establishing precisely where lines of law and morality may have been crossed.

Those who now occupy stations of power in the Capitol should not be hesitant, however, in asserting that Congress has the authority to block executive warmaking and to hold president’s to account. Active almost to the end, Drinan delighted in the determination of Democrats like Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold and his old Judiciary Committee colleague, Conyers, to challenge the excesses of the current administration.

Drinan died one day after hundreds of thousands of anti-war demonstrators filled the streets of Washington, two days before Feingold opened a Senate Judiciary Committee session on using the power of the purse to end the war in Iraq and three days before Conyers was set to convene an oversight hearing titled: “Presidential Signing Statements under the Bush Administration: A Threat to Checks and Balances and the Rule of Law?”

In a week such as this it is not so difficult to understand why — after the 2006 elections gave Democrats control of both houses of Congress and handed key committee and subcommittee chairs to the likes of Conyers and Feingold–the old Jesuit was heard to proclaim: “God heard our prayers!” I am only sorry that Father Drinan is not around to enjoy the hearings that are in every sense are celebrations of the Constitution that he so cherished.


John Nichols’ latest book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders’ Cure forRoyalism.