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.