In May of 1972, when then-President Richard Nixon was riding as high as he ever would politically, anti-war activists attempted to place an advertisement in The New York Times urging his impeachment for illegal war making in southeast Asia.
The two-page ad, headlined “A Resolution to Impeach Richard M. Nixon,” called on the newspaper’s readers to support House Resolution 976, which had been proposed several weeks earlier by Michigan Congressman John Conyers and several other liberal representatives.
Nixon and his aides went ballistic. The same political operation that was busy orchestrating the Watergate crimes celebrated a brief attempt by pressmen at the Times to block the printing of the paper including the ad. When the censorship failed, Nixon’s political henchmen made sure that Times executives were inundated with letters condemning the very mention of presidential accountability as “traitorous.” A Nixon aide showed up to thank the pressman for trying to prevent publication of the ad. Attorney General John Mitchell and a top Republican in the House, Gerald Ford, explicitly attacked the authors of the impeachment resolution and its supporters. And the group that placed the ad was hauled into court and accused of violating federal campaign finance laws because they had encouraged the election of House members who would pursue impeachment.
Condemnation and ridicule of those who would impeach a president in a time of war is obviously nothing new. And there will be always be political and media players who are at the ready to tell the sincere proponents of the rule of law that it is not the right time to mention impeachment. They will declare that the Constitutionally-defined process is “off the table.” They will even warn, ominously, that the Republic — or, at the very least, the prospects of the proponent’s own party in a coming presidential election — will be harmed by the exercise of patriotic duty.
That’s the message Congressman Dennis Kucinich got Tuesday when the Ohio Democrat attempted to force the House to consider the articles of impeachment he has brought against Vice President Cheney. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Maryland, moved to table Kucinich’s privileged resolution seeking to open a debate on the issue. So, today, it is not just a Republican White House but the leaders of a Democratic-led House who are resisting the pull of the Constitution.
What should Americans who keep faith with the Republic’s best values and intents answer think about the question of whether the House should move to hold a top member of the executive branch to account? The best response is to recognize that those who raised the subject of impeaching Richard Nixon in 1972 and those who raise the subject of impeaching former Nixon aide Dick Cheney in 2007 are the keepers of an American tradition that stretches back to 1787.
That was the point made in a response to the controversy about the 1972 Times ad authored by Telford Taylor, who had served as the chief U.S. prosecutor of Nazi war criminals at the Nuremberg trials.
“Making full allowances for the hyperboles of partisan politics, it is impossible to justify the violence of the attacks leveled by Messrs. John N. Mitchell and Gerald R. Ford against the Congressional sponsors of the Resolution (H. Res. 976) for the Impeachment of President Nixon, set forth in the advertisement printed in The Times on May 31,” wrote Taylor, one of the ablest and most honorable legal thinkers of the 20th century. “It is, of course, entirely proper for anyone so disposed to contest the charges set forth in the Resolution, but to condemn them as ‘revolting,’ ‘disgraceful,’ and ‘traitorous’ is wholly unwarranted.”
Taylor recalled that the founders of the American experiment had intended impeachment to be proposed when there was a sense in the land that a member of the executive branch had committed “an abuse or violation of some public trust.” And he recalled the faith of Alexander Hamilton that the essential value of the impeachment power afforded the House was that it provided “a method of national inquest into the conduct of public men.”
Noting that “such a ‘national inquest’ is precisely what is proposed in the Nixon impeachment resolution,” Taylor argued that initiative was timely and appropriate — as similarly well-versed scholars of the Constitution suggest today that Kucinich’s articles of impeachment represent the right response to the lawlessness of Cheney and the administration the vice president has defined.
“It may well be doubted that a Congress which has been unable or unwilling to take less drastic steps to reassert its proper responsibilities for peace and war is likely to embark on the impeachment process, especially at a moment when President Nixon is riding the tide of Congressional support for his missions to Moscow and Peking,” argued the Nuremberg prosecutor 35 years ago in language that is just as compelling today. “But these political realities should not be allowed to obscure the seriousness of the issues posed by the impeachment resolution, which merits full consideration by the appropriate agencies of the House of Representatives.”
Telford Taylor offered the right response to those who attempted to squelch an impeachment initiative in the spring of 1972. That response is just as right in the fall of 2007.
John Nichols is the author of