“Obituaries reflect what the present thinks of the past,” wrote journalism professor Kathleen McElroy.
What will the future think of President Donald Trump and two historic votes senators must take on his impeachment? The obituaries of the Republicans who voted in favor and against the articles of impeachment for President Richard Nixon could provide some insight. How these GOP members of Congress voted in 1974 featured prominently in all of their obituaries.
It’s fair to say that when it comes to the impeachment of Trump, two votes in his Senate trial will long be remembered.
The first vote will come soon when senators decide whether to call the star witness, John Bolton, who has agreed to testify if they do. “In a courtroom, by contrast, jurors would not be allowed to deliver a verdict without hearing witnesses,” wrote the leading legal ethics expert, Stephen Gillers in discussing the Senate’s upcoming decision. Indeed, it would be unprecedented for the Senate to bar witnesses. Every Senate impeachment trial in American history has heard from witnesses. As Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) said in 1999 at the close of the Clinton impeachment,
“I strongly supported efforts to allow both the House managers and the White House lawyers to call whatever live witnesses they deemed necessary to make their case. I favored a full and complete trial, believing that it was more important to insure fairness to both sides than it was to get the trial over by some arbitrary date. This was in keeping with normal procedures in all previous impeachment trials. It also seemed to me to be essential to fundamental fairness and a full airing of the facts and issues in dispute. A hundred years from now, no one will care whether the trial lasted two weeks or six months. They will care, we must hope, about the extent to which justice was done.”
Since the revelations in Bolton’s book manuscript have come to light, an overwhelming majority of the American public wants the Senate to call Bolton. It seems clear that history will understand full well “the extent to which justice was done” by senators who vote not to hear from him.
The second vote will be on whether to convict and remove the president from office. How will historians write about this momentous decision? That also seems clear. Over 2,000 historians signed onto a statement saying:
“President Trump’s numerous and flagrant abuses of power are precisely what the Framers had in mind as grounds for impeaching and removing a president. Among those most hurtful to the Constitution have been his attempts to coerce the country of Ukraine.”
The statement goes on to say, “It is our considered judgment that if President Trump’s misconduct does not rise to the level of impeachment, then virtually nothing does.”
As House Manager Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) remarked on the floor of the Senate last week, “We can do a lifetime’s work, draft the most wonderful legislation, help our constituents and yet we may be remembered for none of that, but for a single decision, we may be remembered, affecting the course of our country.” He said these words after reflecting on the courage of the late Republican Congressman Thomas Railsback, who worked with a small bipartisan group in the House in 1974 to vote to impeach Nixon. Schiff highlighted Railsback as the congressman had passed away on Jan. 23, the eve of the Trump impeachment trial. The headline for his obituary in the Associated Press read, “Thomas Railsback, congressman who broke with GOP to back Nixon impeachment, dies.”
And so it has been for every obituary of every Republican member of the House Judiciary Committee who voted in 1974 for or against the Nixon articles of impeachment. If the reference is not made in the obituary’s headline, it still appears as a central point in the narrative of their lives as that single decision affected the course of history.
Here’s what we found when researching these obituaries.
In that summer of 1974, seven Republicans joined the Democrats to vote for at least one article of impeachment, including Thomas Railsback (Ill.), Hamilton Fish Jr. (N.Y.), Lawrence J. Hogan (Md.), M. Caldwell Butler (Va.), William S. Cohen (Maine), Harold V. Froehlich (Wis.), and Robert McClory (Ill.)
Ten Republicans voted against all three articles of impeachment: Edward Hutchinson (Mich.), David Dennis (Ind.), Delbert Latta (Ohio), Trent Lott (Miss.), Joseph Maraziti (N.J.), Wiley Mayne (Iowa), Carlos Moorhead (Calif.), Charles Sandman (N.J.), Henry Smith (N.Y.), and Charles Wiggins (Calif.).
Regardless of whether the congressmen voted for or against the articles of impeachment, their legacies were largely defined by this one moment. So much so that newspapers titled their obituaries with reference to this vote:
“Former Rep. Joseph Maraziti, 78, Defender of Nixon on Watergate”
“Wiley Mayne; House GOP Member Who Voted Not to Impeach Nixon”
“Sandman, Nixon Supporter, Dies”
“Lawrence J. Hogan Sr., Md. Republican Who Called for Nixon’s impeachment, Dies at 88”
“M. Caldwell Butler, a Key Vote Against Nixon, Dies at 89”
“R. McClory; Backed Nixon’s Impeachment”
“Thomas Railsback, Congressman Who Broke with GOP to Back Nixon Impeachment, Dies.”
“Charles Wiggins, 72, Dies; Led Nixon’s Defense in Hearings”
HOW THEY VOTED OVERALL
[table “” not found /]
OBITUARIES FOR THE CONGRESSMEN WHO VOTED FOR THE ARTICLES OF IMPEACHMENT[table “” not found /]
OBITUARIES FOR THE CONGRESSMEN WHO VOTED AGAINST THE ARTICLES OF IMPEACHMENT[table “” not found /]
My appreciation to Danielle A. Schulkin (NYU Law ‘20) for research on this project.