Opinion » Editorial

The Lessons of Watergate

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It was some 44 years ago, in the dog days of a humid summer, when the members of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee met to consider articles of impeachment against the president of the United States, Richard M. Nixon. This was at a late point in the ever worsening saga that had begun with a criminal break-in of the opposition Democrats' election headquarters, and, while hard and fast evidence of Nixon's guilt  — the so-called "smoking gun" — was not yet in hand, the president's culpability in the series of high crimes and misdemeanors we now call Watergate had long since become obvious.

There was plenty of smoke, enough of it that several Republican members of the Judiciary Committee would forgo their partisan loyalties and join Democratic members in voting for one or more of the impeachment articles presented. But there were other GOP committee members who could not bring themselves to do so. One of them, a Pennsylvania congressman named Charles W. Sandman, became famous (or notorious) because of his unstinting defense of Nixon during the televised Judiciary hearings and his insistence that all the evidence aggregated thus far had been circumstantial.

"Specificity!" Sandman thundered over and over, making the point that even the crime of jaywalking required some physical and irrefutable proof to justify prosecution.

The odds against the president's survival in office were already tilted irrevocably against Nixon — Sandman himself had conceded that 37 committee votes, a clear majority, were already committed to impeachment — and yet he and a few other Republican loyalists persisted in their defense. There was something pathetic, yet oddly admirable, about their determination to go down with the ship.

And go down they did. The committee voted its judgment, and only days later, one of the president's surreptitiously recorded tapes surfaced publicly, and all the world heard Nixon strategize out loud about trying to subvert the FBI and the Justice Department to quell an investigation of the break-in at the Watergate.

For his pains, Sandman, who had been his party's nominee for governor of Pennsylvania only the year before, was defeated for re-election to Congress that fall, along with other unregenerate loyalists.

The moral of that story for today's congressional Republicans is obvious: Most of them continue to ignore  the meaning of the ever multiplying facts that seem clearly to indicate improper collusion by the Trump campaign with Vladimir Putin's Russian government during the 2016 presidential campaign and to obstruct an investigation afterward. Demanding uncontrovertible evidence, they parrot President Trump's mantra of "No collusion!" Presumably, they equate a forthright recognition of Trump's guilt with the specter of their own potential defeat at the polls.

But, like Sandman, they've got it backwards. It was a refusal to acknowledge plain truth and a reluctance to put country before party that doomed Sandman and the others whose political careers were wrecked or ended by Watergate. Most of the Republicans who owned up to the reality of Nixon's misprisions were able to survive; most of those who could not do so, like Sandman, were in short order eliminated from public life.

It's not a Sophie's Choice. Admitting the obvious is the best way Republicans can save themselves and their party.

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