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The Man Richard Nixon Called His ‘Executioner’

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Timothy McNulty is a former national, foreign and White House correspondent for the Chicago Tribune.

Brendan McNulty is a senior consultant at the World Bank.

Jack Brooks, Democrat of Beaumont, Texas, served in the United States House of Representatives for 42 years. His tenure in Congress spanned the terms of 10 presidents. His early career in Washington was shepherded by Texas legend and longtime Speaker Sam Rayburn. He was in John F. Kennedy’s motorcade when the president was shot by Lee Harvey Oswald, and hours later, Brooks stood behind his close friend Lyndon Johnson when the 36th president took the oath of office on Air Force One.

As a member of the House Judiciary Committee, Brooks was also the author of the articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon.

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Because Nixon resigned before the the full House could vote on impeachment, the impeachment articles themselves have been relegated to a footnote in Watergate history. But the articles, and their author, played a key role in the downfall of the president—one worth understanding at a time when impeachment is once again on the lips of Congress.

Brooks’ toughness in going after Nixon, his experience with impeachment and his focus—insisting on including in the articles only the most specific, provable offenses that were known at the time—are all qualities that changed the course of Watergate.

Because of those impeachment articles, and his broader role in pushing for impeachment, Brooks became the person Nixon later called his “executioner.” Three of the impeachment articles passed out of the committee to go to a vote by the full House. Then controlled by Democrats, the House was certain to impeach Nixon, but the disclosure of Watergate tapes that had begun with the Judiciary Committee’s subpoenas eventually produced the “smoking gun”: the tape that proved Nixon knew about the Watergate break-in before the details had become public and obstructed the investigation into it. It was this tape that made Nixon’s own party turn against him and led to his resignation in 1974.

While it was the release of the tapes that turned the tide of public opinion, especially among Republicans, and prompted Nixon’s resignation, it was Brooks’ articles that would have made impeachment a genuine threat to Nixon had he stayed. In other, less careful hands, the articles of impeachment could have looked weak enough or ill-defined enough that Republicans knew they could dismiss them when a vote came to the House—a possibility that might have encouraged Nixon to take his chances and stay.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi addressed the possibility of impeaching President Donald Trump at a talk at Cornell University on Tuesday morning, but, echoing earlier statements she has made on the subject, she urged caution on the decision and called the process divisive. The story of Brooks during Watergate is a timely example of what an opposition party can do not only to face down the president’s party but its own members who fear looking too partisan or corrupt to pursue impeachment forcefully and unapologetically.

***

Lawmakers began openly discussing impeaching Nixon in the summer of 1973 after the conclusion of the Senate’s Watergate hearings. The idea continued circulating through the fall and peaked after Oct. 20, the date that became known as the Saturday Night Massacre.

Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox was adamant about receiving full, unedited tapes of the president’s conversations in the Oval Office and had refused to accept summarized material in their stead, so Nixon told Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire him. When he refused, Nixon accepted Richardson’s resignation and then demanded that his second in command, Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus, fire the special prosecutor. When he refused, Nixon accepted his resignation as well and called upon an even lower-ranking official, Solicitor General Robert Bork, suddenly promoted to acting attorney general, who finally fired Cox and abolished the office of special prosecutor.

Jerome Waldie, a Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, said outright that he would bring forward impeachment resolutions once his committee reconvened. Within days, more than 60 congressmen had signed resolutions calling for impeachment. Brooks himself had not yet gone public with his position on the issue, but even many Republicans in Congress were openly admitting that impeachment proceedings were now very likely.

A list of 37 potential charges against Nixon, introduced in various resolutions and including crimes ranging from domestic surveillance to illegal campaign practices, were now the subject of intense debate in Congress. House Judiciary Chairman Peter Rodino and special counsel John Doar equivocated on how to decide the official charges against Nixon. Neither felt confident, and the committee’s proceedings seemed to languish month after month, capturing headlines but moving nowhere. Observers wondered whether the chairman was unwilling or just inept.

Brooks, on the other hand, felt assured. In early July 1974, he seized the initiative by drafting the articles himself, along with the help of staff. As far as Brooks, the tough-talking former Marine who relished legislative fights, was concerned, Rodino “wasn’t worth a shit” in the impeachment process, as Brooks later told an interviewer. Rodino was fair and experienced as a legislator, but Brooks thought he “didn’t have the guts a chairman needs to have.”

While other lawmakers were concerned about looking overzealous or too partisan, Brooks’ concerns were larger. Nixon was clearly guilty of impeachable offenses, had violated his oath and needed to be removed, regardless of any future political fallout the Democrats might suffer for it. Brooks made it no secret that he was enthusiastically pursuing impeachment and conviction. At a Democratic Caucus amid the Judiciary Committee hearings for his impeachment articles, for instance, someone asked about the theme of the second article concerning Nixon’s alleged misuse of the FBI, CIA and IRS. Brooks, as one staffer remembered it, was leaning way back in his chair and smoking a cigar. He came down on the chair hard, took the cigar out of his mouth, and said, “The theme of this article is we’re gonna get that son of a bitch out of there!”

To Brooks, the Judiciary had been chosen to be the tip of the spear. Brooks was determined that it be a sharp one.

There was reason for Rodino and others to be trigger-shy when it came to starting impeachment proceedings. Actual impeachment experience was scarce in Washington. The authorities and guidelines for an impeachment are loosely laid out in the Constitution, but there had not been an impeachment of a president for over 100 years, since Andrew Johnson was impeached in 1868. Lawmakers who understood the practical implications of such archaic and vague terms as “high crimes and misdemeanors” were few and far between.

Brooks was an exception. In 1970, at the urging of then-Rep. Gerald Ford from the floor of the House, 25 representatives submitted a resolution to the Rules Committee to impeach the staunchly liberal Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas on the grounds that he had misbehaved while on the court and had accepted speaking fees from a private organization with income from casinos. Ford also alleged that the jurist had written “revolutionary” articles for left-wing and pornographic magazines. The resolution charged Douglas with high crimes and misdemeanors and misbehavior in office.

Brooks sat on the special subcommittee responsible for the Douglas impeachment investigation. In the subcommittee’s first report, several distinctions were presented that would later have significance in Nixon’s impeachment proceedings, all of which were highlighted in Brooks’ copy of the report.

For example:

Impeachment resembles a regular criminal indictment and trial but it is not the same thing. It relates solely to the accused’s right to hold civil office … the framers of the Constitution clearly established that impeachment is a unique political device; designed explicitly to dislodge from public office those who are patently unfit for it, but cannot otherwise be promptly removed … About the only thing authorities can agree upon … is that an offense need not be indictable to be impeachable. In other words, something less than a criminal act or criminal dereliction of duty may nevertheless be sufficient grounds for impeachment and removal from public office.

So Brooks already knew just how murky the question of impeachment could be—that in some instances, a felony criminal offense might not rise to the level of grounds for impeachment but that politicians had been removed from office for activities that broke no state or federal laws. For example, if the president had misused the FBI or directed the CIA to act outside his authority as president, that would not have constituted a crime. However, in that it undermined his duty as president, Brooks and most Democrats were adamant that it would be an impeachable offense.

Further complicating matters was the fact that the official in question now was not just any public servant but the president, whose standing at the top of the executive branch made this case without precedent.

This experience paid off as Brooks drafted the articles and fought off others’ efforts to push him to define impeachable offenses according to their agendas. Nixon’s defense attorney, James St. Clair, and Edward Hutchinson, the most senior Republican on the Judiciary, wanted the committee to define an impeachable offense as a felony, a strictly criminal offense. That would be the more severe charge and also harder to prove, especially given the wide berth of executive powers typically granted a president. The White House and Republican members of the Judiciary also fought to have the investigation delineated very clearly around the Watergate cover-up. Anything further, they argued, was beyond the scope of what the House inquiry had been set up to investigate. Brooks, most of the Democrats and even some Republicans disagreed. They were concerned with what was described as a pattern of behavior that was unbecoming to the office of the presidency and perhaps criminal in nature.

Brooks was fully aware of the rights granted to the House in an impeachment, and he would not have the inquiry proceedings encumbered by anyone. He proceeded with the now-established criteria, which are political offenses that prove an individual unfit to hold public office—not necessarily crimes.

The wording had to be perfect, too. Brooks was determined that if Nixon was going to beat these charges, it was not going to be because of a technicality in the language. Brooks marked up and crossed out drafts repeatedly before distributing the articles of impeachment among committee members.

By July 18, leaked copies were in the hands of the Associated Press and the New York Times. The next day, a young Rep. Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.) was chosen to read them aloud, formally introducing them before the committee and assembled media. The first three articles—and the only ones that passed out of committee before Nixon’s resignation—read:

Article I—Obstruction

“ … Richard M. Nixon, using the powers of his high office, engaged personally and through his close subordinates and agents, in a course of conduct or plan designed to delay, impede, and obstruct the investigation of such illegal entry; to cover up, conceal and protect those responsible; and to conceal the existence and scope of other unlawful covert activities.”

Article II—Misuse of Presidential Power

“. . . Richard M. Nixon, in violation of his constitutional oath faithfully to execute the office of President of the United States and, to the best of his ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States, and in disregard of his constitutional duty to take care that the laws be faithfully executed, has repeatedly engaged in conduct violating the constitutional rights of citizens, impairing the due and proper administration of justice and the conduct of lawful inquiries, or contravening the laws governing agencies of the executive branch and the purposed of these agencies.”

Article III—Disobeying Subpoenas from Congress

“Nixon. . . in violation of his constitutional duty to take care that the laws be faithfully executed, has failed without lawful cause or excuse to produce papers and things as directed by duly authorized subpoenas issued by the Committee on the Judiciary of the House of Representatives on April 11, 1974, May 15, 1974, May 30, 1974, and June 24, 1974, and willfully disobeyed such subpoenas.”

On July 24, in a case that had worked its way up from Nixon’s refusal to comply with the Judiciary Committee’s original subpoenas, the Supreme Court justices, in a unanimous decision, ruled that Nixon must turn over the full Oval Office tapes.

***

Attention immediately turned to Room 2141 of the Rayburn House Office Building, where the Judiciary Committee was set to begin 10 hours of formal debate on the first and most important article of impeachment. Though there would be others considered, if even just one article passed, it meant the full House would be compelled to vote on impeaching the president. Watching them intently were over 100 reporters, 75 other spectators and an entire nation glued to its televisions. Each member was given 15 minutes to speak.

When Brooks spoke, it was clear why he had thrown himself so fully into drafting the impeachment articles. “This is not a pleasant duty, but it is our constitutional duty,” he said. “Its performance may mean ignoring personal and political relationships of long standing. But we as well as the president are on trial for how faithfully we fulfill our constitutional responsibility.”

On the night of July 27, 1974, a Saturday, the Judiciary Committee convened to consider the first article of impeachment. When the vote was finally cast, six Republicans joined all 21 Democrats to pass the obstruction charge. Nixon was swimming at his home in San Clemente, Calif., when the vote passed. When an aide called to relay the news, the president was standing barefoot in his beach trailer getting dressed, wearing old trousers and a blue windbreaker emblazoned with the presidential seal.

There were still other articles to consider, and during the next three days the committee would pass two more.

On July 31, the sixth and final day of open debate, Brooks said, “No man in America can be above the law. It is our duty to establish now that evidence of specific statutory crimes and constitutional violations by the president of the United States will subject all presidents, now and in the future, to impeachment.”

One week later, under incredible pressure on all sides, even from the leadership of his own party, Nixon released the transcripts of three conversations he had had with chief of staff H.R. Haldeman one week after the Watergate break-in, in which the president demanded that the FBI stop investigating. This was explicit proof that Nixon had been involved in Watergate and then knowingly obstructed the investigation.

The tide had shifted. Even hard-line supporters of Nixon who had fought every attack against him were now speaking publicly about their decisions to vote for impeachment. And thanks to Brooks’ skilled handiwork, the issue of impeachment was now a loaded gun. Nixon finally saw that it was time to step down.

This article is adapted from THE MEANEST MAN IN CONGRESS: JACK BROOKS AND THE MAKING OF AN AMERICAN CENTURY, published by New South Books this week.

CLARIFICATION: This story has been updated to clarify what the “smoking gun” tape revealed about Richard Nixon’s knowledge of the break-in.

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