Richard Nixon worried about his old friend Tom Railsback. As it turned out, his fears were warranted.
Railsback, in 1974 a fourth-term Republican Illinois congressman, put together the bipartisan coalition on the House Judiciary Committee that voted to impeach Nixon. Thirteen days later, the president resigned.
It was quite a group, Railsback said in an interview at his Meridian home. I think we did the right thing.
Railsback, 80, was in Congress from 1967 to 1983, elected in the same class with Idaho Republican Jim McClure. Railsback, a passionate golfer, fell in love with Idaho as a regular at the Danny Thompson Memorial Golf Tournament in Sun Valley and bought a second home in McCall a decade ago. Last year, he and his wife, Joye, sold their principal residence in California and made Meridian home.
The anniversary has Railsbacks name back in The New York Times and The Washington Post, where he has lamented the post-Watergate breakdown in bipartisanship.
MOVING TOWARD IMPEACHMENT
Watergate began June 17, 1972, as a sloppy burglary at Democratic headquarters in Washingtons Watergate Complex by five covert plumbers working on behalf of Nixons 1972 re-election campaign. Little noticed as Nixon won by a landslide, the story was relentlessly pursued by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of The Washington Post. The reporters were guided by Deep Throat, who, it finally was disclosed in 2005, was Mark Felt, a native of Twin Falls and a top FBI official.
By the summer of 1973, the cover-up was a constitutional crisis. During weeks of gripping televised Senate hearings, Americans heard Nixon lawyer John Dean say hed told his boss that Watergate was a cancer on the presidency and learned that the Oval Office had a taping system. Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned in October 1973; in March 1974, seven former Nixon aides were indicted, including his top two advisers and his attorney general. In April 1974, Nixon was forced to pay $433,000 in back taxes.
By spring 1974, as the Supreme Court was considering whether to order Nixon to turn over more tapes, the spotlight had turned to the House Judiciary Committee, where Democrats were pressing to impeach the president and send the matter to the Senate for trial.
Railsback, as a moderate Republican on the committee, would be one of a handful of swing voters to influence history.
Nixon wanted to beat the impeachment vote in committee, and Railsback was key to the strategy. To survive, Nixon had to hold all 17 Republicans and turn two of the 21 Democrats for a 19-19 tie.
In early summer 1974 the president asked several aides, Hows it look on the Judiciary? Jimmy Breslin recounted in his 1975 book, How the Good Guys Finally Won.
Well, Railsback is on the fence, replied one.
Railsback, said Nixon. Well, theres time.
Nixon had reason to be hopeful. Hed campaigned for Railsback in 1966. The pair were members of the Congressional Chowder and Marching Society, an elite fraternity. In 1972, when one of Railsbacks four daughters failed to show up at school in Moline, Ill., Nixon phoned to say hed spoken with the FBI director.
He said, Tom, I want you to know I talked to Pat Gray. Theyre gonna help find Maggie.
Nine-year-old Maggie turned up by mid-afternoon shed been angry with a teacher and was fiddling around on a vacant lot.
GET SOME GUYS TOGETHER
In October 1973, calls for impeachment were rising, and Judiciary Committee Chairman Peter Rodino published a 718-page report compiling materials about impeachment. Over the Christmas recess in 1973, Railsback was trailed home by Sam Donaldson of ABC and Ike Pappas from CBS. Then a producer from NBC called. I said, The other two are already here. I was thrown into the eye of the storm. The Washington media powers said, Railsback is a key to whats going to happen.
During the spring and early summer of 1974, the Judiciary Committee spent six weeks in executive session reviewing tapes and other evidence. Reporter Woodward wooed Railsback over three long dinners. In a May 24, 1974, diary entry, Railsback noted that Robert Redford paid about $500,000 for the movie rights to the 1974 Woodward and Bernstein book, All the Presidents Men, and that Redford would play Woodward.
He seemed to me to be a very intelligent, perceptive and rather modest person who soon will be fully exposed to all of the fruits of great success, Railsback wrote of Woodward.
The debate on articles of impeachment was set to begin in late July.
The group of centrists Railsback came to call the fragile coalition were unhappy with the July 19 draft of articles from the top lawyer for committee Democrats. Alabama Democrat Walter Flowers approached Railsback, suggesting they each get some guys together, according to Fred Emerys 1994 book, Watergate: The Corruption of American Politics and the Fall of Richard Nixon.
The following day, seven lawmakers met in Railsbacks office for what Emery called some quick and powerful drafting. Railsback and Flowers were joined by James Mann, D-S.C., Ray Thornton, D-Ark., Hamilton Fish, R-N.Y., Caldwell Butler, R-Va., and William Cohen, R-Me.
We thought (the articles of impeachment) were excessive, that there was too much hyperbole, so we rewrote them, Railsback told the Statesman, describing an intense two-day effort conducted in his office that produced two of the three articles later approved by the committee.
The three southern Democrats lived in districts that in 1972 had voted heavily for Nixon, who told his aides to heat up Mann. All of his people support the president, Nixon said, according to Breslin.
Despite the political risk, all seven voted to impeach. Everybody seemed willing to forsake that worry, Railsback says in a diary entry that is part of his papers at Western Illinois University. And at this particular point everybody was really ready to get down to business to decide what to do I think for the most part without political consideration.
The committee began six days of debate July 24, the same day the Supreme Court ordered Nixon to turn over 64 more tapes. That evening, Railsback was the only member of the fragile coalition to speak in committee. Because hed been so busy drafting, he spoke without notes and, as Emery recounts, extraordinary emotion.
He declared himself an anguished friend of Richard Nixon, Emery writes. He spoke not of principles but of the disturbing evidence. The Democrats were transfixed: Railsback was making the case against Nixon. He came to the end of his alloted time, but a Democrat yielded him two minutes of his time to continue. The clear tenor of Railsbacks remarks, reverberating as the televised session ended, was that Republicans would impeach a Republican president.
Railsback warned of the frustration and disillusionment young Americans would feel if we are not going to really try to get to the truth. ... So I hope that we just keep our eye on trying to get to the truth.
The networks wanted Railsback to appear on their shows. Railsback declined. I was emotionally drained, he remembered.
Two nights later, Railsback became the first Republican to vote for the first article of impeachment alleging obstruction of justice. This was the article Railsback spent the most time wordsmithing, and it passed 27-11. Two more articles passed 28-10 and 21-17 in votes in succeeding days. Railsback opposed both, saying they werent serious enough to justify impeachment.
Railsback said he heard from Nixons staff just once but said he didnt feel pressured. He also got a call from Bill Hewitt, chairman of Deere & Company, the largest employer in his district. Hewitt had been urged by the White House to call, but Railsback said Hewitt simply told the congressman to do what he thought was right.
Railsback, like many others in the House, became instant celebrities. A crowd of college students cheered him on the street, prompting Railsback to retreat. I couldnt go anywhere without people recognizing me. And I wasnt used to that. I didnt particularly like it.
Railsback received death threats, the FBI monitored his mail and he was picketed by GOP party officers back home. People magazine persuaded him to open the fridge in his basement apartment on Capitol Hill for a photo. The only thing in there was half a six-pack of beer and half a bottle of prune juice, he recalled with a laugh.
The House of Representatives had been very unknown, he said. All of a sudden the spotlight is on. There are two houses!
By the time he left Congress, Railsback had become the No. 2 Republican on Judiciary. His legacy includes authorship of the first comprehensive juvenile justice law, advocacy of the Legal Services Corp. and copyright protections for media. He was defeated in the 1982 GOP primary by 1,100 votes, in part because he was seen as too moderate. And in part, he says, because of his vote on Nixon.
It finally came back to haunt me a little bit.
Railsback has no regrets about helping head off a constitutional crisis but still speaks of the distress he felt in helping force his friend from office. I feel badly about what happened to Nixon. On the other hand, after listening to the tapes and seeing all the evidence, it was something we had to do because the evidence was there.
We hoped to send a signal to future presidents: Youd better not have an enemies list, youd better not try to manipulate the FBI or the CIA. If you do, youre going to be subject to scrutiny.
Dan Popkey: 377-6438, Twitter: @IDS_politics