David Adler: Impeach a president? In this one case, it was appropriate

July 10, 2014 

The calls from the political right for the impeachment of President Barack Obama, including one from Sarah Palin, combined with the strategic efforts of GOP House leaders to craft a lawsuit against the president that a federal court might actually agree to hear, rekindle memories of the summer of 1974, a season that marked the fall of President Richard Nixon. The flood of legal and constitutional problems that engulfed Nixon's presidency provided for Americans an enduring seminar on the Constitution and the separation of powers, and opened a window into the law of impeachment.

Forty years ago, Nixon suffered a dramatic string of rebukes that resulted in his forced resignation from the White House. On July 24, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a unanimous opinion written by Chief Justice Warren Burger, a Nixon appointee, ordered Nixon to turn over the Watergate tapes to the House Judiciary Committee, which, for more than a year, had been investigating Nixon's role in the cover-up of the break-in at the Watergate Hotel.

The tapes disclosed, among other things, Nixon's leadership and use of the CIA to cover up the burglary. Armed with new-found knowledge of Nixon's abuse of power and obstruction of justice, the Judiciary Committee, in a bipartisan showing, voted out three articles of impeachment- the second one being the most alarming, perhaps. It charged Nixon with using the IRS, the FBI, the Secret Service and other federal agencies to harass "enemies": private citizens who had criticized his presidency.

Further, the Nixon White House had deployed its "plumbers unit" - the same people who had broken into the Watergate Hotel - to burglarize citizens who had spoken out against the president's policies. These practices suggested an authoritarian regime.

The full House of Representatives never got the opportunity to consider or vote on the articles of impeachment. Nixon resigned the presidency Aug. 9; a month later, newly minted President Gerald R. Ford granted Nixon a full and unconditional pardon for the offenses that he had committed against the nation. There was no doubt the House would have impeached Nixon. Nor was there any question that the Senate would have voted to remove Nixon from the presidency. Indeed, GOP senators informed Nixon that he would have no support in the Senate; as a consequence, he had no choice but to resign.

A distinguishing feature of the impeachment effort against Nixon and, effectively, his ouster from the presidency, was its bipartisan character. The groundswell of congressional support, as well as the surging tide of public opinion, in favor of evicting Nixon from the Oval Office comported with the conception and design of the Impeachment Clause, drafted by the framers of the Constitution. Impeachment was intended for great offenses that rock the very foundation of government, not a vote of "no confidence." Accordingly, as Alexander Hamilton explained in Federalist 65, in words instructive for our time, impeachment proceedings would "seldom fail to agitate the passions of the whole community." The framers feared impeachment - "the grand inquest of the nation" - might be susceptible to abuse to serve partisan interests, but hoped Congress would rise above such interests in deciding whether constitutional government was truly under attack and warranted the use of the legislature's greatest power.

At this juncture, what is missing in the calls for President Obama's impeachment is the Hamilton standard: overwhelming community agitation.

David Adler is the Cecil D. Andrus professor of public affairs at Boise State University, where he serves as director of the Andrus Center for Public Policy.

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