Capitol & State

Retired in Idaho, former congressman still in limelight for Watergate role

Forty years ago on Aug. 9, President Nixon became the only U.S. president to resign. For his role in helping end what President Ford called "our long national nightmare," a Meridian man continues to win praise for his courage.

Tom Railsback, an Illinois Republican who spent 16 years in the U.S. House, fell in love with Idaho on golf trips and bought a second home in McCall more than a decade ago. In 2011, Railsback and his wife, Joye, bought a home in Meridian and now share their time between the two residences.

Railsback, 82, made history by cobbling the bipartisan coalition on the House Judiciary Committee that prompted the adoption of articles of impeachment against Nixon in late July 1974.

In a Statesman profile that ran in 2012 to mark the anniversary of the Watergate break-in, Railsback shared entries from his diary and reflected on the painful experience of breaking with Nixon — whom he credits with helping him first get elected in 1966 by campaigning in his western Illinois district.

"I feel badly about what happened to Nixon," Railsback said in 2012. "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."

Railsback lost his seat in the 1982 GOP primary by 1,100 votes, attributing the defeat in part to his impeachment vote.

Feelings were especially intense in the interval between the committee votes and Nixon's resignation.

"They should kill the SOB," constituent Wayne Overstreet told the Chicago Daily News. "He's a dog as far as I'm concerned."

My Railsback article was cited by University of Texas Professor Lewis Gould in a lecture at Western Illinois University, "Watergate Remembered: Representative Tom Railsback and the Perspective from Western Illinois."

Gould pored through Railsback's congressional papers, housed at WIU, and spoke about the work on campus last October.

"The actions and passions of those turbulent months are laid out in the anguished communications that Railsback received from Americans immersed in the Watergate drama," wrote Gould, urging students to use the archive for original research.

Railsback didn't know about about the lecture until his nephew, Fred Railsback, forwarded him a copy. In December, Railsback mailed me the text. I misplaced it, but it turned up this week. Railsback, spending the summer in McCall, said it was fine to use in this blog — even though it means reviving some of the bad things he was called 40 years ago.

Railsback was likened to Judas, Pontius Pilate and Brutus.

Said the headline over a Peoria Journal Star editorial: "Tom Railsback: Dead Duck."

Wrote constituent Virgil Jarvis: "Traitor Tom, the union milkman."

Hoping to persuade Railsback to support Nixon, some sent him envelopes containing small stones, as in, "He who is without sin...."

"I shall never vote for you," wrote Irma Taubenheim of Hooppole, Ill. "The way you are conducting this vendetta against our president, Richard Nixon, is enough to make one wonder why you list yourself as a Republican."

As it turned out, Railsback won a landslide in 1974 and won again in '76, '78 and '80.

"Your stand on Nixon has been right all along," wrote insurance agent Eugene Lohman, adding, "voting your conscience has gained you many more votes than it lost you both in Geneseo and the Henry County area in particular."

I recommend Professor Gould's 17-page paper, which you may read in full by clicking here.