As the nation debates whether President Trump should be impeached, and the U.S. House launches a formal impeachment inquiry, Idaho’s congressional delegation weighed in on whether they thought there were grounds for impeachment. Although most of their reactions were predictably partisan and somewhat premature before the House has barely begun its official impeachment inquiry, there was one response that deserves praise and offers hope that others will be influenced by his thoughtful response.
Sen. Mike Crapo, when asked his take on the current impeachment inquiry of President Trump, said that “our entire legal system is dependent on our ability to find the truth. I will wait for further information regarding the facts of this matter and refrain from speculating on any outcomes of this discussion and process.” Crapo’s response reminded me of another Republican called upon to weigh the evidence in an impeachment. Congressman Tom Railsback represented an Illinois congressional district during the Watergate era and lived in Boise for a number of years in retirement until moving to Arizona recently.
Railsback found himself squarely in the middle of the impeachment of President Richard Nixon, a constitutional crisis not of his making nor one in which he would have sought a role.
Nixon had campaigned for Railsback in the ‘60s early in his congressional career, so he could hardly be called anti-Nixon. The congressman from the Quad Cities in northwestern Illinois was a bona fide Republican and considered himself a supporter of the president. Yet, as the evidence mounted against Nixon, especially when the 13 minutes of tape revealed that White House Counsel John Dean was correct in implicating the president directly in the cover-up and that Nixon had lied to the American people, denying any personal responsibility for the Watergate cover-up, Railsback knew he could vote for impeachment.
A bipartisan group of Judiciary Committee members, including the congressman, drafted five articles of impeachment, three of which would pass the House Judiciary Committee. They would charge the president with obstruction of justice, abuse of power and contempt of Congress. Railsback would vote to impeach.
The toughest vote of his career, he would say later that he “didn’t feel very good about it.” Often, doing the right thing when it doesn’t square with the conventional wisdom and the mood and temperament of the crowd is something public officials don’t feel good about. And, no doubt, there was strong opposition from many of Railsback’s Republican supporters to his impeachment vote.
The influential and conservative Peoria Journal-Star at the time would lead its story on Railsback’s role in Nixon’s impeachment, “Tom Railsback, as of this moment, is a dead duck.” As the Stateman reported in 2014 when it ran a story on the 40th anniversary of the 1974 impeachment proceedings, he was called every name in the book, including Pontius Pilate, Judas and Brutus. Yet, when the congressman returned to his district to explain his vote, the Chamber of Commerce gave him a standing ovation.
When I met up with Tom Railsback a few years ago, I met a man at peace with himself, a humble servant of the people who was called upon to make the toughest call of his long career in the Congress and the Republican Party.
An impeachment vote lives way beyond its time. Votes on budget, defense, transportation, health care, these too shall pass. But an impeachment vote, it follows the elected official well past the grave. It follows his children and their children as historians record the event and pass judgment with indelible ink that remains a bequest to the heirs forever. In many cases, the eventual historical verdict on how a public official acted and voted may be quite different from the demands of the partisan crowd at the moment of the vote.
One of the lessons I’ve learned from interviewing authors about the historical record, often reinterpreted with the passage of time and removed from the passions of the moment, is how some public officials manage to search deeply within their souls, push aside the pressures of the day, muster the courage to vote their conscience as pleas and threats to toe the party line seem to overwhelm them.
As far as Railsback is concerned, he wasn’t a dead duck after all. He was re-elected to four more terms in Congress. His vote to uphold the Constitution and the rule of law would serve him well not only in those subsequent elections, but more importantly in the long lens of historians. A number of key Republicans would join him and, eventually, they, too, would find themselves on the right side of history.
It’s a long way to the actual voting on the impeachment of Donald Trump, but our present-day crisis is tethered to the deliberations and decisions of those in 1974 who were then called upon to reaffirm that no one is above the law, not even the president of the United States. Prominent among them was Congressman Tom Railsback. The nation owes him and his colleagues who voted accordingly a debt of gratitude for defending our democratic way of life and, even more importantly, paving a path of rectitude for those public officials who will be called upon to follow in his footsteps.