On May 9, 1974, the U.S. House Judiciary Committee began public hearings on articles of impeachment brought against President Richard M. Nixon. In late July of that year, three articles of impeachment (for obstruction of justice, abuse of power and contempt of Congress) were debated and approved by the Committee and sent to the floor of the House of Representatives for a full vote. Before the vote was carried out, President Nixon announced his resignation from office on August 8, 1974, effective the following day. The following editorial was published by the editors of America in the July 27, 1974, issue.
As the summer heat sets in and the inflationary pressures in our economy continue to escalate, it is understandable that most Americans would rather think about their vacations and the cost of living than about impeachment. Indeed, such a shift in the focus of public attention is particularly understandable in the light of the endless complexities of law and fact that have now become part of the impeachment discussions. In such a situation, where so much is at stake for the moral and political ideals of our country, it is essential that we cut through the complexities and ambiguities by a return to first principles and indisputable facts.
The Presidency of the United States is a public trust, not a private domain. Any person who holds that office is under a solemn obligation to exercise its powers for the benefit of the public in conformity with the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The President is accountable to the public, not only for the wisdom of the policies he advocates at home and abroad, but for the morality of his Administration. Even though elected by the people, the President has no irrevocable right to the Presidency. He can be defeated at the polls, or he can be impeached, convicted and removed from office.
From America, 1974: "The President is accountable to the public, not only for the wisdom of the policies he advocates at home and abroad, but for the morality of his Administration."
A President can be defeated at the polls for many reasons, but he may lawfully be impeached only for treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors. The impeachment process consists of two very distinct steps: accusation by the House of Representatives and trial by the Senate. Although this process has certain analogies in civil and criminal law, it is a constitutionally unique process and must not be confused with civil or criminal trials. Impeachment, by the deliberate choice of the framers of the Constitution, is a legislative, not a judicial, function. In reaching their momentous decisions, neither the House nor the Senate is under any obligation to act exactly like a court of law.
The function of the House is to accuse or not to accuse. The function of the Senate is to acquit or convict. Clearly, the two functions are not the same and should not be governed by the same rules. The members of the House do not have to ask themselves whether there is sufficient evidence to convict. What they do have to ask themselves is whether there is sufficient evidence to justify, or even require, accusation.
The function of the accusation is to compel the President to defend himself. The question, then, before the House (presently, before the House Judiciary Committee, which is expected to make its recommendations before the end of this month) is whether the evidence presently available with respect to President Richard M. Nixon's involvement in Watergate and other scandals in his Administration exonerates the President or demands further explanation and defense of his activities. To this question, it seems to us that there is only one reasonable answer: the evidence, and especially the evidence made available by the President himself, demands further explanation and defense.
From America, 1974: "As matters stand, there is no way short of impeachment to save morality and constitutionality in American politics."
There is only one sure way to get additional evidence: impeachment. Paradoxically, impeachment is also the only sure way President Nixon can clear himself. As long as matters are allowed to stand the way they are now, there can be no public consensus as to the guilt or innocence of President Nixon with regard to deliberate obstruction of justice or equally deliberate failure to execute the laws faithfully.
What we have now is a public consensus of suspicion. That consensus has been deeply reinforced by the recent convictions of Presidential aide John D. Ehrlichman, by the differences between the White House transcripts of certain tapes and the House Judiciary Committee's transcripts of the same tapes, and by the evidentiary reports issued by both the Senate and House Committees. It would be a betrayal of the most fundamental American political ideals of morality and justice for Congress to permit this consensus of suspicion to fester without remedy. Impeachment has become the only way to vindicate the national honor. If, in the process, the personal honor of President Nixon is also vindicated, we will all be the victors.
There is, of course, the possibility that, even when impeached, President Nixon will refuse to make any more evidence available to the public. We regard that, however, as only an abstract possibility. If it should prove to be more than that, the Senate will then have to decide if the existing evidence, plus the President's refusal to reply further, is sufficient for conviction. That issue, however, does not have to be decided at present. What does have to be decided now is the issue of impeachment. As matters stand, there is no way short of impeachment to save morality and constitutionality in American politics.