California Forum

Impeachment summer 1974: a necessary civics lesson for an anguished nation

Much of the debate among Democrats about whether to impeach President Donald Trump rests on political lessons supposedly learned from the Republicans’ failed attempt to impeach Bill Clinton in 1998 and 1999. That’s the wrong impeachment.

Lying under oath and obstruction of justice, both growing out of a civil sexual harassment case, were the charges against Clinton. If there’s an impeachment case against Trump, it more resembles 1974, when President Richard Nixon’s defiance of Congress as he sought to cover up a string of abuses summed up by Watergate put the balance of power in American government in question.

That year, I worked on first-term Democratic Senator Alan Cranston’s reelection campaign in California. It looked to be an easy race. Cranston had been instrumental in building the Democratic Party in the state to the point that Democratic voters outnumbered Republicans. He’d won election to the Senate as an anti-war candidate in 1968.

The Republicans nominated H. L. Richardson, a conservative state senator and gun advocate who opened his campaign grinning from a newspaper photograph, shotgun in one hand and dead duck in the other. Jerry Brown was running for governor, the office Ronald Reagan had won from his father eight years before. Nixon’s landslide victory in 1972 had almost immediately been overshadowed by revelations about White House connections to the Watergate break-in. By February 1974, the House Judiciary Committee was authorized to begin an impeachment process.


Cranston turned 60 that year. It seems hard to believe now that our campaign worried age might be an issue. He was balding and looked gaunt, although that was deceptive because Cranston was a runner. His Stanford University mile relay team was the fastest in the country in 1935 and just missed going to the 1936 Berlin Olympics. For a time, he held the world’s record for 55-year-olds in the 100-yard dash. Our first TV ad showed him, in running gear, dashing around a track while a voiceover talked about how hard he worked as a senator.

Cranston liked Jerry Brown and his direction to our campaign staff was “stay out of Jerry’s way.” This meant no campaign events in the same media market where Brown was appearing, so as not to dilute the press coverage. That marching order frequently took us away from the Bay Area, Los Angeles and San Diego, and into smaller cities and towns. One relaxed campaign swing along Highway 49 in the Sierra Nevada foothills had us talking to voters in the low dozens in saloons in little mining towns from the 1849 gold rush.

Hanging over everything that year was talk of impeachment. Wherever Cranston went during the campaign, voters asked about it. Standing off to the side, I could see the tension in every audience. Nixon was refusing to give the House Judiciary Committee the documents they wanted. Terms like “cover-up” and “obstruction of justice” and “executive privilege” were flying around. A clash of constitutional powers was approaching. The last time Americans experienced a presidential impeachment had been more than a century before.

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Whatever the tenor of the question about impeachment, he dutifully explained the process: What the House Judiciary Committee was doing. What the full House of Representatives would do once the committee reported out, as it clearly would, bills of impeachment. What would happen if the House by a simple majority voted to send the bills to the Senate. How the Senate would constitute itself as a jury to hear the charges, the chief justice of the Supreme Court presiding, and eventually deliver a verdict, with a two-thirds vote necessary to remove the president from office.

As Cranston spoke, I could see people visibly relax. Most of them, me included, had probably dozed through this material in high school. But now we were all attentive. This was happening, in our lifetimes. The fact that the founding fathers had foreseen this possibility – and set up detailed rules in the Constitution for handling it – was comforting. The White House was warning of chaos if Nixon were impeached. But Cranston was saying there was a process. We weren’t in uncharted waters.

There are no national elections this year, but a score of presidential hopefuls are barnstorming the country, stopping wherever voters might gather. And senators and members of Congress will be returning to their districts every weekend and during the upcoming recesses. All this summer, impeachment talk will get louder, the arguments over it more bitter. The media environment is polarized in a way it wasn’t in 1974, and the two political parties are as well.

In 1974, after the Judiciary Committee reported out articles of impeachment for obstruction of justice, abuse of power and contempt of Congress, Republican legislative leaders went to the White House to tell Nixon his support was gone. On Aug. 9, he resigned before the full House could vote impeachment. A bipartisan resolution looks unlikely this year.

But as an alternative to pressing their own or their party’s case, today’s politicians might listen carefully to what their audiences say about impeachment this summer. And if talk of impeachment is a concern, not just a club to pummel Trump or a shield to defend him, they might take a page from the summer of 1974 and see whether Americans are still interested in a civics lesson about their democracy.

Patrick Breslin a free-lance writer currently living between Washington DC and Kharkiv, Ukraine. He has published two books, several magazine pieces, mainly in Smithsonian, and dozens of book reviews. A full list of publications can be found at
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