Walter Mears on the Impeachment Hearings: High Drama or Political Argument?

Here is perspective on the impeachment hearings from Walter Mears, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the Associated Press from 1955 to 2001. He wrote this for Connecting, a daily email edited by Paul Stevens for current and former AP staffers.

With the presidency at issue, impeachment hearings would seem to be arenas for high drama and disclosures. In the hands of a novelist, perhaps. But with rare exceptions, not in the real world of politics.

In the case of Richard Nixon, only president ever to resign, the actual House impeachment hearings were brief and almost entirely in closed sessions of the Judiciary Committee which finally adopted three articles of impeachment in July 1974.

Walter Mears

The memorable, televised hearings were in the Senate Watergate committee, which set the stage for impeachment, but the power to enforce it belonged to the House.

All told, the formal Nixon impeachment hearings lasted less than a week, off camera until the end. Compare that with the 319 hours of televised hearings conducted by the Watergate committee. That is where the Watergate drama played out, not in House impeachment hearings like those now being conducted in the case of Donald Trump.

The Watergate committee had an unforgettable cast—the chairman, Sen. Sam Ervin, of North Carolina, who styled himself as a simple country lawyer. Hardly, as he became a national figure, instrumental in the undoing of a president, and the ranking Republican, Sen. Howard Baker, whose persistent question was what did the president know and when did he know it.

After 45 years, the Watergate hearings stand in national memory as the Nixon impeachment hearings, no matter the parliamentary distinction. The Senate ‘s televised hearings were the ones that registered and counted.

By comparison, the current House hearings on Trump tend toward the bureaucratic and mundane. It is a political argument, focused on who said what.

The central question is whether Trump demanded an investigation of former vice president Joe Biden’s son and his business dealings in Ukraine as the price for releasing military aid to that nation. In the overworked and overused phrase, a quid pro quo, essentially using public funds for political purposes against a potential rival. The aid was delayed but released.

The Democrats argue that he did and that it was an impeachable offense. The Republicans say so what. With no referee they just shout at each other.

In the impeachments of Nixon and Bill Clinton, investigations came first, hearings later. Essentially, the cases were written before the House hearings.

On Nixon, special counsel Archibald Cox and his team investigated, and Nixon’s efforts to block them—and fire Cox—were central to the obstruction of justice charge, one of three brought against him. When the Supreme Court ordered the tapes released, on July 24, 1974, the verdict against Nixon was inevitable. One of the tapes was the so-called smoking gun, recording Nixon’s effort to use CIA secrecy in the coverup effort. When that was disclosed Nixon’s Republican support against conviction in the Senate frayed and then collapsed. Republican leaders told him he couldn’t win and he soon resigned.

That final chapter actually began in the Watergate hearings, with the surprise testimony of a White House staff aide who told the committee that Nixon’s had his meetings and telephone calls taped, which proved to be the inescapable evidence against him.

For political trivia fans, that long forgotten witness was a man named Alexander Butterfield.

Once the White House tapes were known, Nixon’s presidency was undone. Long afterward, I asked Nixon what he wished he had done differently. I should have burned the tapes, he told me.

In the Bill Clinton impeachment, prosecutor Kenneth Starr laid out the case on lying under oath and attempted obstruction of justice, and the blunt conclusions of his report eclipsed the perfunctory hearings that followed.

Clinton was in his second term when he was impeached by the House and acquitted by the Senate. Despite the Monica Lewinsky affair and the impeachment he completed his eight years as president.

Now Trump. In this case, the impeachment hearings are proceeding without an independent investigation.  The hearings have devolved into a political argument, more bureaucratic than dramatic. No smoking guns here, only the drone of witnesses delivering differing versions of the same events. So far at least, nothing stirring or dramatic.


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