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Partisan Politics: Still a Rush to Judgment

Congress: As question of impeachment is put to House panel, Democrats say their man can't get fair shake. It's become mirror image of Nixon's time.

September 20, 1998|ROBERT SHOGAN | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

WASHINGTON — As the House Judiciary Committee weighed the fate of President Nixon more than 24 years ago, Chairman Peter W. Rodino Jr. of New Jersey blurted out to a reporter that he and the panel's 20 other Democrats were ready to vote for impeachment.

Rodino's remark led outraged Republicans to complain that Nixon was being railroaded by the Democratic majority, a reaction similar to the charges of excessive partisanship House Democrats now level at a GOP-controlled Judiciary Committee considering whether to hold impeachment hearings on a Democratic president.

Michigan Rep. John Conyers Jr., the ranking Democrat on the committee who was a member during the Watergate hearings, insisted that things were different when Nixon was under fire. "This time, we've dumped process and fairness on its head," Conyers complained following the straight party-line vote Friday to release President Clinton's videotaped testimony in the Monica S. Lewinsky case, as well as page-upon-page of sexually graphic descriptions of their affair.

But as the Rodino episode demonstrates, partisan lines were sharply drawn during the Watergate scandal of the mid-1970s, much as they are during the Lewinsky affair of 1998.

"The Judiciary Committee was very clearly factionalized," said University of Wisconsin professor Stanley Kutler, author of "The Wars of Watergate."

Indeed, many believe the Democratic majority that oversaw the committee's Watergate hearings demonstrated their partisanship even before the proceedings started, when they adopted a new interpretation of the impeachment process. Scrapping the narrow doctrine that impeachment was designed to cover only indictable criminal offenses, the committee staff staked out a broader view, defining the proceedings as "a constitutional safety valve . . . flexible enough to cope with exigencies not now foreseeable."

In fact, partisanship has been a hallmark of politically significant impeachment cases throughout U.S. history. At the 1805 impeachment trial of Federalist Chief Justice Samuel Chase, not a single Federalist senator voted for conviction (Chase stayed in office). Similarly, at the 1868 trial of President Andrew Johnson, a Democrat, no Democratic senator voted for his removal (Johnson barely survived).

Still, the hostility between the two parties has been particularly savage during the Watergate and Lewinsky cases, partly because Nixon and Clinton bring out the deepest resentment among their political opponents. "What Nixon was to liberal Democrats, Clinton is to conservative Republicans," said American Conservative Union chairman David Keene.

Nixon had antagonized liberals from the start of his career by his use of what they viewed as red-baiting tactics in his pursuit of suspected communist sympathizers. Democrats on the 1974 Judiciary Committee included, according to Kutler's study, "hard-core liberals who had grown up hating Richard Nixon [and] who saw their moment" to exact revenge.

They were pitted against "loyalist hard-core Republicans who would not vote for impeachment of a Republican president no matter what."

As for Clinton, conservatives have long resented him for stealing their thunder--passing himself off as a "New Democrat" and proclaiming the end of the big government era when, they claim, he remains a government activist in the traditional Democratic mold.

Even more infuriating to many Republicans are Clinton's efforts to lay claim to the moral high ground as part of his efforts to present himself and his party as champions of the middle class. "As he is drawn to the flame of morality, he speaks of it," former Education Secretary William Bennett said during Clinton's first term. Bennett added: "As he speaks of it, he will be judged."

One aspect of the Lewinsky controversy that has helped bring the matter to an emotional pitch that probably exceeds the reaction to Watergate is that Clinton's legal woes stem from sexual misconduct.

For Clinton's critics, such behavior not only threatens the standards by which most Americans live and raise their children, it sullies the image of the presidency. But for some Clinton supporters, the debate about his sexual transgressions is irrelevant to his duties as chief executive and amounts to an intolerable invasion of privacy.

An analysis of the voting records of current Judiciary Committee members and those who served during the Watergate hearings shows that, while both were made up of lawmakers loyal to their parties, the existing panel has an edge in partisanship.

The congressional Democrats leading the probe of Nixon had voted with their party 78% of the time, according to Congressional Quarterly. The comparable score for the 21 Republicans now on the Judiciary Committee is 91%.

The GOP minority on the 1974 panel had supported their party leaders in 70% of Congress' votes; the 16 Democrats now on the Judiciary Committee have a comparable score of 88%.

University of Virginia professor Larry Sabato believes the forthcoming congressional elections could produce a break in the partisan bickering that so far has marked the congressional handling of the Clinton investigation. "Democrats will suffer a substantial defeat and that will cause them to reevaluate the usefulness of Bill Clinton to their party," he predicted.

On the other hand, a GOP setback at the polls could lead to an opposite reaction, inclining many Republicans to allow the president to conclude his term.

Times staff writer Marc Lacey contributed to this story.

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