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John J. Rhodes, 86; Helped Persuade Nixon to Resign

August 26, 2003|From the Washington Post

John J. Rhodes, an Arizona Republican who, as minority leader of the House of Representatives, played a critical role in the events leading to the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon, has died. He was 86.

Rhodes, who had cancer, died Sunday at his home in Mesa, Ariz.

On Aug. 7, 1974, two days before Nixon resigned, Rhodes was one of a Republican triumvirate that called on the president at the White House to tell him in the bluntest terms that his struggle to remain in office was lost.

Rhodes, Senate Minority Leader Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania and Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona informed the president that his party's support on Capitol Hill had all but evaporated. It was virtually certain, they said, that the House would vote to impeach him and the Senate would convict him on charges related to the 1972 break-in at the national Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate.

That night Nixon told his family and his chief of staff that he would resign. He announced his plans to the nation on national television the next evening and at noon Aug. 9 his resignation became effective.

A loyal friend and long-standing supporter of Nixon, Rhodes had not decided until Aug. 6 that he would vote to impeach the chief executive. He reached the decision after the release -- by order of the Supreme Court -- of transcripts of tape-recorded White House conversations in which the president tried to get the Central Intelligence Agency to halt an FBI investigation of the Watergate break-in.

"For me, this is a sad day. I admire Richard Nixon, for the many great things he has done for the people of America and the people of the world," Rhodes said in announcing his decision. "But the most important aspect of our entire system of government is equal justice under the law -- the principle that no person -- whether he be rich or poor, black or white, ordinary citizen or president -- is above the law. Cover-up of criminal activity and misuse of federal agencies can neither be condoned nor tolerated.... When the roll is called in the House of Representatives, I will vote 'aye' on impeachment."

On Capitol Hill, this announcement by the House leader was widely interpreted as the coup de grace for the Nixon presidency. By that afternoon all 10 Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee, who had previously voted against impeachment, reconsidered. They would vote to impeach, they said.

Years later, Rhodes would say his trip up Pennsylvania Avenue to meet with Nixon at the White House was the most trying ordeal of his 30 years in Congress.

John Jacob Rhodes II was born in Council Grove, Kan. He graduated from Kansas State University and Harvard Law School. During World War II he was an administrative officer with the Army Air Forces in Arizona. After the war he settled in Mesa, near Phoenix, where he opened a law practice and founded a loan and insurance business.

He became active in Republican Party politics, and in 1952 ran for the House of Representatives. Never before had Arizona elected a Republican to the House, but Rhodes was swept into office in the landslide for Republican presidential candidate Dwight D. Eisenhower.

His first term was the only one of the 15 he served in which Republicans were the majority party in the House. His congressional career included service on the Appropriations Committee, where he developed a specialty in defense appropriations. In 1965 he became chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee, where his job was to develop conservative alternatives to legislative proposals of a Democratic administration. In 1972 he was chairman of the platform committee at the Republican National Convention in Miami, when Nixon was nominated for a second term.

He was elected minority leader in 1973, replacing Gerald R. Ford, whom Nixon nominated as vice president to replace Spiro T. Agnew. Agnew, in turn, had resigned after pleading no contest to a charge of income tax fraud. For seven years, Rhodes was minority leader in the House, but they were not good years for the Republican Party, which had to live down the aftermath of the Watergate scandal and then, in 1976, lost the White House to Jimmy Carter.

After seven years as minority leader, Rhodes had long planned to step down in 1980. But with Ronald Reagan at the head of the Republican ticket in the November elections, he decided to run for one more term. If the Republicans gained control of the House, he would be speaker. But they didn't, and he wasn't. He retired as minority leader, served out his last two-year term as a representative from Arizona and ended his congressional career.

Survivors include his wife of 61 years, Elizabeth Harvey Rhodes; three sons, Jay, Tom and Scott, and a daughter, Elizabeth; and 12 grandchildren.

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