Comedian Henny Youngman (1906–98) was known as the King of the One-Liners, since his jokes were short, sweet, and very much to the point. Among his most famous was his response to “How’s your wife?,” which was, “Compared to what?”
If Henny were alive today, he’d certainly have lots of material to work from — but his underlying point about the importance of comparisons would remain valid. In particular, it will be difficult to justify impeaching President Trump for a brief congratulatory phone call with a foreign leader, particularly in claiming it to be a high crime or misdemeanor, without at least some comparison with prior presidents’ personal conduct of foreign affairs.
These comparisons may be difficult to come by. No doubt the records, assuming they still exist, remain classified and possibly scattered by the National Archives among each of their 14 presidential libraries. Recently, they announced they were re-consolidating classified materials from those libraries back in Washington as a cost-saving initiative, but I’m unsure just how far along this project has progressed.
Still, any such review would be a massive undertaking, since the search would be for the aberration rather than the routine conversation, and any researcher would have to be very mindful of the circumstances of each reviewed interaction. In addition, and under today’s circumstances, I doubt any Republicans, who would be the ones calling for such comparisons, would place any confidence in a secret search undertaken by Adam Schiff or any members of his staff.
It would be instructive to compare this proposed effort to the one called for by House Judiciary Committee (HJC) Republicans during the impeachment inquiry of President Nixon for his alleged abuses of power (another comparison — get it?). As they asked at the time, how could you recommend impeaching Nixon for certain acts (including the secret Cambodia bombings, which had been conducted without congressional authorization; the wiretapping of 17 National Security Council staff members without court-approved search warrants; the FBI investigation of reporter Daniel Schorr; or the unauthorized search of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office) without knowing what abuse of power allegations had been made against his predecessors?
Their demands for such a comparison led to a fascinating chain of events, which is both instructive and informative about today’s impeachment inquiries regarding President Trump.
You see, the requested study was actually undertaken, but it was conducted in secret. Supposedly, it was an honest effort to assemble factual information about past clashes between the executive and legislative branches. But when it turned out that tensions have always existed over the nature and extent of presidential authority and that abuse of power allegations against President Nixon differed little from those made against prior presidents stretching all the way back to George Washington, HJC staff panicked and suppressed the study entirely.
The only reason we know about its existence at all is that once Nixon had resigned, its authors deemed their work to be of sufficient importance that they had it published in book form. Otherwise, it would have been sealed for 50 years (until 2024), as were all of the other HJC’s internal files.
Here is the book jacket summary:
An entire work devoted exclusively to the misconduct of former U.S. Chief Executives is without precedent.
Why such a book?
In mid-May 1974, C. Vann Woodward, an eminent American historian, was asked by John Doar, Special Counsel of the Impeachment Inquiry Staff then investigating charges against Richard M. Nixon, to prepare a factual and non-interpretative study of misconduct as it occurred in previous administrations. The study would also examine the manner in which former Presidents had responded to their accusers — the degree, for example, in which they cooperated with congressional investigators, the speed with which they acted to correct abuses, the severity with which they dealt with subordinate offenders, and the limits to which they went to protect them or “cover up” their misconduct.
In short, the Impeachment Inquiry Staff believed that historians could provide useful, objective information — evidence, if you will — that would prove important in House of Representatives (sic) debates, should resolutions of impeachment against Richard M. Nixon be recommended and, if such resolutions were indeed adopted, in the subsequent Senate trial proceedings.
Mr. Nixon, of course, resigned the Presidency. But he left unanswered a singular question which still weighs heavily in the minds of millions of Americans, a question to which Dr. Woodward addresses himself in his introduction and which, in total, this book in the cold, uncompromising light of historical fact perhaps answers since and for all:
“None of the previous Presidents … entirely escaped charges of some sort of misconduct or corruption. Yet none of them were removed from office … and only one was impeached and tried, though not convicted. If all previous offenders escaped punishment, why make an exception of the most recent? If all the Presidents at one time or another became involved in such charges, is it not evident that it was politics as usual?”
“What was so distinctive about the offenses of Richard M. Nixon as to justify very special treatment and set him apart from all the others?”
Here is the reply.
Sounds pretty determinative, doesn’t it? But you have to know two additional facts to properly evaluate these claims. First, Woodward was chairman of Yale’s history department and part of the coterie of Yale’s “get Nixon” academics. Second, his 16-page introduction was not part of the original “factual and non-interpretative study.” Instead, it was written two months later — after the study had been suppressed by HJC staff and President Nixon had resigned.
Oh, one other thing: the young staffer, a recent graduate from Yale Law School, who was assigned the day-to-day responsibility for overseeing preparation of the study was our friend, Hillary Rodham (now Clinton).
Knowing this, you could reverse Woodward’s question — Why was Nixon alone singled out from all of his predecessors? — and conclude the reason was that his impeachment inquiry was entirely political (no doubt, like Trump’s) and the reason for the study’s suppression was that it showed the accusations against Nixon differed little from those lodged against his predecessors. If an objective study wasn’t enough to carry the day for the HJC, Woodward’s later introduction was designed “to put some English on the cue ball” for the public at large.
Yes, you might respond, the study might raise some troubling comparative issues, but given what Nixon was accused of, it remains clear that his actions were well above and beyond those of any predecessor. See if you feel the same way after reading portions on the study’s suppression by Jerry Zeifman, HJC’s majority counsel, from the concluding chapter of his 1995 book, Without Honor: The Impeachment of Richard Nixon and the Crimes of Camelot:
Chapter 20: A Question of Morality
What Doar seemed to fear most was that a Senate trial based on a state morality standard might vindicate Nixon if he could show — or perhaps even threaten to show — that in handling Watergate his acts were no more immoral or illegal than the acts of prior presidents, especially John Kennedy. As Nixon well knew, at the height of the Cold War, top officials in the Kennedy administration had not only engaged in wiretaps and burglaries, but had even sanctioned murders in the name of national security….
Rodham was assigned to work with Yale professor C. Vann Woodward — who was a colleague of Burke Marshall [Doar’s prior boss in the Robert Kennedy Department of Justice, Hillary Rodham’s mentor at Yale Law School, and said to be Sen. Edward Kennedy’s attorney general in waiting] — to help him prepare a highly sensitive historical account of abuses of presidential power that both Doar and Republican special counsel Albert Jenner had agreed was essential….
With Rodham’s help, Woodward and a team of twelve scholars completed the report and submitted it to Doar in secrecy prior to July 2, 1974, the date on which the Judiciary Committee began its first evidentiary hearings in anticipation of the impeachment debate scheduled to begin July 24. Two years after Nixon’s resignation, Albert Jenner, Doar’s Republican counterpart, was to say of the Woodward report, “We’ve kept it top secret. It was something we relied on very heavily.” …
Despite the efforts of Doar, Jenner and Rodham to keep the report secret from the committee, the possibility that such a report might exist and might aid Nixon’s defense occurred to Wiggins, who was the President’s chief defender on the committee. Wiggins inquired of Doar as to whether such an investigation had been undertaken, and insisted that if the inquiry staff failed to make such a study, such failure would be unforgiveable. However, the first time the contents of the Woodward report became known to any member of Congress was when Dell Publishing Company later sold it commercially in book stores….
Without reminding her readers that the Church Committee had publicly reported that political assassinations and covert wars had become official instruments of foreign policy in the Kennedy administration, [writer Renata] Adler went on the say that Doar knew that such a report could be put to good use by Nixon’s lawyers. Adler stated that Doar commissioned the report from outside the staff and kept it under wraps in case [Nixon defense lawyer James] St Clair used the defense on his own….
If Adler is to be believed, Doar’s reason for misleading Wiggins and the entire Congress by withholding the Woodward report was that [not] to do so might generate a debate that Doar and Jenner wanted to avoid — a debate in which the misconduct of prior presidents might be relevant….
Thus the explanation of why Doar, [HJC’s Watergate specialist] Nussbaum, and Rodham kept the Woodward report secret appears to be essentially the same as the explanation of why they refused to conduct any original investigations of their own. For Doar to have conducted a thorough and complete investigation of Watergate would have exposed the immoral and unlawful abuses of power that had become systemic in the Department of Justice under Attorney General Robert Kennedy.
Note that these are observations from a life-long Democrat, who had spent 13 years as HJC counsel.
Woodward’s book, as well as the study itself, is over 400 pages long and titled Responses of the Presidents to Charges of Misconduct, Including Accusations of High Crimes and Misdemeanors from George Washington to Lyndon Johnson: An Authoritative History Requested by Counsel John Doar for the Impeachment Inquiry Staff Investigating Charges Against Richard M. Nixon.
You can order a used copy today on Amazon for about $100.
As Shakespeare wrote in The Tempest, “What’s past is prologue.” Thus, one portion of Woodward’s introduction, although designed to make the case against President Nixon, somehow seems to anticipate our current situation and the paucity of charges being levied against President Trump. See if you don’t agree:
To have any validity, such comparisons would have to take into account the rigor of standards to which a particular president was held at a particular time. Allegations are not proof, and the volume of allegations may be more an index of the strength of congressional opposition, or the zeal of critics and austerity of their standards than of the culpability of the accused. Fairness would also require some weighing of the effectiveness of a president’s response to criticism and what he did about the crimes and misdemeanors with which he or his subordinates were charged. An equitable judgement would also seem to require assessment of the positive achievements of an administration against the weight of charges of misconduct.
I doubt I could have said it better myself.
Hear, hear! Let the demands for historic comparisons begin.
Geoff Shepard came to Washington, D.C., as a White House Fellow right after graduation from Harvard Law School and spent five years on Nixon’s White House staff, including being deputy counsel on his Watergate defense team. See more on his website: www.geoffshepard.com.