How impeachment upended the career of an Iowa politician

By: - January 20, 2020 6:00 am
American flag flying with U.S. Capitol in the background.

A flag flies near the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., in file photo from Dec. 18. 2019. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — A presidential impeachment vote may have doomed the political career of an Iowa Republican congressman. 

It was 46 years ago. 

Rep. Wiley Mayne, a fourth-term congressman in 1974, was a Republican on the U.S. House Judiciary Committee when that panel considered articles of impeachment against President Richard Nixon in the wake of the Watergate scandal. 

Mayne didn’t think there was enough evidence at that time to impeach, he later told the Associated Press, and he voted against impeachment. He changed his mind after additional transcripts were released and announced that he’d vote to impeach on the House floor. But Mayne never got that chance; Nixon resigned when it became clear that his critics had the votes for impeachment. 

“Mr. Mayne, like many of his colleagues, frets about his ability to return to his Iowa district to campaign,” The New York Times reported ahead of the vote. “A respected lawyer who has difficulty projecting personal warmth, he feels he needs intensive campaigning to win, especially in view of Watergate and the Democratic trend in his state.” 

That fall, after voting against Nixon’s impeachment, Mayne lost his seat to Democrat Berkley Bedell in a tight election. His votes against impeachment were seen as a major contributor to his loss.

“He would have been a 30-year congressman if it wouldn’t have been for Watergate,” Iowa Republican Sen. Charles Grassley, told the Associated Press. “He was a great man, a great politician.” 

Former Rep. Wiley Mayne, an Iowa Republican, lost his seat in Congress after changing his mind on articles of impeachment against President Richard Nixon. (Photo by Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives)

Mayne died in 2007, 33 years after his impeachment vote. The headline of his obituary in The Los Angeles Times read: “Wiley Mayne, 90; House GOP member who voted not to impeach Nixon.”

Mayne was one of many House lawmakers whose political careers came to be defined by their response to the Watergate scandal and the effort to oust the president. 

“I think for those who stood by Nixon as it increasingly became seen by most of America as the wrong position to hold, they did come to be defined by that legacy,” said David Greenberg, a history professor at Rutgers University.

Greenberg said in a Washington Post piece in October that some of Nixon’s most ardent GOP defenders in Congress — Reps. Charles Sandman (N.J.), Charles Wiggins (Calif.) and David Dennis (Ind.) — also voted against impeachment counts before later saying they’d support impeachment. Two of them lost their reelection bids in 1974. 

“None of these men has been well remembered,” Greenberg wrote. All of their obituaries led with the fact that they defended Nixon. That decision became the headline of their entire lives.”

Rep. Edward Mezvinsky, a Democrat, was the only other Iowa lawmaker on the House Judiciary Committee during the Nixon impeachment vote. Mezvinsky, a House freshman serving in a swing district at the time, voted yes on all three impeachment articles before the committee. (Note: Kathie Obradovich interviews Mezvinsky in her column.)

Iowans less prominent in Trump impeachment

Iowa lawmakers haven’t been as central to the impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump as they were during past congressional efforts to oust presidents from office. 

None of Iowa’s four U.S. House members serve on the Judiciary Committee or other panels that took the lead on the impeachment investigation. They broke along party lines during the House floor vote to impeach Trump. 

Iowa’s two Republican senators — Charles Grassley and Joni Ernst — have indicated that they’re unlikely to vote to remove Trump from office. 

“I have not seen anything that has come out of the House that would lead me to believe there is an impeachable offense there,” Ernst said in December, according to Radio Iowa. 

Grassley was more cautious, telling the Des Moines Register that he’s approaching impeachment as a potential juror. Still, he said, “this has been pretty much a political maneuver in the House of Representatives.”

It remains unclear how history will view the Trump impeachment proceedings, and whether the incident will play a dominant role in defining the legacies of the Iowans now in Congress. 

Lawmakers’ votes from President Bill Clinton’s impeachment proceedings haven’t carried the same historical significance as they did during the Nixon era, said Greenberg of Rutgers. 

“That was an impeachment that I think was seen for the most part as a partisan exercise, with some notable exceptions. It wasn’t seen as having the grandeur or significance of Watergate, because it was widely understood to be sort of a political vendetta.” 

While some will see Trump’s impeachment as justified, it’ll also likely be viewed as a partisan exercise, Greenberg added. “It’s hard to say how significant one’s vote on the Trump impeachment will be,” he said. “In a few cases, I think it will matter.” 

Iowans split on party lines on Clinton impeachment

Iowa lawmakers voted along partisan lines during the GOP-led effort to remove Clinton from office. 

When Clinton was impeached by the House in 1998, Iowa’s lone Democratic congressman opposed impeachment; all four Republicans voted for at least one article of impeachment against him. Then-Sens. Grassley (R) and Tom Harkin (D) also split along party lines. 

But it was a tough vote for at least one Iowa Republican. 

Rep. Jim Leach, a Republican serving in an eastern Iowa district where Clinton outpolled him by 1 percent in 1996, called his political future “severely jeopardized” after his vote in favor of impeachment, The Washington Post reported. (Leach first won his seat in 1976 by defeating Mezvinsky, who was then a two-term incumbent.) 

“This is the kind of issue that as an elected member you just know you set yourself up for an effort to remove you,” Leach told the Post of impeachment in 1998. 

Leach held on to his seat, serving in the House until 2007. 

“I’m never certain of the whole Clinton thing,” Leach he told the Capital Dispatch this week in an interview when asked about his votes in favor of articles of impeachment. 

He said he almost voted no to all of the articles, due to concerns he had about the proceedings. He was swayed in part by a book about the founding fathers’ views of impeachment, he added. 

Leach also recalled his past vote opposing Georgia Republican Rep. Newt Gingrich for House speaker over ethics charges Gingrich was facing. “How could you not vote against the president for the same thing, lying under oath?” Leach said this week. 

In 1997, Gingrich was the first speaker of the House to be punished by the House for ethics violations, NPR reported. Gingrich admitted he had unintentionally but materially misled the House Ethics Committee.

Leach, now a visiting law professor at the University of Iowa, declined to say how he’d vote on the articles of impeachment against Trump if he were in Congress. “I have a personal leaning,” he said, but “I’m no longer part of the process.” 

Leach urged current members of Congress to keep in mind George Washington’s First Inaugural Address from 1789 when they consider the articles of impeachment against Trump. 

“Basically what (Washington) was saying was, ‘You vote your conscience and forget the party,’” Leach said. “That is my attitude.” 

 

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