Commentary

Impeachment then and now:  One Iowan’s view

January 20, 2020 6:00 am
Nixon impeachment hearings

U.S. Rep. Ed Mezvinsky, D-Iowa, left served on the House Judiciary Committee during the Nixon impeachment hearings. (Photo courtesy of Iowa State University.)

When former U.S. Rep. Ed Mezvinsky was making his first run for Congress during the Watergate scandal in 1972, the question of whether President Richard Nixon should be impeached was not on voters’ minds.

“As far as when we campaigned, the issue was what were the right hours for the liquor stores,” Mezvinsky said. 

Is that a classic Iowa issue or what?

Mezvinsky, a Democrat from Ames, served from 1973 to 1977.  He lives in New York now and we talked on the phone recently about his experience on the House Judiciary Committee during the Nixon impeachment and the differences he sees between that historic event and the impeachment of President Donald Trump.

He requested and won a seat on the House Judiciary Committee, not because he thought he’d play a role in only the second impeachment process in the country’s history.  “I really wanted to get on the committee because I was interested in antitrust” and the mergers in the agriculture industry that were making it difficult for small farms to survive, he said.

He was one of two Iowans on the committee — Republican Wiley Mayne of Sioux City was the other.  Robin Bravender of Iowa Capital Dispatch’s Washington bureau tells his story and also reports on former Congressman Jim Leach’s recollections of the Clinton impeachment.

Mezvinsky noted that Iowans, who voted to return Nixon to office in 1972 with nearly 58 percent of the vote, took a while to warm up to the idea of impeachment. Even though he hadn’t taken a position on impeachment before the secret White House tapes were revealed, anti-impeachment Iowans sent a message.

“I would go to these small towns as we do … and there’d be these parades,” he said, and candidates would throw out lollipops to promote their campaigns. And instead of catching candy, he said, “people would throw stones at me.”

That started to change after the Saturday Night Massacre on Oct. 20, 1973, when Nixon ordered his attorney general to fire the special prosecutor on the Watergate case.  The attorney general and deputy attorney general refused and resigned immediately before the solicitor general carried out the firing. 

Mezvinsky recalled that the Quad-City Times in Davenport carried a front-page editorial two days later, headlined: “Impeach Now.” “It showed you how the public was moving on the issue as time went on,” he said.

Today, polls show Americans’ opinions have changed little from even before the House impeachment hearings, with more than 80 percent of Democrats consistently supporting impeachment; only 8 percent of Republicans in support and slightly less than half of independents and third-party members in support.

“It takes time,” Mezvinsky said.  And, he noted, the changing role of the media has been evident.

“We didn’t have three cable networks then. We didn’t have social media,” he said.  

Congress was different then, too.  The Citizens United ruling that opened the floodgates of corporate money in politics and the epidemic of gerrymandering have taken a toll on the ranks of moderates in Washington, D.C. 

“The Republicans, we talked to them a lot — the Democrats did,” he said.  And toward the end of the hearings, a few of the Democrats and Republicans on the committee would actually caucus together, trying to decide what to do — something that’s unheard of today.

Former U.S. Rep. Ed Mezvinsky speaks at Iowa State University on Oct. 8, 2018. (Photo by Kathie Obradovich/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Something else that’s unheard of: Mezvinsky says when they voted to impeach, he and a fellow Democrat on the committee, Rep. Barbara Jordan of Texas, cried.  “Why did we cry? Because, as I was raised in Ames, we respected the presidency, and we had hope for our institutions of government,” Mezvinsky told an audience at Iowa State University in October 2018.

One development that Mezvinsky said he’ll be watching as the Trump impeachment trial begins in the Senate is the role of Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts.  “That may be an interesting and significant factor as to whether he takes a passive role or whether he take a more active role which may affect what happens with the witnesses and what happens with the papers.”

Roberts has shown in the past, including with rulings on the Affordable Care Act, that he’s sensitive to maintaining a positive image of the Supreme Court, Mezvinsky said. 

It’s hard to imagine that his influence can make much difference in terms of the outcome — but maybe it will help in creating a record that that we can look at in another 50 years. 

Speaking of records, Mezvinsky donated his papers to Iowa State University.  His records of the impeachment hearings are sealed until 2023.

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