With Due Respect

Impeachment and resignation

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When it became clear that he had lost his people’s trust, US President Richard Nixon voluntarily resigned from the most powerful position in the most powerful country in the world, rather than face the ignominy of a public impeachment trial in the US Senate. He courageously accepted the essential truth that he had lost the fitness and the ascendancy to lead his people.

Not valid grounds. And yet, the US House of Representatives charged him merely with (1) obstruction of justice; (2) abuse of power and (3) contempt of Congress, all of which, technically, did not amount to “treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors,” the grounds for impeachment in the United States. Unlike in the Philippines, “culpable violation of the Constitution… graft and corruption… or betrayal of public trust” are not grounds for impeachment in the United States.

Brushing technicalities aside and rather than cripple the Senate and his nation with a tedious trial, Nixon – without admitting any wrongdoing – wrote a one-sentence resignation letter dated Aug. 9, 1974 that simply said, “I hereby resign as President of the United States.”

On the same day, he delivered his valedictory from the Oval Office of the White House, carried live on TV and radio, reciting his many achievements and asking his countrymen to support his successor, Gerald Ford. The media hailed his selflessness for not clinging to his post and for not using its vast resources to defend himself. Nixon, according to his biographer Conrad Black, converted to a personal triumph “what was intended to be an unprecedented humiliation for any American president.”

On Sept. 8, 1974, a month after the resignation, President Ford exonerated Nixon from any crime related to the impeachment. Though initially reluctant, Nixon eventually accepted the “pardon,” thereby putting to rest the controversy that hounded him and the nation.

Watergate scandal. To recall, Nixon was reelected overwhelmingly as US President in November 1972. Unlike here, the US Constitution allows one reelection for US presidents. However, prior to the election, five men were caught burglarizing and bugging the Democratic Party’s headquarters at the Watergate Condominium in Washington D.C. The five turned out later on to have been hired by Nixon’s Reelection Committee.

Two investigative reporters, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, doggedly linked several Nixon aides, notably John Dean and H. R. Haldeman, to the Watergate break-in. Nixon himself denied any part in the burglary and insisted that he had no prior knowledge of his aides’ involvement in it. Many believed the break-in was a “dirty trick” to spy on his political opponents.

However, after losing a legal battle (that reached the US Supreme Court) to prevent the release of several reels of audiotapes that showed his effort to obstruct the investigations of the Watergate conspirators, the House of Representatives voted to indict him with the three aforesaid Articles of Impeachment. The tapes revealed his damaging conversations with his aides approving their plans to thwart the investigations.

On Aug. 5, 1974, Nixon publicly regretted his role in befuddling the investigations, explaining he had a “lapse in memory.” Despite this tearful explanation, his public approval rating continued to dip. Republican leaders frankly told him that his unpresidential conduct could not pass Senate scrutiny. Only 15 out of a hundred senators backed him, far less than the 34 needed to avoid his ouster. Otherwise stated, more than two-thirds of the 100 US senators indicated they would not support him.

To his credit, Nixon did not filibuster. Neither did he quibble on legalities and technicalities. He did not challenge his impeachment in the US Supreme Court. He knew impeachment was more political than legal and thanked his party mates for their candor.

Though he never directly accepted any wrongdoing, he – upon accepting Ford’s pardon – still apologized to his countrymen, “No words can describe the depth of my regret and pain at the anguish my mistake over Watergate have caused the nation and the presidency, a nation I so deeply love, and an institution I so greatly respect.”

Fitness for public office. For his “heroic” resignation that enabled the Senate to continue its main task of legislation, Congress appropriated $850,000 (later reduced to $200,000) to fund Nixon’s “transition costs” from the presidency to private citizenship.

After a few years of personal anguish, Nixon emerged as an elder statesman, notably as a world citizen. Following his historic trip to the Soviet Union in 1986 to meet then Soviet leader Michael Gorbachev, he ranked in a Gallup poll as one of the 10 most admired men in the world. He died at age 81 on April 22, 1994. At its peak, the line to his casket was five kilometers long with an estimated 50,000 mourners waiting to pay their respects.

The House impeached both Bill Clinton and Nixon mainly for obstruction of justice. But the Senate acquitted Clinton, after a speedy, five-week trial. (See my Feb. 5 column for more of Clinton’s saga). In contrast, Nixon spared himself and his nation from a nasty trial and chose to resign.

The main difference is that Clinton retained the people’s trust while Nixon lost it. The American people thought that Clinton’s denials of his sexual dalliance did not diminish his ability to run the country but that Nixon’s repeated lies about the Watergate scandal betrayed his fitness to continue holding his august office.

(Comments to chiefjusticepanganiban@hotmail.com)

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