It seems ironic that U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., who was listed on
Nixon's Enemies List, will be the one wielding the gavel in another search for
the truth at a time when so many of us have begun to wonder whether our
government is capable of providing us with the truth.
One of the tragic moments in American history occurred in November 1973.
This was the famous "Saturday Night Massacre," when President Richard Nixon,
faced with the demand for incriminating tapes and documents by Watergate
Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox, took an action that would lead to his
resignation from the presidency in disgrace less than a year later. Nixon
ordered U.S. Attorney General Elliott Richardson to fire Cox. When Richardson
refused and instead resigned, as did his second in command, William
Ruckelshaus, U.S. Solicitor General Robert Bork stepped up to fire Cox.
That action triggered a tough inquiry into the Watergate scandal by the
House Judiciary Committee, chaired by U.S. Rep. Peter Rodino, a mild-mannered
congressman from New Jersey. In July 1974, after seven months of public
hearings, the committee in a bipartisan vote adopted several articles of
impeachment, the chief of which was for obstruction of justice. Nixon had
ordered the FBI to cease its inquiry into the money trail the CIA had
discovered, leading from the president's personal lawyer, Herb Kalmbach,
through various hands to pay off the Watergate burglary's mastermind, E. Howard
Hunt. Hunt had threatened to reveal the details of the burglary to U.S.
District Court Judge John Sirica, who presided over the Watergate case, unless
he was paid.
One of the younger members of the Judiciary Committee at the time was
Conyers, a man Nixon had put on his notorious "Enemies List" for whatever
punishment federal agencies such as the IRS might devise.
As a result of the Judiciary Committee's inquiries and the work of several
dedicated U.S. attorneys, not only was Nixon forced from office, but his
attorney general, John Mitchell, was indicted and sent to jail for his part in
the Watergate coverup.
Now, 32 years later, another Republican attorney general, Alberto
Gonzales, faces questioning by both the Senate and House Judiciary committees,
on grounds that he has used his high office for political purposes to remove
eight U.S. attorneys, several of whom had been involved in investigations of
Republican congressmen, such as Randy "Duke" Cunningham of San Diego, Robert
Ney of Ohio and John Doolittle of Rocklin (Placer County).
And who chairs the Judiciary Committee today? None other than Nixon's old
enemy, John Conyers.
Among the reasons many Americans have lost faith in their government, the
perceived use of the U.S. attorney general's office for political purposes
looms large. In the past, independent prosecutors, such as San Francisco's John
Keker, who prosecuted Lt. Col. Oliver North in the Iran-Contra scandal, and
former Chicago U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, who is the chief prosecutor in
the Lewis "Scooter" Libby trial, have preserved respect for the judicial
process despite the machinations of political appointees in Washington. Under
the Bush administration, however, the White House has been able to convince its
attorney general to provide questionable legal opinions on the use of torture,
warrantless wire-tapping and other practices that cause ordinary citizens to
wonder whether government lawyers, like politicians, can be prevailed upon to
change their views for political gain.
The investigations now being conducted by both the House and Senate
Judiciary committees can go a long way toward restoring the faith of the people
that our nation's courts, laws and prosecutors remain untainted by political
influence. Having served with Conyers for some 15 years, I would not want to be
in the shoes of Attorney General Gonzales when he is asked to stand and swear
to tell the truth about the recent wave of firings of U.S. attorneys, at least
eight of whom were presiding over public corruption investigations.
The truth will out and justice will be served.
Pete McCloskey, who farms in Rumsey (Yolo County), represented the San Francisco Peninsula in Congress between 1967 and 1982. A Republican and former deputy district attorney, he made the first speech on the floor of the House on June 6, 1973, calling for impeachment of President Richard Nixon for obstruction of justice.
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