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Impeachment Heroes: Past, Present, Future

Republican senators like Mitt Romney, Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, Cory Gardner, and Lamar Alexander—history has its eyes on you.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) could become a hero of the impeachment trial.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) could become a hero of the impeachment trial. (Photo: Aaron Bernstein/Bangor Daily News)

Nancy Pelosi willing, the articles of impeachment against President Trump will soon make their way to the Senate. The big question is whether the senate will allow the managers (the as-yet-unnamed House members who will prosecute the case in the Senate trial) to call witnesses. Surely, witnesses should be called if the process is to be other than Alice-in-Wonderland: Verdict first, trial later. The handful of Republicans at least vaguely interested in anything other than placating the accused president and his rabid base can learn from history.

The Clinton case is too recent, and perhaps too nuanced, to offer clear lessons. But the impeachment sagas surrounding Andrew Johnson (who was impeached but acquitted by the Senate) and Richard Nixon (who, facing imminent impeachment, resigned) speak to us with clarity. Historians are nearly unanimous that Nixon deserved impeachment whereas Johnson did not. Nixon plainly violated his Article 2 powers; Johnson was a dreadful president, but within his rights to veto the Tenure of Office Act. The heroes in both sagas were the handful of Congressmen who dared to transcend party loyalty and do the right thing. That is what history teaches.

Andrew Johnson was acquitted by a single vote, thanks to seven Republicans who voted against removing the man their party regarded as anathema. History conferred on these men the sobriquet "Seven Tall Men." One of them, Edmund Ross, merited a chapter in John F. Kennedy's book Profiles in Courage, which called his vote the most heroic act in U.S. history.

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Watergate had many heroes, such as Woodward and Bernstein, Deep throat (Mark Felt), and Judge John Sirica. But, notwithstanding the indispensable work of these men to see that the truth came out, it wouldn't have been enough to drive Nixon from office were it not for a handful of brave Republicans. Take William Cohen, a 33 year-old Republican Congressman who, during the floor debate, directly addressed his colleagues' claim that all presidents engage in the kind of misconduct Nixon stood accused of. "Democracy may be eroded away by degrees," Cohen observed. "Its survival will be determined by the degree to which we will tolerate those silent and subtle diversions." Another Republican stalwart, Barry Goldwater, helped convince Nixon to resign, and explained himself to colleagues upset that he wasn't defending a fellow Republican: "You can only be lied to so often."

It wasn't just members of Congress. Attorney General Eliot Richardson's refusal to fire special Prosecutor Archibald Cox sent an important message about the rule of law and marked a decisive blow against Nixon. Who will history be kinder to—Richardson or Bill Barr, who has put fidelity to his boss ahead of fidelity to the Constitution?

Republican senators like Mitt Romney, Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, Cory Gardner, and Lamar Alexander—history has its eyes on you. And if you cast a glance back at history, you will know that it reserves a special place for those who put country above party and self.

Alan Hirsch

Alan Hirsch

Alan Hirsch, Chair of the Justice and Law Studies program at Williams College, is the author of Impeaching the President: Past, Present, Future (City Lights, 2018) and A Short History of Presidential Election Crises (And How to Prevent the Next One) (City Lights, forthcoming in 2020).

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