Impeachment Politics


"AMERICA IS ON trial on many fronts. Our very form of government is being put to the test today."

Somewhat trite and rhetorical comments indeed, to describe the national trauma left in the wake of the Watergate scandals. But these words from a moderate upstate New York Republican congressman represent the sort of thinking that very well may have Richard Nixon standing trial before the Senate by mid-summer.

Rep. Benjamin A. Gilman is a young, popular freshman congressman from New York's half rural, half suburban, and very conservative 26th district. Lying on the northern fringes of New York City, the district is composed of fugitives from the city's turmoil and those who fear it from a distance. Together they have established a conservative bastion to prevent its spread north. In 1970 the district elected a leftwing Democrat, John G. Dow '27, only because his Republican opponent was indicted for income tax evasion towards the end of the campaign. But in 1972, Gilman took advantage of Nixon's solid trouncing of McGovern in the district and retired Dow by an impressive margin.

Now, however, Gilman is faced with the dilemma of the Republican Party. Dow has already declared his candidacy again and stands a good chance of getting the Democratic nomination. In a normal election year, Gilman could hardly want more--his genial personality, close affinity with the voters, and cautious politics would insure him an easy victory in November.

But this certainly isn't a normal election year and Gilman will soon have to take a stand on impeachment. Up to this point he has been completely evasive, and the only on-the-record statement he has ventured is "to wait until all the evidence is in" before deciding.

THE CRITICAL EVIDENCE Gilman has to work with at this point--his constituents' feelings--is still ambiguous. On the one hand, there is an obvious and unmistakable disaffection with the Nixon administration. Small town newspaper editors who endorsed Nixon two years ago are now writing pro-impeachment editorials. Cynicism and disgust towards Watergate abound in local political discussions. And the loss of the two very solid Republican House seats in Michigan and Ohio a few weeks ago threatens ominous consequences for almost any Republican running in almost any district on almost any record.

On the other hand, there is an equally unmistakable caution, conservatism, and confusion surrounding the idea of impeachment. The day after Nixon's tax disclosure a local paper in the district conducted a random phone survey of residents' reactions. The majority of those contacted either didn't blame Nixon for his failure to pay taxes, or felt that as long as he pays what he owes, he shouldn't be punished any further. In either case, there was little sentiment for impeachment. As one person said, "I don't think we could get anybody any better--maybe we could get someone worse."

So when Gilman was the main speaker last week at a public ceremony dedicating a new city hall, he walked a fine line between admitting the gravity of the Watergate scandals, and declaring his support for impeachment as the necessary and inevitable answer. He never directly mentioned Nixon, Watergate, taxes, impeachment, or resignation in his speech. But these themes, and a recognition that in a few weeks both he and the nation will have to make a commitment, formed the undercurrent of his remarks.

"Our nation is at a crossroads," Gilman said. "These are times of agitation and turmoil in a troubled capital. All of us are on trial individually, and the decisions we make today will go down in history."

But instead of pursing the nature of these impending decisions, Gilman offered as a solution only a vague and hedging appeal to the Great American Tradition of courage and fortitude.

"We have come through times of turmoil before," he said. "We haven't lost faith in our nation or our future. We still hold dear the basic principles of Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln. And despite our troubles, we have inherited the greatest most durable, and most nearly perfect form of government in the world."

This kind of equivocating is a safe and workable stance for the moment. Gilman would surely prefer to find an alternative--any alternative--to having to face an impeachment vote. But as that vote draws closer, Gilman wants to make sure he has a solid grasp on the feelings of his district's voters before taking a public position.

ONE OF THE prevailing myths surrounding the national dialogue on impeachment is that when the House finally does take its vote, Congressmen will decide the issue on the basis of the legal and moral merits of the case. But impeachment never was and never can be a legal tool because congressmen are by necessity political animals. No congressman will vote for impeachment unless it is the politically expedient thing to do. And no congressman can afford to vote against impeachment if popular sentiment makes that the politically necessary thing to do.

For Gilman, the knowledge that he will be running against Dow in November must surely be a significant factor in his calculations. Dow will take a very strong and very righteous pro-impeachment stance, and will no doubt tie Gilman as closely as he can to Nixon. And as the special House elections of the past few weeks indicate, that strategy could very well be successful.

Thus Gilman may soon be forced to a "yes" vote on impeachment. As the disclosures continue, as the trials begin, as the evidence mounts, as the cynicism grows, voters in the 26th district will probably follow the path taken by their newspapers and support impeachment. And on that day when cautious, moderate, Republican Ben Gilman decides--for moral, legal, or especially political reasons--to vote for impeachment, Richard Nixon will find himself standing trial in the Senate.