Published: July 30, 2019

Welcome to Brainwaves, a podcast about big ideas, produced at the University of Colorado Boulder.
I’m Lisa Marshall, and this week…

RICHARD NIXON: I have never been a quitter. To leave office before my term is completed is abhorrent to every instinct in my body. But as president, I must put the interest of America first. 

LISA: We take a look back at a moment that changed us.

NIXON: Therefore, I shall resign the presidency effective at noon tomorrow.

LISA: 45 years ago, on August ninth, 1974, President Richard Nixon resigned.

What were some of the long-term impacts?
NIXON: By taking this action, I hope that I will have hastened the start of that process of healing which is so desperately needed in America.

LISA: And did we, as a nation, ever truly heal?

To get at some of those questions, Brainwaves Dirk Martin sat down with CU Boulder political scientist Ken Bickers.

BICKERS: The resignation of Richard Nixon and the scandal that led up to it - the roughly two years that the country saw an underbelly of the White House, the executive branch - that really was disturbing. It had lasting impacts.
DIRK: A loss in public trust is what CU Boulder political science professor Ken Bickers says is one of the lasting legacies from the Watergate scandal.
BICKERS: One of the numbers that political scientists and I track is “Trust in Government.” That number dropped precipitously as the scandal deepened and with the resignation of Nixon.
DIRK: According to the Pew Research Center, before Watergate and Richard M. Nixon’s resignation as president of the United States, American’s trust in government was above 60%.

But after Watergate, it dropped a lot, to 36%.
BICKERS: And that number has really never recovered. That number dropped and it stayed low for well over a decade. Ticked up a little bit and then sagged back down.
DIRK: Never to recover…
BICKERS: Never, ever to the heights that it was pre-Nixon. People don’t think about government today in the way people thought about government in the 50s and 60s. Young folks don’t always assume that the government will do the right thing. That government leaders have their interest, the public’s interest at heart. That they care about people like them.
DIRK: Bickers says that, while Nixon was not impeached, the specter of being forced from office prompted him to resign.

Historically, two presidents have been impeached
Andrew Johnson following the Civil War and Bill Clinton in the ‘90s.
But Bickers says there’s a difference between the effort to remove Nixon and what happened to Johnson and Clinton.
He says in both of those cases, Congress used impeachment as a political tool.
BICKERS: Historically, impeachment was not viewed as a normal political tool. It was used to try to drive Andrew Johnson from the presidency.
 That was the only time in a very long history of the country until we go to the Clinton period that impeachment was used in that way.”
Bickers says using impeachment as a political tool is not what the founding fathers had in mind.
It’s there to make sure the president doesn’t abuse the powers of the presidency.
BICKERS: I think that you have to have some sort of relief valve. There has to be some mechanism so that a president can be removed. I think without that we’d have an even more imperial presidency than we have now. The threat of impeachment hanging over the head of every president creates a certain worry that they need to make sure that what they are doing would pass the test of appropriateness, probity, and those kinds of things. I think the fact that it exists is good for the Republic. I think that what’s not good is treating it as an extension of the last election. Where you didn’t like the outcome and now you think you have enough blood in the water that maybe you can impeach and maybe pull the other side over. I think that’s what happened with the Clinton impeachment.
I think with Nixon there was a sense that crimes had been committed and that the president had tried to cover up those crimes. And had tried to cover them up and obstruct justice in a willful way.

LISA: If you were around, and older than about grade school, in 1974, chances are, this moment is etched in your memory pretty vividly. Brainwave's Dirk Martin spoke with a few of you on the pearl street mall about what you recall most and how it still resonates today.

Person # 1: “I just remember that it was happening and Mr. Nixon got caught doing things he wasn’t supposed to be doing. I imagine it opened some people’s eyes to what was going on in Washington. How things, you know, back then see how bad they were and then we look at what’s going on there today and the dysfunctionality and how things are just screwed up.”

Person # 2: “Well, I think you had a bi-partisan effort to be able to uphold  justice. That doesn’t  seem to be existing today.”

Question: “Can you find any parallels between with what went on back then and with what’s happening now in D.C.?”

Person # 2 answer: I can in terms of nefarious activities, for sure. In terms of solutions and terms of holding people accountable, I cannot.”

Person # 3: “I think it hurt his party a lot, for sure. It made people question things. I think Watergate was a relatively minor blip compared to what we are doing right now. I think right now it’s just an attack on democracy.”

Contrary to popular belief, Nixon was not impeached. His resignation came just days after the house judiciary committee recommended three articles of impeachment against him. But by stepping down himself, he put an end to the  possibility of formally being removed from office. 

Fast forward to today and, rightly or wrongly, talk of impeachment of a sitting president is in the news again.

To get more into what exactly impeachment is, and how it’s been used over time, Brainwaves Paul Beique checked in with political scientist, former CU Boulder conservative scholar, and senior scholar in residence at the Benson Center for the Study of Western Civilization, William B. Allen.

PAUL: Where were you in 1974 when the Nixon resignation occurred? 

ALLEN: I was teaching at Harvey Mudd College and Claremont Graduate School in California during the time of the Nixon hearings and his eventual resignation.

PAUL: And what were you thinking at that time as you saw those events unfold?

ALLEN: A number of things on several levels. First of all, the impeachment question itself. There seemed to be no doubt but that there was justification for the impeachment. At the same time, it was evident that it's a very high bar and there's no guarantee that impeachment is going to succeed. In much more obvious cases such as Andrew Johnson's, it had not, but in this case, it seemed the weight of the evidence was so strong that it accomplished the purpose of the political process by inducing the resignation.

PAUL: That brings me to my next question. The Founding Fathers, what was their intention when they put the process of impeachment in the Constitution?

ALLEN: Well, their intention was, of course, what we would obviously think. You could always have an unforeseen occasion in which someone betrays the country, whether through treason, which is the first cause of impeachment listed, or through just sheer corruption or criminality. And a free people ought to be able to rid themselves of it without having to resort to bloodshed or revolution. So, their intention was to provide civil means for solving extraordinary political problems.

PAUL: Do you think that we will be able to use impeachment as intended as we go forward, or is everything so partisan now that that might be impossible?

ALLEN: Nothing has changed from the beginning. And one of the first impeachment trials was that of Justice Chase of the Supreme Court, who was essentially tried for political reasons because the Congress disagreed with him. At least the House of Representatives disagreed with an opinion that he rendered. It did not succeed in the Senate. And it failed. The impeachment of Andrew Johnson seemed to have stronger grounds because Johnson was literally refusing to enforce laws that Congress had passed.  

Nevertheless, that impeachment also failed when it reached the high bar of the Senate, so that what we can see today is that we haven't essentially changed. The Constitution writers did something very important. They open the door to give full vent to public outrage at the same time as preventing it to be so easy to overturn the institutions of government that instability would be the only government we would know.

And so it's hard to consummate completing the impeachment, relatively easy to launch one. And that combination is meant to be matter or factor of political health in the country. 

PAUL: And that might be roughly where we are today. There's a lot of talk in the House of Representatives about starting impeachment proceedings, but it has to go through the Senate where would almost certainly fail. What is your view of the situation as we see it now?

I think you summarized it aptly. We can revert mere 20 years, not quite, to the Clinton impeachment hearings, and we can see the same scenario unfolding. Now, you did have, of course, actual allegations in the Clinton case that you don't have here. You have false constructions here and not actual allegations, but nevertheless you have the same heightened partisanship, and you have the same high bar in the Senate, and so the most important thing about the current atmosphere is a question whether pushing impeachment in the House of Representatives will be down to the injury of the party that pushes it. That's the most important question at the present moment. 

PAUL: So, it makes even an appropriate use of impeachment proceedings quite difficult. 

ALLEN:  Well, certainly, but remember, as I said, the Constitution writers made impeachment easy to launch and difficult to complete, and so you can essentially say you can impeach for any reason or no reason, and that's all it takes to make it appropriate. It is not as if there is some actual crime that has been committed. It's simply that the passion calls for impeachment. So that is appropriate. That is what the Constitution is open to. But the Constitution does not permit us to be overrun by passion. Therefore, they make it difficult to complete it, and that's where we find ourselves now. The question is: will the people who are seized with passion, will they carry their passion to the point of wanting to make a demonstration, even though they cannot produce a concrete result? And that will determine how far the reaction to the expression of the passion would actually harm them.

PAUL: Is there anything that we have not discussed today that you think is important for our listeners to know or understand about this process?

ALLEN: Yes, I think it's really important for people to understand now the discussion of impeachment in any given political historical era is an integral part of the political process. It is not an outgrowth or a cancer or something that is out of the ordinary. We've had many threats of impeachment in the course of our history, and sometimes our political disputes are of such a nature that we revert to the conversation of impeachment when we run out of the real capacity for mutual deliberation. So that the impeachment discussion is only the other side of the coin of the polarization discussion in our politics. Where there is not much room for mutual deliberation, there is going to be much more digging in trenches and hurling of bombs, and that's what impeachment is about. 

PAUL: Professor Allen, thank you so much for joining us today on Brainwaves.

ALLEN: Thank you. Glad to be with you.

Next week on Brainwave: using drones to measure tornadoes, and other high and low tech ways we're prepping for natural disasters.

I’m Lisa Marshall.

This episode of Brainwaves was produced by Dirk Martin, Paul Beique and our executive producer Andrew Sorensen.

Sam Linnerooth is our digital producer.

Andres Belton and Cole Hemstreet created our intro.

See you next time on Brainwaves.