If you’re young with any interest in civic affairs, history, government or politics, here’s some simple advice.
One never knows when an innocuous headline about a “third-rate burglary” or a “quid pro quo” may lead to the end of a presidency or a constitutional crisis your grandchildren will one day study.
The third-rate burglary occurred in June of 1972, a month prior to my 21st birthday and six months before America’s “Silent Majority” re-elected Richard M. Nixon in a landslide over Democratic nominee, Sen. George McGovern. That’s the self-proclaimed conservative Nixon who created the EPA; suggested a guaranteed, minimum income for every household; and promised “peace with honor” by gradually drawing down our seemingly endless troop presence in South Vietnam.
He characterized McGovern — a genuine World War II hero — as a pusillanimous leftist who would eviscerate our military and leave the U.S. a defenseless joke on the international stage. McGovern responded by contending Nixon was playing politics with foreign policy — specifically Vietnam — and up to “dirty tricks” on the campaign trail. Nixon buried McGovern, winning 49 of 50 states (Massachusetts voted for McGovern but Nixon would of course subsequently resign.)
When the Watergate break-in occurred, no one paid much attention — except for two rookie reporters from the Washington Post. No one knew who John Dean III was, nor did many in Kentucky realize Gov. Louie B. Nunn’s brother, Lee, was a member of CREEP, the Committee to Re-Elect the President. Every member of that committee except Lee Nunn, and including Nixon’s original Attorney General John Mitchell, ended up in prison.
I recall and remind you of this not because — like in 1972-73 — I am consumed by the possibility we could impeach a sitting president but because when I awoke this Thanksgiving morning I learned of the death of William D. Ruckeslhaus at 87. You may not have been born in 1972 or don’t recall Ruckelshaus but I had been and do.
Nixon and Ruckelshaus created the Environmental Protection Agency — yeah, that was a Republican idea — and Ruckelshaus became its first administrator. Ruckelshaus had made his name as a career attorney in the U.S. Department of Justice before heading the EPA. As EPA administrator, he led efforts which forced cities to enact anti-pollution laws, created the first auto emissions standards and banned the pesticide DDT. In this role, he came to be known as “Mr. Clean.”
(I know it’s hard for some younger readers to imagine a Republican supporting such policies, but I promise there were Republicans like Ruckelshaus popping up all over the place at one time. There were even Republicans sufficiently outraged by Nixon’s abuses of power with backbone enough to say it publicly.
Ruckelshaus stepped down from the EPA in 1973, at the height of the Watergate investigation and was appointed acting FBI Director and eventually deputy Attorney General. Then in October, Nixon ordered AG Elliott Richardson, another moderate Republican, to fire the special prosecutor Archibald Cox. Richardson refused and resigned.
Nixon then ordered Ruckelshaus to rid him of this troublesome prosecutor, but Ruckelshaus had promised during his Senate confirmation hearings to protect Cox and he also refused and resigned. His duties were transferred to Robert Bork, the Solicitor General, who fired Cox. That’s Robert Bork who became the first Supreme Court nominee to be “Borked” by the other party and denied confirmation. The Senate Judiciary Committee was chaired by a young Sen. Joe Biden.
Just a little modern perspective but at the time I was consumed by it all. It influenced my career choice. I became obsessed with the American Founders and what they meant by “high crimes and misdemeanors.”
Polling shows people are tired of the controversy and both sides have largely made up their minds about whether President Donald Trump should be impeached. But none of that means they shouldn’t pay close attention: we are without doubt witnessing history and some of you may re-live it one day.
Ronnie Ellis is the former statehouse reporter for CNHI Kentucky and writes a weekly column. Follow him on Twitter @cnhifrankfort.