Republican Congressman Thomas Railsback’s Courageous Support of Impeaching President Nixon in 1974

As noted in a prior post about recent comments during the Trump Impeachment trial in the Senate by Representative Adam Schiff, Thomas F. Railsback in 1974 was a moderate Republican Congressman from Illinois and a member of the House Judiciary Committee who exhibited political courage in supporting the impeachment of Republican President Nixon.

Subsequent research has uncovered further details about Railsback and his involvement with Nixon, including the impeachment.

Railsback’s Early Congressional Record[1]

Before that important engagement in 1974, he had been a Republican Congressman from Illinois for seven years and credited Richard Nixon with helping him win his first election to Congress in 1966 by campaigning for him. Railsback also had predicted a Nixon landslide in the November 1972 presidential election while expressing great admiration for Nixon, especially the opening of the door to China, which Railsbeck said “had to be the most brilliant foreign policy move ever.”

When the Democratic Party’s headquarters in the Watergate apartment building were burglarized on June 7, 1972 and the House Judiciary Committee became involved in investigating that event, Railsback admitted he was “ashamed and astounded by that event and by other alleged corrupt actions within the [Nixon] Administration.”

Railsback, however, “did not feel that . . . President Nixon had any part in the alleged corruption. The President is busy running the country. . . I certainly don’t think he would be involved in anything as Mickey Mouse and just plain stupid as the Watergate thing is.”

Early Stages of the Nixon Impeachment [2]

In February 1974, at the very start of the House Judiciary Committee’s consideration of possible impeachment, Railsback said in a letter to the student newspaper at his alma mater, Grinnell College, [4] “The need for objectivity when considering such a difficult and potentially emotional issue, is apparent. Most of the members of the House, and especially of the Judiciary Committee, which will conduct the initial inquiry, have exhibited from my vantage point at least, both a rational and objective approach to this problem. However, there are those few . . . who would impeach immediately, and others who wouldn’t vote for impeachment if they personally caught the President in a bank vault at midnight. Neither of these positions is acceptable.”

The letter went on, “The decision to impeach or not to impeach must be founded on a fair, intensive investigation of the allegations and charges, and only on this basis. We on the Judiciary, I feel, are taking the first steps in this direction. Under the Committee’s supervision, a highly qualified staff is now proceeding with the investigation on a daily basis. In addition, the House  . . . has adopted, with bi-partisan support, a resolution granting subpoena authority to our committee for its investigation, and I fully supported this action. With the granting of such authority, the House has taken a significant step forward in achieving a responsible answer to the numerous allegations, questions, and doubts which encompass the Presidency. . . . The President in his State of the Union message, declared his intentions to cooperate with our Committee and we are encouraged by his remarks. . . . But regardless of the cooperation we receive, I am convinced that the Judiciary Committee is determined to fulfill its constitutional responsibility to conduct a thorough and bi-partisan impeachment inquiry.”

Nearly seven weeks later (circa March 22, 1974), Railsback submitted an article about the status of the inquiry to the Grinnell student newspaper. He reported that he had received from his constituents 900 pro-impeachment and 600 anti-impeachment communications (plus others outside his district). . . .  [However,] “no direct correlation exists between political parties and a particular position on this issue.” And his annual survey of his district’s sentiment is about equally divided on the issue. Therefore, he had concluded “the ‘politically safe’ decision does not exist. . . . When the hour comes to cast a vote on the issue of impeachment, I am convinced that the vote must and will be cast on the basis of evidence fairly gathered and fully evaluated and not on the basis of party affiliation or political fears.”

These communications to his alma mater’s student newspaper undoubtedly were in anticipation of his participation in the College’s hosting the Iowa Impeachment Forum on April 27, 1974. At that event, he said, “I don’t think a majority of the minority [Republicans] would accept edited transcripts [in response to a congressional subpoena]. The White House does have the right to determiJames St. Clairne what sort of initial response to make to the subpoena. I do support the informal suggestion that the four-man screening group [Representative Peter Rodino (Dem., NJ), Representative J. Edward Hutchinson (Rep., MI), Albert Jenner (Committee Minority Counsel) and John Doar [Committee’s Lead Special Counsel] go over to the White House and meet with [Jim] St. Clair [White House counsel] present, and listen to all the tapes we subpoenaed, on our equipment. . . But I would not be about to buy having them turn over on a unilateral basis transcripts which they themselves have edited.”

At this April Forum at Grinnell, Railsback remarked that his serving on the House Judiciary Committee during its deliberation on the impeachment question “has been the most difficult responsibility of my eleven years in public office” while noting “the barrage of press people focusing in on the committee members as well as the pressures which constituents were placing on their representatives.” That became more intense “after the firing of Special Prosecutor Cox, referred to as the ‘Saturday Night Massacre. Congressmen were flooded with a storm of mail from outraged constituents.”

Railsback also told  the Grinnell audience that the 1974 “Judiciary Committee’s investigation got off to a shaky start when Rodino proposed that, as chairman, he be given the sole right to subpoena all relevant data. The minority [the Republicans] resented this proposal because of the tradition of cooperation which had been a hallmark of the Judiciary Committee through the years.” It then “became apparent there would be no successful impeachment inquiry unless there was some kind of bi-partisan participation and cooperation. . . Since that time, the Judiciary Committee has conducted itself judiciously and with dignity, trying to prevent leaks.”

The Forum audience also heard Railsback note that he had been very favorably impressed with the work of Majority Counsel John Doar and Minority Counsel Albert Jenner. “They have conducted themselves extremely well, trying to work as a team, rather than on different pursuits.”  Railsback also agreed with Democratic Iowa Congressman Edward Mezvinsky, who also appeared at this College program, “that not only the President , but the Congress as an institution was on trial. Bear in mind that according to the latest polls, Congress appears to have a lower approval rating than does the President.”

Later Stages of the House’s Nixon Impeachment [3]

In the later stages of the Judiciary Committee’s inquiry, however, Railsback dinotback Nixon’s defense. In fact, the Congressman led what he called a “fragile bipartisan coalition” between his fellow Republicans and the Democratic majority on the House Judiciary Committee in supporting impeachment. That summer, this bipartisan group met in his office to develop an article of impeachment that they all could vote for.

One of the participants in that bipartisan group was Representative William S. Cohen (Rep., ME), then in his first term, who later became U.S. Senator from Maine and Secretary of Defense in the Clinton Administration. Cohen said the first time he had met to discuss this impeachment was at Railsback’s invitation in the latter’s office. “The seven of us met that morning, and as we went around, we said abuse of power, obstruction of justice, we can all agree on those things. And if we hang together, we can make sure this passes on a bipartisan basis. And it wasn’t really until that moment that I decided without any reservation I was going to vote for impeachment.”

“On July 27, 1974, the judiciary committee voted 27 to 11, with Railsback and five other of the panel’s 17 Republicans joining all 21 Democrats, to send to the full House an article of impeachment. The article accused the president of unlawful tactics that constituted a ‘course of conduct or plan’ to obstruct the investigation of the break-in at the offices of the Democratic opposition in the Watergate complex in Washington by a White House team of burglars.”

Railsback also helped draft a second article of impeachment, charging the president with abusing his authority while also defeating a Democrats’ proposal for further articles citing allegations concerning Mr. Nixon’s tax returns and his covert bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War.

During the House debate over the resolution for impeachment, Railsback introduced an amendment to the articles that was approved by a voice vote. “Originally the article charged that Mr. Nixon ‘made it his policy’ to obstruct the investigation of Watergate and to protect those responsible. The amendment “charged instead that the President engaged ‘in a course of conduct or plan designed’ to impede and obstruct the investigation. Railsback said he had difficulty believing that Mr. Nixon at any specific time formulated a policy of obstruction, but . . . [that] the record shows a ‘course of conduct’ amounting to obstruction.”

In colloquy before the vote on the amendment, another member asked, “‘What’s the difference between a policy and a plan?’ Railsback acknowledged he also had trouble judging the difference, but said that committee counsel believed that the word ‘policy’ had the connotation of an ‘orchestrated’ effort to obstruct.” Railsback added, “’I believe that certain events occurred to which Mr. Nixon didn’t respond or responded to in an improper way.’ Railsback also responded to another member’s question as to whether he meant “Mr. Nixon intentionally acted in such a way as to delay or impede the investigation? Railsback said he meant that Mr. Nixon acted knowingly for the purpose of delaying and impeding it.”

“His pivotal votes provoked vitriolic reactions from some constituents. . . . But [soon thereafter] he received a standing ovation from a local chamber of commerce, and he was re-elected to four more terms.” However, in 1982 he lost the Republican primary election to run for another term, a defeat he attributed to his vote for Nixon’s impeachment.

Subsequently Railsback said,“I don’t feel very good about it. I feel badly about what happened to Nixon. On the other hand, after listening to the [White House] tapes and seeing all the evidence, it was something we had to do because the evidence was there.”

Conclusion

His daughter, Kathryn Railsback, now provides the appropriate benediction for her father and his importance to the current struggles over the impeachment of President Trump.[5]

She writes, “He and others showed that it was possible to transcend partisan divisions as they sought to defend our democratic institutions.”

“As a young Republican representative from Illinois, Dad took his responsibilities as a legislator and a lawyer seriously. He believed in fairness and in upholding the rule of law. His father, Fred Railsback, had been city attorney for several small Illinois towns. Public service was viewed in our family as an honor and a privilege.”

“Dad believed we should strive to get along with others, including those with opposing political views. A committed Republican himself, he truly valued his lifelong friendships with both Republican and Democratic colleagues. His ability to work closely with lawmakers from across the political spectrum helped him forge agreements that addressed pressing national concerns and benefited the country.”

“During those momentous impeachment proceedings more than 40 years ago, Dad used his skills as a lawyer and lawmaker to review the facts and evidence carefully. He worked collaboratively with members of both parties for the good of the country and refused to be pressured by partisan leaders.”

“In a nutshell, he did his job as a legislator. Although he suffered some political repercussions, he remained proud of his actions in support of impeachment until the end of his life. Our family remains proud of the courageous steps he took in putting loyalty to country and the rule of law above partisan and personal concerns. In fulfilling his constitutional duty as a member of the legislative branch, he left us and our country with a lasting legacy of which we can be proud. He did what he believed was right to uphold our carefully crafted system of checks and balances.”

“I believe that senators now have, as my father did, a unique opportunity to play a pivotal role at a critical time in our country’s history. I greatly value our country’s freedoms and the ability to hold our government accountable when excesses and injustices occur. . . . Our country’s relatively young government, with three strong, independent branches, works well because of its foundational system of checks and balances. The healthy functioning of our government depends on the members of each branch taking their responsibilities seriously and fulfilling their duties without interference from the other branches of government or partisan or personal interests.”

“I know from my father’s experience that the decisions senators make in the coming days — and the ways in which they make them — may well determine how they are remembered throughout the rest of their lives [and after they are gone]. I beseech them to be thoughtful, serious and independent, to uphold the rule of law, and to be ever mindful of their critical role in protecting our country’s precious system of checks and balances. . . . I believe there remain lawmakers of good will, good intellect and good courage in both parties who will, as my Dad did, rise to the occasion in these difficult times for the good of the country.”

Thank you, Ms. Railsback!

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[1] Roberts, Tom Railsback, Who Reconciled G.O.P. to Oust Nixon, Dies at 87, N.Y. Times (Jan. 22, 2020); McCann, Thomas Railsback, Illinois Republican who helped write impeachment articles against Nixon, dies at 87, Wash. Post (Jan. 22, 2020);  Simon, Remembering a Congressman Who Bucked His Party On An Impeachment, npr (Jan. 25, 2020); Wylie, Railsback: Penal Reform, [Grinnell College] Scarlet & Black at 2 (Oct. 26, 1972); Hon. Thomas F. Railsback, Wikipedia Biography; Tom Railsback, Wikipedia.

[2] Railsback, Impeachment: the Call for Objectivity, [Grinnell College] Scarlet & Black at 2 (Feb. 8, 1974); Railsback, Impeachment: The Public Reacts, [Grinnell College] Scarlet & Black at 6 (Mar. 22, 1974); Shaub, Impeachment Forum to Air Diverse Views, [Grinnell College] Scarlet & Black at 3 (April 19, 1974); Weil, Panel Ponders Constitutional Complexities, [Grinnell College] Scarlet & Black at 2 (May 3, 1974); Weil, Mezvinsky, Railsback Assess Impeachment Procedures, [Grinnell College] Scarlet & Black at 3 (May 3, 1974).

[3] Lyons & Chapman, Judiciary Committee Approves Article to Impeach President Nixon, 27 to 11, Wash. Post (July 28, 1974); Ephron, Rising To the Occasion: A Case Study, New York Mag. (Aug. 19, 1974) Flander, To Impeach Or Not? Two Who Must Decide, Wash. Star News (July 21, 1974); The Vote to Impeach, Time (Aug. 5, 1974); Luo What House Republicans Can Learn from the Bipartisan Effort To Impeach Nixon, New Yorker (Nov. 7, 2019).

[4] Railsback received his B.A. degree from Grinnell College in 1954 and his law degree from Northwestern University in 1957, after which he served in the U.S. Army. Subsequently Grinnell awarded him an honorary Doctor of Laws degree for his service in the Nixon impeachment proceedings and for “his contributions in the fields of civil rights, anti-crime legislation, and prison reform. He has also worked energetically and effectively on behalf of Grinnell College as a member of the college’s Advisory Council, as vice-president and president of the Alumni Association, and as a successful volunteer fund-raiser. Named an Outstanding Young Man of America in 1968, he was one of 200 young men and women cited in the July 22, 1973, issue of Time Magazine as most likely to provide leadership for the country in the decades ahead.” (Grinnell College, Commencement Program (May 18, 1976).)

[5] Kathryn Railsback, Senators confronting impeachment can learn from my father’s example in Watergate, Wash. Post (Jan. 28, 2020)  Ms. Railsback is an immigration attorney in Boise, Idaho and a Lecturer at the Idaho College of Law.