THE BLOG
08/06/2014 01:56 pm ET Updated Oct 06, 2014

RIP M. Caldewell Butler: A Man for Seasons Past

M. Caldwell Butler, a five-term Virginia congressman in the 1970s, died recently, aged 89. He is noted for his vote to impeach Richard M Nixon in 1974, despite his Republican affiliation. They don't make them kind no more.

Butler was a first term congressman, and a member of the House Judiciary Committee, elected in 1972. He was a well-known Virginia Republican conservative, coming from a district with deep Republican roots, one that had significant opposition to the Civil War. Butler had won 55 percent of the vote in the 1972 election, while President Richard M. Nixon garnered 75 percent in his re-election bid.

Timing is everything for Butler arrived in Congress to serve on the Judiciary Committee as it assembled for the Nixon Impeachment Inquiry. Butler seemed to offer a reliable vote in behalf of the president. He opposed an extension of the Voting Rights Act, contending that Virginia no longer required federal oversight, a position later vindicated by the John Roberts Court in 2013. But in those days, we exercised more caution in labeling politicians as liberal or conservative. Butler later supported legislation providing access to legal services for the poor and a woman's right to abortion. Imagine that today. In an interview as he was leaving Congress in 1982, Butler said he supported such measures "not because I'm a liberal, moderate, or conservative, but because I am a lawyer." Spoken as a direct descendant of the great Chief Justice, John Marshall.

Much to their consternation, a Judiciary Committee group of three southern Democrats and four Republicans came to be known as the "fragile coalition," but none of them considered their coalition very fragile. In fact, they were strongly bonded by a realization of Nixon's wrongdoing and their determination to rise above narrow partisan interest. The ranking Republican, suspecting some of his party might waver and defect, expressed both anger and amazement that any Republican could vote for impeachment. A year of revelations apparently had not touched him at all. Most strikingly, the seven came from districts which gave Nixon from 62 percent to 80 percent of the vote in 1972.

Butler had predicted in March 1973 that there would be" an explosion" in Republican ranks. Later when he recalled that he had decided to vote regardless of the political consequences, he remarked "the job's not that good anyway." Richard Cates, the Democrats' associate counsel, was an extraordinary lawyer and several Republican congressmen credit him for "making the case," "the facts man," one of the Southerners called him. Butler affectionately recalled Cates, and readily acknowledged Cates' decisive briefings, particularly when compared to the limp case raised by Nixon's lawyer, James St. Clair.

Equally important, Butler said he was shocked by the close-minded, abusive approach of Republican partisans on the committee. Butler refused Republicans-only White House invitations for special briefings. Later, he admitted that he never really liked Nixon. He considered him "cold-blooded"; for him, the tapes revealed the "accumulative effect of the [lack of] Nixon's credibility"; they also displayed Nixon as the "man in charge."

Nixon's guilt to some extent centered on whether he or his agents had the responsibility for various actions. Butler considered it important to link the president as he did to "approving, condoning, and acquiescence" in unlawful activities. If Butler in his later years ever heard the subsequently-released "abuse of power" tapes, any doubts he and his colleagues had of Nixon's responsibility for the cover-up would have been easily dispelled.

As the committee prepared to vote, Butler's dismay with Nixon and his disgust with the Republicans 'narrow obstructive partisanship," burst forth in a wave of passion and anger that belied his usual calm. Knowing he had to confront his skeptical constituents and his fellow Republicans, Butler said that Watergate "is our shame," a scandal for the party that had so often campaigned against corruption and government misconduct. "We cannot indulge ourselves in the luxury of patronizing or excusing the misconduct of our own people."

Butler sharply rejected any analogy that impeachment should be equated to a criminal trial and the Republican rationalization of the relativism of corruption. For him, such standards were "frightening," for in effect they left unpunished presidential conduct designed to serve the processes he had sworn to uphold. The evidence was "clear, direct, and convincing," to borrow the president's lawyers words, that Nixon had abused power and engaged in a "pattern of misrepresentation and half-truths" to explain his conduct, a policy, Butler concluded, "cynically based on the premise that the truth itself is negotiable."

His concluding speech over, Butler near tears, his passion spent, quietly announced he would support impeachment, but "there will be no joy in it for me."

In 1968, Richard Nixon had pledged to "to bring the nation together," but five years later, he did so in an unanticipated way when he brought together an incredibly diverse group of congressmen who voted to impeach him -- and with overwhelming popular support. Butler's mother warned him that partisan disloyalty would be costly. Butler agreed, but insisted that party loyalty did not "relieve me of the obligation which I have."

Elephants have long memories. Virginia conservatives blocked Butler's gubernatorial bid when he left his congressional seat. Then, in 1989, President George H.W. Bush bowed to conservative pressure and dropped Butler's proposed appointment to chair the Legal Services Corporation, which provides assistance for poor people. Watergate "payback" never seems to end.

We forget that Watergate was a bipartisan affair, accustomed as we are now to reflexive partisan warfare. The Andrew Johnson and William J. Clinton impeachments proceeded on straight party line votes. And they were doomed. Richard Nixon clearly saw the handwriting on the wall when the Judiciary Committee voted 27-11 for the first article (of three) of impeachment, including six Republican votes. Within two weeks, the president resigned rather than face a certain vote for impeachment by the full house.

M. Caldwell Butler perhaps now may be an obscure figure. But in his moment, he well understood the nature of his task and he rose to the occasion. That he and some colleagues defied party obligations and voted to impeach the president is an event worth remembering in these corrosive, destructive partisan times. History will be on his side.

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Stanley Kutler is the author of the Wars of Watergate and the forthcoming play," I, Nixon." His successful lawsuit against the former President and the National Archives opened and made accessible the Nixon tapes.