SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
M. Caldwell Butler died this week at the age of 89 just a few days short of another anniversary of the event that etched his name into history. Mr. Butler was a first-term representative from Virginia in 1974, serving on the House Judiciary Committee that was spending a steamy summer under scorching TV lights to consider the impeachment of President Richard Nixon.
Caldwell Butler was from a proud old Virginia family. He admired Chief Justice John Marshall, of who he was a descendent, Robert E. Lee and Richard M. Nixon. But testimony mounted during the summer of 1974, often called Watergate Summer, talk of burglars, bribes and bags of cash, dirty tricks and secret tapes. Caldwell Butler was part of a group of seven Republicans and three conservative, southern Democrats on the committee who began to meet behind closed doors. Mr. Butler felt he owed his election to Richard Nixon's landslide victory in 1972 and admired his opening of relations with China. But he was aghast at the Richard Nixon he heard scheming and swearing on the White House tapes.
Under the hot lights of the hearing room, Caldwell Butler declared for years we Republicans have campaigned against corruption and misconduct by the other party, but Watergate is our shame. Two days later, 40 years ago this week, members of both parties and the House Judiciary Committee voted 27 to 11 to impeach President Nixon. He could see he'd lost support and resigned a couple of weeks later. Mr. Butler got nasty mail and a few threats, but said his harshest scolding came from his mother. You're probably right, he wrote back to her, however, I feel that my loyalty to the Republican Party does not relieve me of the obligation which I have.
This week, we reached Tom Railsback, a retired Illinois Republican Congressman who was part of Caldwell Butler's bipartisan band that reached across the aisle. I thought Richard Nixon was a fine president, Mr. Railsback told us, did great things. And I think some Democratic presidents have done the same kind of bad things. But we had evidence on Nixon and couldn't ignore it.
Tom Railsback says he's puzzled about the scarcity of bipartisanship today. He believes American politics has really thin more essential or admired than during the Watergate scandal when a group of people from both parties put partisanship aside. Watergate showed us politics can work, he told us, the answers are in the Constitution. We did the right thing, and the system worked.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.