When impeachment proceedings were started against Richard Nixon by the House Judiciary Committee in February 1974, there weren’t enough votes in the Senate to convict him. It took several months of Special Prosecutor Leon Jaworski fighting with the White House and a Supreme Court decision to get the White House to turn over tapes that implicated Nixon in the Watergate cover-up.
What many members of the House would really like, of course, is for Nixon to resign, taking the House off the hook. That, too, is true on both sides of the aisle, though no House Republican has thus far dared publicly voice the feeling. (On the Senate side, the only Republican to call for resignation so far has been Massachusetts’ Edward Brooke.) Democrat [Representative] Frank Thompson Jr. of New Jersey puts it bluntly: “Most guys hope and pray for a resignation. I can think of 25 Republicans I know who will have to vote for impeachment to save their skins.”
There was concern then about referring the case to the Senate too early, but the decision was made to begin an investigation of grounds for impeachment:
Fully aware that the resolution would carry by a large margin, Republican House leaders made no effort to challenge it. They discouraged amendments because they knew that such attempts, too, would fail and the votes might be interpreted as a test of actual impeachment sentiment-to Nixon’s disadvantage. Thus G.O.P. attempts to set an April 30 cutoff date for the inquiry were opposed by such Republicans as Minority Leader John Rhodes. Also arguing against an arbitrary cutoff, Judiciary Committee Democrat William Hungate of Missouri said wryly: “We must not find ourselves in the position of the sky diver whose chute failed to open and he found he had jumped to a conclusion.”
Summing up the predominant mood of the House, Rodino solemnly and eloquently declared: “Whatever the result, whatever we learn or conclude, let us now proceed, with such care and decency and thoroughness and honor that the vast majority of the American people, and their children after them, will say: That was the right course. There was no other way.”
The ball doesn’t start rolling by itself.