Rep. Rashida Tlaib’s obscene outburst and President Trump’s paroxysms of vulgarity are reminders that more than just 40 years have passed since the House Judiciary Committee recommended the impeachment of President Richard Nixon. During the intervening time, our politics and language have become more tribal and acrid. America struggles to find a common narrative, and keeps coming up short.
Back then, the country had resoundingly reelected Nixon to a second term, and then got behind his impeachment. The pivot was organic. Nixon’s final days were marked by Gerald Ford, Nixon’s vice-president, playing golf with Tip O’Neill, the Democratic House majority leader. And no, it wasn’t just about the cameras.
Meanwhile, the Judiciary Committee recognized the gravity and solemnity of the task before it, and acted and spoke accordingly. Peter Rodino, the committee’s chairman, invoked Thomas Paine, and quoted the author of Common Sense on the House floor:
“‘Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigue of supporting it.’ For almost 200 years Americans have undergone the stress of preserving their freedom, and the Constitution that protects it. It is now our turn.’’
After the committee voted, Rodino went to his office and cried.
Like Rodino, Barbara Jordan framed her position in the context of history as she intoned before an anxious committee and nation: “My faith in the Constitution is whole; it is complete; it is total.”
While Tlaib may have been giving voice to her inner Trump, her words were cacophonous even as the newly elected congresswoman delighted partisans on both sides of the aisle, including the president. Without paying mind to all the times that he had soiled the dignity of the Oval Office, Trump announced that Tlaib had “dishonored herself and her family.”
Move over Nancy Pelosi and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The GOP just found itself a brand new target, one who lacks the speaker’s poise and AOC’s dance moves.
To be sure, not all Democrats were smiling. Rep. Jerrold Nadler condemned Tlaib’s take as both offensive and premature. As he put it, “I don't really like that kind of language. But more to the point, I disagree with what she said. It is too early to talk about that intelligently. We have to follow the facts.” Or at least wait for Robert Mueller’s report.
As the Judiciary Committee’s new chair, it will be Nadler who will shoulder the burden once shared by the late Rodino. Tlaib did Nadler no favors.
Nixon’s impeachment shared the virtue of transcending party and region. Indeed, it was a living history and civics lesson. House Republicans demonstrated the capacity to vote with House Democrats, including Larry Hogan, the father of Maryland’s incumbent governor. Southern Democrats managed to find common ground with the likes of Hamilton Fish, a New York Republican, whose namesake served as Ulysses S. Grant’s Secretary of State.
That world is gone. Instead, we can expect Republicans to rally around a president for whom loyalty is a one-way street, and whose fidelity to the Constitution is limited at best. As for the Democrats, Tlaib’s mf-bomb may be the first of many.
As the poem goes, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”