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Caldwell Butler’s Watergate Wisdom

On July 27, 1974 the members of the House Judiciary Committee voted on the first article of impeachment against Richard Nixon.  One of the “ayes” was called out by Roanoke’s Caldwell Butler, U. S. Representative for Virginia’s 6thDistrict.

Butler was elected to the House of Representatives in 1972 when Nixon won his landslide reelection.  He escorted Nixon on a campaign swing across the Old Dominion and welcomed the president’s support in his run for Congress.  In state politics, Butler had worked against the corruption of the Byrd organization and for the revival of competitive two-party elections in Virginia.  He was a loyal Republican.

He was also a junior member of the House Judiciary Committee which was charged with judging Richard Nixon’s conduct in the Watergate scandals.  On that matter, Butler was slow to reach a final judgment. Together with three other undecided Republicans on the committee, and three conservative Southern Democrats, Butler played a pivotal part in sealing Nixon’s fate.

With the crucial votes approaching, the uncommitted members of the committee began to meet privately in “hideaway” offices to discuss impeachment.  The New York Timescalled them “The Unholy Alliance.”  Others referred to them as “the Magnificent Seven” or the “Fragile Coalition.”  Working behind the scenes and out of the spotlight, they drafted the first article of impeachment—the one that dealt with obstruction of justice—and then cast decisive votes in the impeachment deliberations.

In a 1987 speech delivered at Washington and Lee University, Butler listed some lessons he learned from his Watergate experiences.

First, a small number of legislators can make a big difference.  In 1974, the expectation was that partisanship would prevail—Democrats would vote to impeach Richard Nixon; Republicans would not.  The crossover of a few Republicans on the Judiciary Committee gave legitimacy to a process vulnerable to the complaint that Watergate was just a partisan witch hunt.  You didn’t need political courage from the whole Republican Party; a handful of its members sufficed.

Second, the medium for impeachment evidence makes a difference.  When the Judiciary Committee had only transcripts of White House conversations about obstruction of justice, Butler was not convinced that the president was guilty.  It was only later, when the secretly recorded audio tapes were released and Butler heard the tone and timber of Nixon’s voice, that he was sure the president had ordered his subordinates to coverup a crime.

Third, direct declarative statements are better than complicated legal language for explanations of impeachment.  The members of the Fragile Coalition were harshly criticized by Nixon supporters for their proposed article of impeachment.  Their draft was short and simple; it lacked detail, nuance and careful reference to the committee’s collected evidence.

Butler and his colleagues took that criticism to heart and almost abandoned their cooperative project. Then they remembered that the audience in impeachment deliberations is the average American, not a legal tribunal. The public doesn’t have time for hundreds of pages of argument; they need concise conclusions.  The Fragile Coalition stuck together and stuck to their wording.  The Nixon articles of impeachment remained brief and plainly stated.

Fourth, though the standards for impeachment have often been seen as vague, Butler believed they were fairly straightforward.  An impeachable offense, he argued, could be either a violation of law or a violation of the Constitution, but the ultimate standard was “the reasonable expectations of the American people.”   Members of Congress contemplating impeachment should ask themselves whether proven presidential conduct goes beyond what most Americans can accept from their chief executive.  In Nixon’s case, Butler said, it was not a close call.

Finally, impeachment is meant to be rare and invoked only as a last resort.  In Butler’s speech at Washington and Lee, he quoted the 19thcentury British commentator on American politics, Lord Bryce:

“Impeachment is the heaviest piece of artillery in the Congressional arsenal.  Because it is so heavy, it is unfit for ordinary use.  It is like a 100-ton gun which needs complex machinery to bring it into position, an enormous charge of powder to fire it, and a large mark to aim at.”

In 1974, Caldwell Butler may have felt like he was pushing a 100-ton gun into position.  As he looked back on his experience, he conceded that it wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t fun.  But it was critically important that those engaged in the hard work were members of more than one political party.

Whatever we may believe about impeachment today, we would all do well to revisit the thoughtful observations of the representative from western Virginia who diligently did his duty in the only impeachment process that ever ended a presidency.


This essay was published in the

This essay was published in the Roanoke Times on July 22, 2019


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