With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

In 1974, one congressman lay awake at night, agonizing over impeachment

The name Walter Flowers has vanished from historical memory. He was a conservative Democrat from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, who served five almost entirely forgettable terms in Congress. He was first elected to the House in 1968 as an ally of George Wallace. He hung a Confederate flag on the wall in his Washington office and pinned an American flag on his lapel and wore red, white, and blue saddle shoes. In 1972, Flowers voted, along with 80 or 90 percent of the white electorate in his district, to reelect Richard Nixon; a vote against Nixon, Flowers later said, would have been considered by his constituents to be a pro-black vote. He lost a Senate race in 1978 and died of a heart attack in 1984, while playing tennis on his 51st birthday. There’s nothing else to say about Flowers—except that, in the summer of 1974, as a member of the House Judiciary Committee, he had to decide whether to impeach President Nixon.

We may think of impeachment as nearly inevitable by that summer, with a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives and the release of numerous volumes of Oval Office transcripts, but the Judiciary Committee’s decision was no sure thing. Conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans held the balance, and they were truly undecided. According to Elizabeth Drew’s gripping Watergate diary, Washington Journal, Flowers spent months agonizing over Watergate, sometimes in her presence. “I don’t intend to run a poll and go by it,” he told the reporter in April. “I think of this as a once-in-a-lifetime proposition. I don’t mean to be melodramatic. I feel I just happened to be in the breach when the gun got loaded with this particular shell. I’m hearing less political talk out of the Congress on this than on anything else. They talk about doing what’s right for the country, and most of the members want that, but they don’t know what that is yet.”

Flowers lay awake at night or found his sleep broken by what seemed “some sordid dream: to impeach the President of the United States, the Chief Executive of our country, our Commander-in-Chief.” He didn’t want to do it. Political reality in his district dictated that he stand with Nixon; so did his own conservative instinct to support the institution of the presidency. But the evidence kept piling up, and Nixon and his lawyers kept making it hard for Flowers: “If they flagrantly disregard a subpoena, I think it would be very bad. If requests have been flagrantly disregarded, I think that the assumption goes against the President.” As for the principle of executive privilege, Flowers said, “Bull.”

It got so bad that a stomach ulcer from his days as a trial lawyer came back.

Read entire article at The Atlantic