Agnew v. Cheney – How Did the Good Guys Finally Win?

By David Swanson

Nailing Dick Cheney for tax evasion would be like nailing Al Capone for tax evasion. But the last time a U.S. president faced a strong movement for impeachment for actual impeachable offenses, one of the major road blocks was fear that an unpopular vice president would take his place, and this road block was removed when Spiro Agnew resigned in the face of criminal charges of cheating on his taxes.

As every American is aware, including even those who have never heard of impeachment, the primary problem with impeaching Bush is the horror of a president Cheney. For a long time I tried to explain to people that this was stupid. Cheney is already running the show. Cheney up front as the face of the White House would destroy the Republican Party for 50 years. An impeachment of Bush would incriminate Cheney and you’d impeach or indict him too. Impeachment is about placing the executive branch under the rule of law before 2009, not about the trivial matter of what individual holds what office for a year or so. A President Cheney with a Congress that impeaches people would be better than King George with Congress acting as court jesters. Impeachment and removal from office are two different things. Et cetera. It doesn’t matter how many reasons you provide, the American public will never support impeachment of Bush as long as Cheney is vice president. It’s a complete waste of breath to even talk about it.

I say this even though a majority probably backs Bush’s impeachment in theory and would certainly do so if Cheney were facing impeachment and well on his way to removal from office. It’s actually impeaching and removing Bush without Cheney that will not fly.

Given the crimes of Dick Cheney (collected at ), the obvious question is why he hasn’t – like Agnew – been dragged into court. Not to be a nattering nabob of negativism, but Cheney makes Agnew look like a bumbling boy scout of blither. Of course, prosecutors who charge Republicans with crimes tend to be fired these days, but citizens ought to be suing Cheney every week in this nation and internationally. Whether that ever happens or not, impeaching Bush can also be achieved by impeaching Cheney first, and articles of impeachment to do that (H. Res. 333) are slowly gathering cosponsors.

I recently read a book by Jimmy Breslin about the impeachment of Richard Nixon called “How the Good Guys Finally Won.” The book is a hagiographic account of then Majority Leader Tip O’Neill’s role in pushing the impeachment of Nixon through the Congress. While we all know that the impeachment of Bill Clinton was rammed through Congress against the will of the people by the House Republican leadership, it’s perhaps less known how the House Democratic leadership pushed for the impeachment of Nixon. The current Majority Leader Steny Hoyer is, like O’Neill, willing to push his party in his own direction, even one the Speaker of the House opposes. The trouble is that, in Hoyer’s case, it’s a right-wing direction in support of the Republican Party. But the members of Congress who moved to impeach Nixon, including the leadership, moved in response to public pressure. And John Conyers, as chair of the Judiciary Committee, is better prepared for it than Peter Rodino was.

Breslin’s book removes activism from the picture and falsely claims that there were no activist rallies or demonstrations demanding Nixon’s impeachment. (There were demonstrations in front of the Capitol with something we seem to have lost along the way: nude streakers.) Breslin sees history as shaped by a few great men. But his book provides some tips and warnings to us, despite its author’s views. When Congressman Robert Drinan first introduced articles of impeachment against Nixon, his party leadership was against it. In Breslin’s account, they wanted to wait until momentum had built, in order to avoid badly losing a vote on the House floor, which they thought would set impeachment back. So, rather comically, the Speaker, the Majority Leader, and the Whip took turns guarding the House floor at all times in order to be ready to table Drinan’s bill should the Republicans call for a vote on it. They did this up until O’Neill asked Minority Leader Jerry Ford if the Republicans planed to ask for a vote, and Ford replied of course not. The Republicans wanted silence on impeachment, not votes on it. And Drinan’s effort helped move the issue forward, just as Congressman Dennis Kucinich’s bill is doing today.

Another thing that helped move impeachment forward against Nixon was the ACLU asking the House to proceed. Of course, today’s ACLU is not the same organization. Today the ACLU favors banning torture again and again and again, each time pretending that Bush hasn’t erased the new law with a “signing statement.” But the Center for Constitutional Rights, the National Lawyers Guild, and a huge coalition of organizations ( ) has called for impeachment, and who can say the ACLU won’t come around once impeachment appears likely?

It also helped that Rodino issued a 718-page report on impeachment. Conyers is out ahead on this front. He should simply attach his own 350-page report ( ) to Rodino’s, call it a thousand-page guide to impeachment, and deliver it to every congress member and senator. Nixon’s goons went after Rodino and tried to tie him to the mafia. Bush’s have already gone after Conyers and tried to claim he once had interns who misplaced some turkeys or something. Again, Conyers is better prepared than Rodino ever was. Conyers just doesn’t have Tip O’Neill pestering him to move.

An early vote by Rodino’s Judiciary Committee authorized him to subpoena any agent of the government and that person’s papers, public or private. It’s about time Conyers was given that same authority. With the Bush Administration rejecting subpoenas, it would largely be for symbolic purposes anyway. When Rodino was given that authority, almost all of Congress and even the public considered impeachment unlikely if not impossible.

Rodino hired John Doar as special counsel to work on the impeachment, intentionally choosing a well known and respected Republican. Then the House voted to give the Judiciary Committee a million dollars to spend on an investigation. The vote was 367-51. There were Republicans who saw no harm in an investigation, who thought impeachment wouldn’t get anywhere, who thought Nixon was innocent, but who thought Congress had a role to play in our system of government and a responsibility to fill out that role. They also were feeling pressure from their constituents to do their jobs in this matter.

Today the public pressure is there as well. But Bush and Cheney’s guilt is public knowledge. There’s no question of an investigation not finding anything, because nothing needs to be found. The suspects have openly confessed to violating laws on spying, torture, and a variety of other matters. Some of their crimes, such as the spying, have been ruled felonies in federal court. And as to the matter of disobeying subpoenas, something for which Nixon was nearly impeached, the current gang is doing that almost daily, and Conyers introduced bills to censure them for it a year and a half ago. So, we’re ahead of schedule in some ways and behind in others, but it would be helpful for the House to vote a fund for an “investigation,” because it would be part of the proper narrative. As Breslin stresses, facts and laws matter less than appearances.

It would also make sense for Conyers to hire a special counsel. Doar found that when he looked closely at the information available on Nixon, nothing more was needed to prove his guilt. With regard to Bush and Cheney, Conyers already knows this. But who knows what an intense examination of the facts could turn up in the way of superfluous evidence? And the evidence isn’t the point. The point is political plausibility.

As soon as impeachment appeared at all plausible against Nixon, public pressure for impeachment – even in Breslin’s account – became intense, and Congress reacted to it. What helped tremendously was polling. The trick today is persuading the polling companies to do the polls, even for money. An honest national poll on public support for impeaching Cheney would dramatically help make that impeachment actually happen. And if there is a respected polling company that will do such a poll, even for pay, the impeachment movement will fund it. There’s nothing more useful local groups can do than commission state or district polls. In the meantime, Congress needs to be made aware of the polling that exists so far ( ). We’re up against a much less democratic media these 30 years later. Then, supporters of Reverend Sun Myung Moon demonstrated against impeachment. Now, they write for the Washington Times. But we have the internet, and the 1970s didn’t.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi has threatened to take Bush to court if he uses a signing statement to undo portions of a war funding bill. It’s possible she’ll do so with other bills as well. Congress took Nixon to court for refusing to hand over audio tapes. In that case, a Supreme Court that could have been expected to back Nixon instead obeyed pressure from the public and the Congress. In Breslin’s account, however, Nixon would have been impeached whatever way the court ruled. The important thing was that the case was in court.

When the Republicans tried to censure Nixon instead of impeaching him, the Democrats said no. They knew that voters would not be satisfied with anything less than impeachment. That is true again already. Our job is to make Congress aware of it.

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