I was a college student almost forty years ago when the U.S. House Judiciary Committee voted to impeach President Richard Nixon. I watched those proceedings and hung on every word.
Many, perhaps even most people did. I remember crowds clustered around television sets in department stores at particularly dramatic points in the testimony. When the members finally voted to recommend impeachment, many of them did in voices breaking with emotion. They knew this was an almost unimaginably huge step.
The congressmen knew that only one other President had been impeached in history – Andrew Johnson, more than a century before. They also knew that history had judged very harshly those congressmen and senators who supported removing that president, and praised those who managed to stop his conviction.
Impeachment, those congressmen knew, was the nuclear option in American constitutional democracy. In the end, President Nixon resigned before he could be impeached, convicted, and removed from office, as he surely would have been.
I thought that would be the only attempt at impeaching a president I would ever see, and I was, of course, wrong. Twenty-five years later, the house actually impeached President Clinton for what really amounted to lying about sex. The senate never came close to convicting him, and the entire episode was seen as low farce.