Sunday, February 12, 2006

Once upon a time...

On July 25, 1974, Barbara Jordan launched herself into the history books and into the forefront of American politics with her opening statement as a member of the House Judiciary Committee considering articles of impeachment against President Richard Nixon. It is worth remembering that Nixon, in 1972, won the Presidency for a second time by a landslide that only excluded the state of Massachusetts; and that Jordan was a freshman Representative from Texas, and a protege of LBJ.

Here are a few excerpts from her complete speech:

Mr. Chairman, I join my colleague Mr. Rangel in thanking you for giving the junior members of this committee the glorious opportunity of sharing the pain of this inquiry. Mr. Chairman, you are a strong man, and it has not been easy but we have tried as best we can to give you as much assistance as possible.

Earlier today we heard the beginning of the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States, "We, the people". It is a very eloquent beginning. But when that document was completed, on the seventeenth of September in 1787, I was not included in that "We, the people". I felt somehow for many years that George Washington and Alexander Hamilton just left me out by mistake. But through the process of amendment, interpretation, and court decision I have finally been included in "We, the people".

Today I am an inquisitor. I believe hyperbole would not be fictional and would not overstate the solemnness that I feel right now. My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total. I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution.

"Who can so properly be the inquisitors for the nation as the representatives of the nation themselves?" (Federalist, no. 65). The subject of its jurisdiction are those offenses which proceed from the misconduct of public men." That is what we are talking about. In other words, the jurisdiction comes from the abuse of violation of some public trust.
The entire speech is worth reading, but it is the conclusion that rings like a bell:

James Madison again at the Constitutional Convention: "A president is impeachable if he attempts to subvert the Constitution."

The Constitution charges the president with the task of taking care that the laws be faithfully executed, and yet the president has counseled his aides to commit perjury, willfully disregarded the secrecy of grand jury proceedings, concealed surreptitious entry, attempted to compromise a federal judge while publicly displaying his cooperation with the processes of criminal justice.

"A president is impeachable if he attempts to subvert the Constitution."

If the impeachment provision in the Constitution of the United States will not reach the offenses charged here, then perhaps that eighteenth century Constitution should be abandoned to a twentieth-century paper shredder. Has the president committed offenses and planned and directed and acquiesced in a course of conduct which the Constitution will not tolerate? That is the question. We know that. We know the question. We should now forthwith proceed to answer the question. It is reason, and not passion, which must guide our deliberations, guide our debate, and guide our decision."
I heard a portion of the KUT-Austin documentary on Barbara Jordan, and it put this speech in context. The language, though, could be repeated today. The question then, is the question now. And the rebuke to timid Democrats and tremulous political advisors, is in Ms. Jordan's history. A freshman representative at the time she spoke, she was hailed as a star and treated as an icon, following this speech. Billboards went up in Houston proclaiming "Thank you, Barbara Jordan, for explaining our Constitution to us." Two years later, at the Democratic National Convention, her keynote address rallied the Convention, and a movement to draft her as a VP candidate swept the floor.

And two weeks after her speech, Richard Nixon resigned.

Let that be a lesson to us all.

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