During the summer 45 years ago, a congressman from Virginia’s Sixth Congressional District stunned the nation. In July 1974, Rep. M. Caldwell Butler declared President Richard Nixon a liar and an obstructer and said it was the duty of Republicans to impeach him.
Most others in the GOP took a road more traveled and stuck by the scandal-stained Nixon. But the freshman Republican from Roanoke broke party ranks and rose above partisan hackdom to the status of statesman.
An Eagle Scout and ex-law partner of then-Gov. Linwood Holton, Butler did it with a speech he typed himself, in all capital letters, working alone in his office.
In a letter, his own mother had warned it would spell Butler’s political doom. He replied in writing, “Dear Mother, you are probably right. However, I feel that my loyalty to the Republican Party does not relieve me of the obligation which I have.”
Butler later acknowledged he wept after voting for articles of impeachment. But his mother’s political calculation was wrongheaded.
In November 1974, as lingering voter anger led to defeats of many congressional Republicans who had supported Nixon, Butler swamped his Democratic opponent by an 18-point margin. In 1976 he won by 24 points. Nobody even challenged him in the 1978 and 1980 elections.
Butler’s speech remains famous. Obituaries published across America when he died in 2014, at age 89, cited it as evidence Butler was “free from politics.” That’s the kind of thing you hear voters wishing for amid today’s Washington gridlock.
It’s also a lesson worth remembering because we’re a week and a day out from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s testimony before the current House Judiciary Committee about the Trump-Russia investigation.
So here’s the guts of what Butler said back then, with redactions for the sake of space and continuity:
“For years we Republicans have campaigned against corruption and misconduct in the administration of the government of the United States by the other party. Indeed in my first political experience in 1952, Trumanism was the vehicle that carried Dwight D. Eisenhower to the White House. And, somehow or other, we have found the circumstances to bring that issue before the American people in every national campaign.
“But Watergate is our shame. Those things happened in the Republican administration while we had a Republican in the White House and every single person convicted to date has one way or the other owed allegiance to the Republican Party.
“We cannot indulge ourselves the luxury of patronizing or excusing the misconduct of our own people. These things have happened in our house and it is our responsibility to do what we can to clear it up. It is we, not the Democrats, who must demonstrate that we are capable of enforcing the high standards we would set for them.
“I agree with the sentiments often expressed today and yesterday that the Congress of the United States and each member is indeed being tested at this moment, but the American people may also reasonably inquire of the Republican Party, ‘Do you really mean what you have said?’
“My colleague, the gentleman from California, [Rep. Charles] Wiggins [R-California], in his very able opening remarks of this morning, reminds us once more that we must measure the conduct of the president of the United States against the standards imposed by law, in which he is eminently correct.
“I would like to share with you for a moment some observations I have with reference to these standards.
“Impeachment and trial in the Senate is the process by which we determine whether or not the president of the United States has measured up to the standards of conduct which the American people are reasonably entitled to expect of him. The conduct which the American people are reasonably entitled to expect of the president of the United States is spelled out in part in our Constitution and in part in our statutes. …
“It is my judgment also that the standard of conduct which the American people are reasonably entitled to expect of their president is established in part by experience and precedent. That is one reason why I am so concerned by what has been revealed to us by our investigation.
“It will be remembered that only a few hours ago the gentleman from Iowa, [Rep. Wiley] Mayne [R-Iowa], has argued that we should not impeach because of comparable misconduct in previous administrations.
“There are frightening implications for the future of our country if we do not impeach the president of the United States. Because we will, by this impeachment proceeding, be establishing a standard of conduct for the president of the United States which will for all time be a matter of public record.
“If we fail to impeach, we have condoned and left unpunished a course of conduct totally inconsistent with the reasonable expectations of the American people; we will have condoned and left unpunished a presidential course of conduct designed to interfere with and obstruct the very process which he is sworn to uphold; and we will have condoned and left unpunished an abuse of power totally without justification.
“And we will have said to the American people: ‘These misdeeds are inconsequential and unimportant.’ …
“The people of the United States are entitled to assume that their president is telling the truth. The pattern of misrepresentation and half-truths that emerges from our investigation reveals a presidential policy cynically based on the premise that the truth itself is negotiable.”
One can’t read those remarks without drawing the conclusion Butler believed that, for a president of the United States, lying and obstruction were absolute disqualifiers.
And, as we all know, on Aug. 9, 1974, Nixon became the first president ever to resign from office rather than face impeachment in the House, and a conviction in the U.S. Senate.
There are certain parallels to today and President Trump’s actions, the Trump-Russia investigation, the Mueller Report and the hearings before the House Judiciary Committee next week.
There was no definitive evidence in 1974 that Nixon knew in advance of the Watergate break-in. All of his crimes occurred in its aftermath, as he sought to obstruct that investigation.
The same thing appears to be true with Trump-Russia. Mueller himself has said his investigation uncovered no hard evidence the president or his campaign conspired with Russia to help Trump’s 2016 election.
Pointedly, however, Mueller also declared his report in no way exonerates Trump of obstructing that probe. There’s a pattern of evidence suggesting the president did.
Here’s another parallel: The Sixth Congressional District is currently represented by another freshman Republican who sits on the Judiciary Committee.
For that reason, many eyes will be on U.S. Rep. Ben Cline, R-Rockbridge, next week.
We may find out then whether Cline believes — as Butler did — that truth and honor trump party label and political expediency.
Or maybe not.