We all walk in the footsteps of those who came before us. We acknowledge this colloquially when we talk about someone having “big shoes to fill” when they take on a position held by someone previously considered a giant in their field.
This phrase seems uniquely applicable to whomever holds the 6th District seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, because that occupant will forever— at least in the memory of those living— be measured against the service of the late U.S. Rep. Caldwell Butler, a Republican from Roanoke.
Butler, of course, is remembered for his willingness to risk his political career to vote for the impeachment of President Richard Nixon in 1974. What fewer remember — but should — is Butler’s comportment in the months leading up to that fateful vote. It is that example we examine today, and commend not just to the current 6th District congressman —Ben Cline, R-Botetourt County — but also to Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, in the 9th and Denver Riggleman, R-Nelson County in the 5th. While Cline now sits in Butler’s seat — including on the House Judiciary Committee where Butler served — Griffith and Riggleman now represent parts of what constituted Butler’s district at the time. In a way, they are all his successors and would do well to study his example. So would their Democratic colleagues in Congress.
We all know about Butler’s eventual vote, but we looked back through our archives to see how Butler conducted himself beforehand. What we found may surprise readers today. “He refuses to answer questions on the president’s involvement and how his view of the president has changed, if at all,” The Roanoke Times reported at the time. Butler certainly didn’t engage in any silly stunts designed to make headlines. Instead, he studiously avoided saying much of anything as the impeachment inquiry was underway, apparently believing the republic was best served by quiet deliberation and not partisan histrionics.
Keep in mind that, politically, Butler was very much a pro-Nixon congressman. In the 1972 election, the 6th District had voted more strongly for Nixon (72.7%) than any other congressional district in the state. And Congressional Quarterly found that on key votes, Butler backed Nixon 80% of the time — more often than any other Virginia representative at the time. Butler also was very much a skeptic of impeachment. However, he also felt his constitutional duty required him to take things seriously. Through the inquiry, Butler consistently voted in favor of issuing subpoenas for more documents from the White House — something other Republicans at the time were usually against. The first time the House Judiciary Committee voted to subpoena the White House, Butler was the only Republican to vote in favor. Another time he surprised Democrats and Republicans alike by proposing language that would strengthen a particular subpoena.
Butler told The Roanoke Times: “My feeling has always been that extensive investigation is in the best interest of the innocent.” And at the time, he apparently believed Nixon was innocent. Yet he also warned the White House that defying the subpoenas “runs the risk of a confrontation with the Congress. And that can of itself be an impeachable offense.” This was in line with the view that Congress is a co-equal branch of government which the founders expected to act independently of the executive.
Journalists at the time were keen to get Butler to say something, anything. That year — 1974 — was an election year. Would Butler like Nixon to campaign for him?, he was asked. The otherwise partisan Butler was so committed to appearing non-partisan that he gave a surprising answer: “That question doesn’t bother me a bit. Anybody that has the president of the United States to come campaign for him has a real plus for him and I’d welcome him to my district.” Then Butler added: “But having said that, I do think it would be inappropriate for a member of the Judiciary Committee to ask him. So for that reason, I would not invite him.” Butler took a legalistic view — that he should recuse himself politically while the inquiry was underway. As spring 1974 wore on, Butler sometimes criticized Democrats for how they ran the committee — but also criticized Nixon for not being more forthcoming. He said he was “disappointed the White House is taking a hard line” against releasing information, saying it was the duty of Congress “to ferret out the facts.”
When the committee privately listened to some of Nixon’s infamous tapes, Butler pointedly refused to say what he thought. “I just don’t think I better comment on the substantive nature of the proceedings,” he said. Journalists at the time (and perhaps others) certainly wanted him to comment, but Butler — despite his pro-Nixon voting record — took the view that he was an independent investigator who did not want to tarnish that work with partisan politics. “I certainly haven’t formed an opinion,” he said in early June 1974. “And I can truthfully say my original resolve to reserve judgement until all the evidence was in was sound.”
Butler did offer one opinion, though. That summer, he stood before a Republican convention that nominated him for reelection and declared that “I cannot hide my disappointment at the failure of the president to accept the challenges of the Watergate disclosures by a prompt release of required information and total cooperation in all prosecution.” He also was apparently cheered by fellow Republicans. “My loyalty to the president does not require me to condone this action,” Butler said, “but you may be assured it does not color my judgment of the substantive determination we are called upon to make.” The state legislator who delivered Butler’s nomination speech — Pete Giesen of Augusta County — praised Butler as “a man who has the wisdom to ask the right questions.” He was cheered, too.
Eventually, of course, Butler came to his famous conclusion and that may be the subject for another day. For now, though, it’s Butler’s conduct before he reached that conclusion that seems most instructive (and would be exemplary even if he had voted the other way). You can argue, of course, that the times today are different than the times then, and you certainly wouldn’t be wrong. That, though, is an explanation, not an excuse.
Instead, we pose this question: Would we be better off if we had more members of Congress today willing to act the way Butler did in 1974 — calm, dispassionate, focused on trying to “ferret out the facts,” even if they wind up being detrimental to their particular party? Ideally, that question answers itself.