George Pyle: In my day, people knew how to impeach a president

(AP file photo) The Senate Watergate Committee hearings take place on Capitol Hill in Washington on Aug. 3, 1973. From left are: Sen. Lowell P. Weicker, Jr; Sen. Edward J. Gurney, Fred Thompson, Sen. Howard H. Baker, Jr; Rufus Edmisten, Sen. Sam Ervin; Sam Dash, Sen. Joseph M. Montoya, Sen. Daniel K. Inouye was absent. Testifying is Lt. Gen. Vernon Walters. In 1973, millions of Americans tuned in to what Variety called "the hottest daytime soap opera" — the Senate Watergate hearings that eventually led to President Richard Nixon's resignation. For multiple reasons, notably a transformed media landscape, there's unlikely to be a similar communal experience when the House impeachment inquiry targeting Donald Trump goes on national television starting Wednesday

I suppose it was just happenstance that the two rounds of congressional hearings digging into the malfeasance of Richard Nixon took place mostly when I was not in school. So, instead of game shows and cartoons, teenage me immersed himself in gavel-to-gavel coverage of the fall of a president.

I was already interested in the news and in national politics, and in those days both of those were consumed by the Watergate scandal and the long, slow decline of Nixon.

At my house, my mother and I spent so much time watching the hearings that we started saying thinks like “I ask unanimous consent that we have ice cream,” or “Will the gentleman yield the remote control?”

When Congress impeached Bill Clinton many years later, I was a grownup with a real job and didn’t have time to wallow in it.

But in the summer of 1973, I was among those riveted to the live broadcasts of the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, aka the Watergate Committee, aka the Ervin Committee. That was the summer of a small panel led by two Southern senators — folksy old North Carolina Democrat Sam Ervin and folksy, younger, cut-to-the-point Tennessee Republican Howard Baker.

If you remember, you probably really remember. John Dean. Secret recordings of Oval Office conversations. “A cancer on the presidency.” “What did the president know and when did he know it?”

Much of the questioning was done by experienced legal counsel, not grandstanding politicians. Republicans were, quite properly, not going to let Nixon be railroaded, but they never seemed adverse to getting to the truth.

It was on the commercial networks live during the day. Replayed in the evenings on PBS, in case you missed it, or had to see it again. That was the genesis of the PBS MacNeil/Lehrer Report, which lives on as the NewsHour. And it was perhaps the largest expression of karma in broadcast history, as the Nixon administration, which had been trying to kill public broadcasting for years, not only saw that service help to bring down the president, but helped make public broadcasting essential going forward.

The next summer, it was the impeachment hearings held by the House Judiciary Committee, New Jersey Democrat Peter Rodino presiding. There was an unavoidable partisan tinge to everything, especially in the beginning.

But as more and more damning information came out — from the Senate investigation, from the courtroom of Judge John Sirica, from The Washington Post, from Nixon’s own staff and, finally, the sound of the president’s own voice — Republicans began to turn.

In late July, the Judiciary Committee adopted three articles of impeachment (and rejected two others). They were drafted by a small group of Republicans and moderate Democrats in search of consensus. Six of the 17 Republicans on the committee supported Article I, alleging obstruction of justice, and seven supported Article II, abuse of power. Only two Republicans voted for Article III, which charged the president with contempt of Congress.

On Aug. 9, before the articles could be approved by the whole House, much less move over to the Senate for trial, Nixon resigned. Enough leading Republicans had leveled with him. The jig was up.

Today, as the nation prepares for more House committee hearings that may result in the impeachment of a president, there are hopes that at least some Republicans in Congress will emulate those of 1973 and 1974. A group called Republicans for the Rule of Law has bought time on Fox News and online for a spot praising Republican members of the Judiciary Committee who, then, put country ahead of party.

It is called “History is Watching.”

Or maybe not.

With the multiplicity of media sources these days, the smokescreen to be laid down by Fox News and right-wing talk radio, the ever-shortening attention span of people of all ages — and the fact that it is not summer vacation — I do not expect anyone who is now a teenager to have the kind of memory of these impeachment hearings that my generation had of mine.

Something else that may be missing is a significant number of Republicans who have any interest in seeking the truth. The poster boy for that crowd is Utah 2nd District Republican Chris Stewart. The Mussolini lickspittle who has cut class for maybe half of the preparation hearings of the Intelligence Committee he serves on so he can keep a straight face when claiming that there is no there there.

Stewart has written some books on American history himself. If he writes one about the events of 2019, it may be about how he was wrong. Or about how American democracy ended.

George Pyle, reading The New York Times at The Rose Establishment.

George Pyle is the editorial page editor of The Salt Lake Tribune.