The Presidential Impeachment Primer

Nixon Biographer John A. Farrell gets you up to speed on what's in store for the president


In his disconcertingly timely new biography, Richard Nixon: The Life (Doubleday, $35), John A. Farrell catalogs the litany of ways in which a paranoid, thin-skinned president with a persecution complex can compound his faults with rash decision-making. Sound familiar? With history seemingly repeating itself — and America’s sitting president now under Nixonian scrutiny — the award-winning author and historian picks a selection of titles to help observers make sense of the current political crisis. Filled with partisan skulduggery, backroom bad behavior, surreptitious recordings, and a cast of characters straight out of House of Cards, these picks will keep you turning pages faster than your Lee Childs–reading beach companion.

Nightmare: Underside of the Nixon Years, by J. Anthony Lukas (1976)

“The late, great Pulitzer Prize-winning author was assigned by his editors at the New York Times to write a series of stories as the Watergate saga unfolded in 1973 and ’74. Each took up the whole Sunday magazine. He reworked these pieces into this 1976 book, with reporting that has stood the test of time.

There are two books that capture the sprawling scandal and its mammoth cast in 500-600 pages. The Lukas book is one; the other is Watergateby Fred Emery, who was the DC bureau chief for The Times of London during the 1970s, and used the fresh sources and revelations that became available in the aftermath of Nixon’s resignation to write this lucid and fascinating 1994 companion to a BBC/Discovery Channel documentary.”

How the Good Guys Finally Won, by Jimmy Breslin (1975)

“Arriving late to the party, the inimitable New York columnist Jimmy Breslin had the smarts to attach himself to, and chronicle the moves of, the sly, winning, old-school choreographer of Nixon’s impeachment: then–House Majority Leader Thomas ‘Tip’ O’Neill Jr. As Breslin warned in an earlier book (on the woeful New York Mets): “If one is to have any fun out of life, one should proceed with the understanding that reminiscing is to be enjoyed, not authenticated.” But the Breslin-O’Neill matchup is irresistible, and this is Breslin at the top of his form. Political power? It’s all ‘mirrors and blue smoke,’ Jimmy writes.”

The Final Days, by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein (1976)

“You’ll be stunned by how many of the memorable Watergate scenes originated in this volume. Woodstein’s gripping report on the impeachment process followed All the President’s Men and, while quite different, is just as riveting:

‘The President did not rise. He was weeping. And then, still sobbing, Nixon leaned over, striking his fists on the carpet, crying, `What have I done? What has happened?’ Kissinger touched the President, and then held him, tried to console him, to bring rest and peace to the man who was curled on the carpet like a child.’

And don’t let anyone tell you that Woodward and Bernstein made this stuff up. The notes and transcripts of their Final Days interviews are available at the University of Texas, and I’ve gone there and read them. The book is as solid as a granite cornerstone.”

Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes, by Stanley Kutler (1997)

“We take listening to White House tapes — of presidents going back to Franklin Roosevelt — for granted. But without the victorious courtroom battled waged by the late professor Kutler and ‘Public Citizen against Nixon and the National Archives’, it is doubtful that we could go online, as we can today, and listen to Tricky Dick incriminate himself. Over time, presidential libraries have fallen into line, and we now can eavesdrop on John F. Kennedy discussing the Cuban Missile Crisis, or Lyndon Johnson on Vietnam, as well as Nixon’s ugly rambling about Watergate, the Kennedys, the Jews, Vietnam, or the press. Kutler’s book contains the first tranche of Watergate tapes – segments that ‘provide a massive, overwhelming record of Nixon’s involvement and his instigation of obstruction of justice and abuse of power,’ as he describes them. Indeed they do”

“Impeachment of Richard M. Nixon, President of the United States; Report of the Committee on the Judiciary, House of Representatives. August 20, 1974.” (1975)

For those who want their Watergate history straight, without the color of a Breslin, the digging of Woodward and Bernstein, or the analysis of Tony Lukas, there are two essential government reports. On the Senate side, The Final Report of the Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities was released by the Senate Watergate Committee, chaired by Sen. Sam Ervin, the Democrat from North Carolina. (It was re-published as The Senate Watergate Report by Carroll & Graf, New York, in 2005).

The Senate’s volume has an intriguing minority report, reviewing the role of the Central Intelligence Agency, but the House Judiciary Committee report contains a more extensive discussion of the constitutional remedy of Impeachment. And, quite notably, the House report contains this message from the Republican members of the Judiciary committee to posterity, anticipating the day that Nixon defenders would claim he was railroaded from the presidency:

‘We know that is has been said, and perhaps some will continue to say, that Richard Nixon was `hounded from office’ by his political opponents and media critics. 

We feel constrained to point out, however, that it was Richard Nixon who impeded the FBI’s investigation of the Watergate affair by wrongfully attempting to implicate the Central Intelligence Agency; it was Richard Nixon who created and preserved the evidence of that transgression and…concealed its terrible import, even from his own counsel, until he could do so no longer. And it was a unanimous Supreme Court of the United States, which in an opinion authored by the Chief Justice whom he appointed, ordered Richard Nixon to surrender that evidence to the special prosecutor to further the ends of justice.

The tragedy that finally engulfed Richard Nixon had many facets. One was the very self-inflicted nature of the harm… after day, month after month, he imprisoned the truth about his role in the Watergate cover-up so long and so tightly within the solitude of the Oval Office that it could not be unleased without destroying his Presidency.’ 

Case closed.”

The Breach: Inside the Impeachment and Trial of William Jefferson Clintonby Peter Baker (2001)

“This is the go-to story of independent counsel Kenneth Starr’s repugnant Javert-like pursuit of Bill Clinton, told with taste, vigor and precision by Baker – who covered the saga for The Washington Post (and now, unlucky soul, is tracking Donald Trump’s legal and political woes for the New York Times.) 

You remember Ken Starr. He was charged with investigating Clinton’s involvement in an obscure Arkansas real estate deal known as the Whitewater scandal. Starr got nowhere (after burning through two years and several million dollars) until he chanced upon the salacious tale of Monica Lewinsky, the intern who had sex with a president. Starr seized on Lewinsky’s story like the drowning man he was, and soiled his reputation, the presidency, the impeachment process and (as it turned out) the Republican Congress.

For an updated version of the Clinton impeachment, from a decade later, see The Death of American Virtue, by Ken Gormley – who brings to the table what he learned as the biographer of Watergate special counsel Archibald Cox.

If there is a hell, then Starr may rate a special place in Dante’s eighth circle of hypocrites and scandalmongers. After putting his country through the injurious spectacle of the Clinton impeachment, Starr went on to the presidency of Baylor University where, during his tenure, officials cloaked a history of alleged sexual assaults and gang rape committed by the college’s football players. He left in disgrace last year.”

Impeached: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln’s Legacyby David Stewart (2010)

“The author is a top-notch Washington lawyer who brings the canny perspective of his profession to his telling of the 19th century trials of Aaron Burr (American Emperor) and President Andrew Johnson. (Something of a Renaissance man, Stewart has also written a well-received biography of James Madison, and a series of historic detective stories regarding John Wilkes Booth, Woodrow Wilson and Babe Ruth.)

The Johnson trial was as partisan as the Clinton impeachment, and John F. Kennedy, in Profiles in Couragelauded Sen. Edmund Ross, a Republican from Kansas who refused to join his radical cohorts in the Walpurgis Night dance, and thus helped Johnson escape conviction. Stewart outlines why the Johnson impeachment gave the process so bad a name that it was not revived until Nixon.”