The Impeachment Of A President: Washington, 1974 - The precedents of misdemeanour

Nixon: The man who cut and ran
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"ONLY IF you've been in the deepest valley," booms an eerily familiar voice from the video screen, "can you know how magnificent it is to be on the highest mountain top." Comforting words, perhaps, for President Bill Clinton as he faces the humiliation of a Senate impeachment trial, particularly since they come from a former president uniquely placed to appreciate his predicament - Richard Nixon.

We are in the auditorium of the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace, in a remote corner of the sprawling Los Angeles suburbs, and the video being played is entitled, aptly enough, Never Give Up. Made a few years before Mr Nixon's deathin 1994, it is a 28-minute orgy of rhetorical self-congratulation and justification for the traumatic events that led, in August 1974, to the first resignation of a US president.

Mr Nixon intones from beyond the grave about world peace and the spread of freedom, while skirting as best he can around the lying, cheating and abuse of federal institutions that led the judiciary committee of his time to draw up two articles of impeachment (he quit before they came before the full House).

Watergate takes up the single largest space in the library exhibition - a long wall of pictures, text and audio extracts from Mr Nixon's notorious White House tapes - but the scandal is presented in highly defensive tones as a political plot against an essentially honourable president.

Is this the way Bill Clinton will be forced to present his legacy to the world - a hollow exercise in saving face, in which the uncomfortable facts must somehow be manipulated to look less embarrassing? Or are the two cases so different that comparisons are meaningless? After all, faced by bipartisan belief that he should go, Mr Nixon did not even wait for the full House to vote upon impeachment. Once the House judiciary committee had voted a single article of impeachment, the men in grey suits were at the White House and, within a week, Marine One was lifting off from the White House lawn to carry him back home to California.

One thing is sure - of the many unrepentant Nixon fans who come to his library to pay homage, few display much sympathy for the way the current president is being treated. Many have trouble even calling Mr Clinton by his name.

"Nixon was just covering up for his group and his people. He didn't attack the whole fabric of society like... like this guy - I can't even call him `president' any more," said George Shuster, a retired mortician from Connecticut and one-time Republican mayoral candidate. "We put our sons and daughters in Washington as interns to teach them about this great system of ours. To have a man like that taking advantage - why, it's rotten to the core." Mr Shuster's wife saw even greater evil lurking behind the presidency. "Clinton has destroyed the military. The Russians and Asians Nixon fought are now living in the White House! Don't you think there's some kind of communism behind it all?"

A paranoid touch worthy of Tricky Dick himself, one might say. Particularly since public opinion is behind Mr Clinton in a way it never was for Mr Nixon. So strong is national opposition to impeachment that only at places such as the Nixon Library can supporters be found in any number.

There are those who believe the impeachment proceedings are little more than delayed revenge by the Republican majority in Congress for the treatment handed out to Nixon by his Democratic adversaries. Nobody at the Nixon Library was willing to assign such low motives to the Republicans, although plenty were happy to accuse the Democrats of putting politics before principle in 1974.

"I think Nixon got a raw deal," opined Joe Betz from Baltimore. "With him it was a political thing, unlike Clinton, who lies." President Clinton's purported lies are the reason most Nixonites think he deserves to be turfed out. But what about Mr Nixon's record? He was the man of whom Lyndon Johnson said: "He can lie out of both sides of his mouth at once. And even if he is telling the truth, he lies anyway, just to keep his hand in."

To be fair, some visitors thought Nixon got his just deserts. "He was a great statesman, but he also lied and abused his power," said a San Diego policeman. "In my job, if I lie I'm fired immediately. The same goes for... whatsisname."

Such reflections were not echoed by the staff of the library who, in stark contrast to the more virulent-minded visitors, clearly understood the politics of pots and black kettles. "President Nixon always felt it was unfair to speak out against a sitting president," explained the library's director of programming, Evie Lazzarino. "This institute aims to celebrate the presidency, not denigrate it."

To the amusement of many visitors, the library is hosting an exhibition on presidential romance - the matrimonial sort, that is. Among the many artefacts, which go back to Lincoln, is Hillary Clinton's wedding gown. It gets plenty of comments, most of them unprintable. In the light of recent events, the exhibition comes off sounding remarkably optimistic about the health of both the Clinton presidency and the Clinton marriage. "On October 11, 2000, President Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton will celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary in the White House," announces the display above the First Lady's gown. Maybe one shouldn't be so sure.