Above is a clip of the great Howard Baker, which was played the other night on Rachel Maddow’s show on MSNBC. It captures the late Republican Senator at a symposium in 2005, talking about the moment he decided to put country above party and follow the facts wherever they led during the impeachment investigation into the Watergate affair. Baker’s initial impulse was to protect his fellow Republican President, but in a meeting with Nixon, something the President said spooked him. Nixon intimated that there might actually have been wrongdoing, and that Baker’s personal friend, John Mitchell, might be in real trouble. This was a surprise. Baker had assumed that the fuss the Democrats were making over Watergate was just politics as usual. If it wasn’t, if there was something to their suspicions, that changed everything. As he stood there talking to Nixon, his duty became clear to him. You can sense from his account, as you could from his demeanour at the time, that this was a sorrowful path to tread, and not what he’d gone to Washington hoping to do, but there was nothing else for it, was there? If the truth damned the President, then the President be damned.
Today, the first thing anybody remembers about the Senate impeachment hearings, chaired by Democrat Sam Ervine, is ranking Republican member Baker posing to a witness the now legendary question: What did the President know, and when did he know it?
Compare and contrast with the public statement of Senator Lamar Alexander (R), Tennessee, delivered in the dead of night via 15 posts on Twitter, laying out why he’ll be casting his crucial swing vote against calling witnesses in Trump’s impeachment trial – here’s the final missive:
I can spare you the trouble of reading the rest of it, which boils down to a few astonishing sentences. First, there is no need to hear any more evidence, because the Democrats have already proved their case. Trump obviously did everything they say he did. It was wrong. It’s not impeachable, though, and the second Article of Impeachment, obstruction of Congress, is, indeed, frivolous. There’s an election in November. So let the people decide, he concludes, apparently forgetting that trying to rig that electoral decision is why Trump was impeached in the first place.
Frivolous. That’s what enraged me the most. Obstruction of Congress is a frivolous complaint.
We all knew this was going to happen. It’s silly, arguably, to be taken aback; but I think what shocks the conscience is not so much the extent to which the Republican Party has obviously capitulated to Trumpism, as it is the untroubled frankness with which they’re willing to say it out loud, for posterity, as if the position they’ve taken isn’t just positively sinful, but borderline insane. These GOP Senators seem not merely craven and duplicitous, but mesmerized, as if drugged and brainwashed into joining the Trump cult. You half expect them to show up in scarlet robes trimmed in ermine, with Dear Leader’s portrait on the back and Vivat Trump written in fancy script across the front. They seem actually to believe the shit they’re shovelling. It’s like they’ve all done a stint in some sort of Khmer Rouge-style Cambodian re-education camp. To admit to everything but assert that none of Trump’s actions “meet the high bar of impeachment” is so ludicrous it’s nuts. Taken at face value, this means that Alexander would agree that Clinton’s impeachment, for lying under oath about an extra-marital affair that had nothing to do with the execution of his office, was wholly misguided (surely a heresy even to the modern GOP), and that the Watergate business, while clearly fraught with wrongdoing, wasn’t impeachable either.
This goes beyond jury nullification. This is the jury purporting to change the law so that the crime becomes legal.
This is all the more disheartening when one considers that Alexander is retiring, and presumably has nothing left to fear from Donald’s mean tweets, or the wrath of the GOP donor class. He doesn’t want the job, and doesn’t need the money. Is it that he’s looking forward to the sort of cushy jobs that GOP retirees tend to land when they leave office, courtesy of the grateful paymasters that put them there in the first place? Is it just venality and cowardice? Or is it something more, something even worse? Does he really not see that he, personally, is gutting the Constitution and abetting his nation’s appallingly rapid slide towards authoritarianism and lawless white minority rule? Is he oblivious to the inevitable judgment of history? Does he not know that the only thing anybody will ever remember now about his many years of public service is this final corrupt surrender to the crazed orange despot?
He was Governor of his home State before joining the Senate. He served as a Senator for 18 years. He was known as a centrist, a moderate, a promoter of bipartisan comity in the upper chamber. Now this. Even though we expected it, knew it was coming one way or another, still, the abject surrender defies understanding. The most depressing part? He considered the former Senate Republican from his own Tennessee, Howard Baker, to be his political mentor. Here they are together, the two on the right, in 2007:
I guess it’s a small mercy in the midst of all this is that Howard isn’t around to see it, and suffer the heartbreak of learning what his erstwhile protégé has done.