The Ulcer of Walter Flowers

Former President Richard Nixon and former domestic-affairs adviser John D. Ehrlichman
Associated Press

The name Walter Flowers has vanished from historical memory. He was a conservative Democrat from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, who served five almost entirely forgettable terms in Congress. He was first elected to the House in 1968 as an ally of George Wallace. He hung a Confederate flag on the wall in his Washington office and pinned an American flag on his lapel and wore red, white, and blue saddle shoes. In 1972, Flowers voted, along with 80 or 90 percent of the white electorate in his district, to reelect Richard Nixon; a vote against Nixon, Flowers later said, would have been considered by his constituents to be a pro-black vote. He lost a Senate race in 1978 and died of a heart attack in 1984, while playing tennis on his 51st birthday. There’s nothing else to say about Flowers—except that, in the summer of 1974, as a member of the House Judiciary Committee, he had to decide whether to impeach President Nixon.

We may think of impeachment as nearly inevitable by that summer, with a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives and the release of numerous volumes of Oval Office transcripts, but the Judiciary Committee’s decision was no sure thing. Conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans held the balance, and they were truly undecided. According to Elizabeth Drew’s gripping Watergate diary, Washington Journal, Flowers spent months agonizing over Watergate, sometimes in her presence. “I don’t intend to run a poll and go by it,” he told the reporter in April. “I think of this as a once-in-a-lifetime proposition. I don’t mean to be melodramatic. I feel I just happened to be in the breach when the gun got loaded with this particular shell. I’m hearing less political talk out of the Congress on this than on anything else. They talk about doing what’s right for the country, and most of the members want that, but they don’t know what that is yet.”

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Flowers lay awake at night or found his sleep broken by what seemed “some sordid dream: to impeach the President of the United States, the Chief Executive of our country, our Commander-in-Chief.” He didn’t want to do it. Political reality in his district dictated that he stand with Nixon; so did his own conservative instinct to support the institution of the presidency. But the evidence kept piling up, and Nixon and his lawyers kept making it hard for Flowers: “If they flagrantly disregard a subpoena, I think it would be very bad. If requests have been flagrantly disregarded, I think that the assumption goes against the President.” As for the principle of executive privilege, Flowers said, “Bull.”

It got so bad that a stomach ulcer from his days as a trial lawyer came back.

In the end, the decision came down to the integrity of American institutions—to the example that would be set for future presidents by a vote of no. On July 25, as the committee deliberated in televised hearings, Flowers found an eloquence that no one had ever heard from him. When it was his turn to speak, he didn’t declare which way he would vote. “The power of the presidency is a public trust, just like our office,” this obscure congressman said. “If the trust of the people in the word of the man to whom they had given their highest honor or any public trust is betrayed, if the people cannot know that their president is candid and truthful with them, then I say the very basis of our government is undermined.” And he went on: “We have in the tradition of this nation a well-tested framework of values: liberty, justice, worth and integrity of the individual, individual responsibility. Our problem is not now to find better values, but I say our problem is to be faithful to those that we profess—and to make them live in modern times.”

Watergate was the first news story to which I paid any serious attention. I was in junior high school, and every turn in the drama that unfolded over the two years from the burglary in the summer of 1972 to Nixon’s resignation in the summer of 1974 fascinated me. Still, I can reliably distinguish very few original memories from the later accretions of conversations, old newspaper articles, books, documentaries, feature films, and the general obscuring that comes from mistaken or wholly invented versions of what we think we once experienced. One of those rare memories is of Walter Flowers.

I remember watching on TV on July 27, 1974, as the Judiciary Committee prepared to vote on Article I—obstruction of justice. Flowers was the last member to speak before the roll call, in which six Republicans joined 21 Democrats, including Flowers, in the vote to impeach. He addressed a constituent back in Alabama who had written to describe the pain that a yes vote would cause him. “I say to you, my friend,” Flowers drawled softly, “I have enough pain for the both of us.” Until this morning, I’d never watched or read another version of that moment, and so I know the memory is real. It’s also, like every memory, wrong. What Flowers actually said (it comes from Drew’s account, which sits by my desk) was this: “There are many people in my district who will disagree with my vote here. Some will say that it hurts them deeply for me to vote for impeachment. I can assure them that I probably have enough pain for them and me.”

The memory stuck with me for almost half a century, not so much for the words, but because of Flowers’s voice. It carried that unlikeliest thing among politicians—genuine, unguarded feeling. His pain sounded real.

I don’t want to ennoble the Watergate impeachment proceedings beyond their due. A lot of what is happening now happened then: fingers in the wind, partisan calculations, ludicrous posturing. And I don’t want to turn Walter Flowers, who was shielded from Nixon’s lobbying effort by none other than George Wallace, into a hero. But I can’t help respecting his ulcer. It would surprise me to hear that any of the 41 members of the House Judiciary Committee—almost all of whom will also vanish from history—is suffering acute stomach pain. The Democrats on the committee are certain of their cause, and they have most of their constituents, as well as the facts, on their side. Flowers’s heirs have become Republicans, and belong to a party so corrupted by Donald Trump’s politics of disinformation and bluster that they no longer seem to believe in facts. Their strategy is to create so much confusion and rage that a critical mass of voters will give up on the very notion of truth—the same strategy deployed by Russian saboteurs of American elections, whose side the Republican Party has joined.

Nixon’s defenders made clever and sincere arguments that were undermined just a few days after the committee vote by the release of a tape on which Nixon could be heard ordering the CIA to find a pretext for telling the FBI not to investigate Watergate. After that, Nixon’s fate was sealed. Even his die-hard supporters turned against him, and he resigned, on August 9, before the whole House had a chance to vote on impeachment. The “smoking gun” tape is no more damning than the July 25 transcript of Trump’s call to President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine. In terms of cooperating with Congress, Nixon, compared with Trump, was admirably transparent. If, as Flowers came to believe, presidential lying and stonewalling and abuse of power make impeachment not just possible but essential, then Trump has soared high over the bar. But this time, unlike in 1974, the Republican vote will be unanimous. That isn’t the mark of a stronger case against impeachment—it’s a sign of a party that pursues power for its own sake.

The Republicans enjoy an immense advantage, one they’ve helped to construct. They benefit from what’s happened to public opinion in the decades since Watergate—the skepticism of government institutions, the collapse of standards of language and argument, the confusion over what is real. The habitual nastiness of committee Republicans isn’t a failure of manners—it’s a deliberate tactic. The ginned-up outrage, sarcasm, and bullying of Jim Jordan, Doug Collins, and Matt Gaetz aren’t offenses against some antiquated decorum that deserved to go the way of Confederate flags. They’re calculated blows against reason and thought itself. They’re designed to make it harder for anyone listening to think enough and care enough to lie awake at night agonizing over impeachment. They’re meant to make Walter Flowers history—which is why he’s worth remembering.