The Secret Plan to Force Out Nixon

A newly released diary shows House Republican leaders pledging to oust the president months before he resigned. Why did they back down?

A cutout of Richard Nixon making V for Victory hands
Bettman / Getty / The Atlantic

In January 1974, House Minority Leader John Jacobs Rhodes posed a surprising question to Barber Conable, the fourth-ranking House Republican. He wanted to know what Conable thought “of the possibility of contingency plans in the event that it was disclosed that Richard Nixon in fact was personally involved in the cover up of Watergate affairs to the extent that he was in fact impeachable.”

Rhodes assured Conable that he didn’t know of any new, damning evidence, but with the Judiciary Committee set to convene the first impeachment inquiry in more than a century the following week, he was worried. Rhodes “felt we could ill afford not to consider the possibility that further disclosures would compromise the President beyond redemption,” Conable recorded in his diary. “The Republican members of the House,” Rhodes had told him, “were the only coherent group which could call on the President to protect his place in history, the welfare of the country, and the survival of the Republican Party, by resigning rather than facing an inevitable conviction in impeachment.”

In this previously unreported exchange, the leader of the House Republicans was apparently asking for his pledge that he would join him in pushing Nixon out of the White House. “I said to him,” Conable noted a little while later, “that if he was asking me if I would be willing to stand up and be counted among those who would go to the President and demand such a resignation, that he could count on me.” Rhodes admitted that this was all he was after at that point. “The whole thing was kept quite vague,” Conable recorded for history, “but I got the impression that he was testing me to find out if my willingness to stand up and be counted was sufficient so that he would be able to call on me when and if the time comes.”

Barber Conable died in 2003, but until now, his diary—including his many entries on Nixon, Watergate, and the impeachment crisis—has remained largely hidden from researchers. Conable shared parts of the diary with Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward for The Final Days, their book on the end of the Nixon presidency, and with a few other scholars in the years that followed. The full diary served as the basis for a biography of Conable by James S. Fleming in 2004. But, by coincidence, it was only fully opened to researchers at Cornell’s Kroch Library this November, just as Republicans are being asked, for the third time in American history, to impeach a president of their own party.

The diary tells a riveting story, but the new details it offers also suggest a crucial weakness in the constitutional sanction of impeachment. Although Conable and Rhodes privately committed themselves to demanding Nixon’s resignation if he was personally involved in the cover-up in January, as the evidence mounted over the months that followed, they wavered, unwilling to break with their own constituents until Nixon’s departure was already a forgone conclusion. Political courage turns out to have been as rare in 1974 as it has proved to be in 2019. And fear of their own voters restrained lawmakers from acting on their understanding of their constitutional duties.

“The central fact of American politics is its rooting among the people themselves rather than in an atmosphere of power from the top down as it is in many other countries,” Conable confided to his diary in March 1973. “In short unless there is a realignment back home there isn’t likely to be much of a realignment in Congress.”

Barber Conable was a Nixon man. An East Coast fiscal conservative who was a serious legislator on the powerful Ways and Means Committee, he supported Nixon’s initiatives in Congress 89 percent of the time in 1972, leading Congressional Quarterly to dub him one of “the two most loyal Nixon supporters in the House.” In his diary, he initially dismissed Watergate as a “comic caper.” But by the spring of 1973, he sensed from Nixon’s mismanagement of the scandal that he was hiding something significant. “I can only assume the worst. Further disclosures will doubtless enhance the image of a man who concerned himself safely entrenched in a position of power and hence above the law. I find the whole business difficult to believe.”

The so-called Saturday Night Massacre of October 1973—when the president went looking for someone who would fire the Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox and shut down his prosecution team, prompting the Justice Department’s top two officials to resign—only increased Conable’s disgust. “Nixon has been a singularly insensitive politician and as such has shown the capacity to snatch disaster from what could have been a very strong and progressive Administration,” he wrote. “I find it hard to think about him or to look at him without revulsion at this point, not because I consider him loathsome but because I consider him incredibly stupid as a leader.”

To a moderate conservative like Conable, Nixon’s violation of his law-and-order reputation was especially troubling. Following a visit home during the holidays in 1973, the six-term representative noted in his diary that Nixon’s behavior had affected how constituents viewed Washington. “Nixon has virtually destroyed the confidence of the people in the institution of government,” he wrote, “and he must be held accountable for it.”

The question was how. In the days after the Saturday Night Massacre, Republicans joined Democrats in calling for an impeachment inquiry by the House. Although Republicans did not know how they would vote, no congressional attempt was made to thwart the investigation. Nixon’s approval rating, which had dropped below 40 percent during the Senate Watergate hearings, flirted with 25 percent. Meanwhile, support for his removal from office, which had remained below 20 percent despite the Senate hearings, for the first time topped 30 percent. There was a bipartisan feeling that Nixon had overreached, and resisting a constitutional inquiry was politically untenable.

A sense of gloom came over Conable. “I am sure most of my colleagues will bring the message home from vacation that is apparent to me: that Richard Nixon is a severe liability at this stage in his political career …” he wrote. “Many people seem to cherish the hope that he is going to resign, but in my view this is doubtless wishful thinking and does not respect the probable view of the President himself in the isolation he has constructed around him. I can see only a disastrous year ahead.”

Conable was right. Nixon was indeed hiding incriminating evidence. And, as it turned out, Conable was also right to assume that Nixon would not resign without a push. But still, the Republican leader wasn’t ready to administer it.

The diary makes clear that Conable’s fatalism emerged from his assessment of the losing politics of impeachment. The negative public sentiment toward Nixon was counterbalanced by equally fervent support in Conable’s New York congressional district for the president, a situation that turned this activist legislator—a champion of Social Security reform and one of the future fathers of individual retirement accounts—uncharacteristically passive.

“The problem for Republican politicians generally has been one of polarization: half my mail blames [me] for not standing up for the President of which these people seem still to regard as an institution above criticism, while the other half scolds me for having failed to have in some individual way removed the President from office before this,” he wrote in December 1973. Not only was there no way to please everyone, but the very act of trying to remain neutral would please no one.

Nevertheless, by early 1974, the Senate Watergate Committee’s efforts had put a great deal of damning information into the public domain, and Nixon’s decision to hand over some of his secret White House recordings to the Watergate grand jury to tamp down talk of impeachment threatened to add more. Republican leaders felt it prudent to start secretly preparing for the day when they might need to force Nixon to resign.

These plans would remain secret. And over the course of the first three months of the impeachment inquiry, Conable recorded no further serious talk of a forced presidential resignation among Republican House leaders. Rhodes and Conable kept their readiness to rid the country of Nixon to themselves. But Nixon didn’t get blind loyalty. The House Republican leadership considered the president a threat to the GOP, and signaled that he had to cooperate with the House impeachment inquiry.

Meanwhile, though they had no inkling of the high-level Republican conspiracy against Nixon, House Democratic leaders made bipartisanship much easier for those across the aisle. Peter Rodino, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, sidelined the partisan majority counsel, replacing him with the Republican civil-rights hero John Doar, whose brief was to assemble a new nonpartisan staff just for the inquiry.

Republicans were grateful for how seriously Rodino took his constitutional responsibilities, but were also worried about the political ramifications of the fairness shown to Nixon by the Democrats. In the first week of March, Carlos Moorhead, one of Nixon’s loyalists on the Judiciary Committee, reported to the White House that all Republicans on the committee believed Rodino had “bent over backwards to be fair,” whereas Nixon “appears to offer cooperation one week and then withdraws it the next.” And later that month, John Rhodes himself decided to issue a veiled threat to the White House: If Nixon couldn’t find a way to comply with the House’s requests, the Republicans on the committee would find they had no alternative to joining the Democrats in voting for the first-ever subpoena of a president in an impeachment crisis.

Nixon wanted to ignore the advice from House Republicans. Although Rhodes and Conable had some suspicions, only Nixon knew how guilty he was of obstructing the investigation of all the break-ins his campaign-espionage unit had undertaken. Nixon not only knew about the plumbers unit that had gone after the whistle-blower Daniel Ellsberg, but he also knew that he had ordered the use of the FBI and the IRS to slander and harass his opponents; ordered the firing of civil servants for being Jewish; approved recruiting the Teamsters to actually break the bones of anti-war demonstrators; ordered the use of force against Native American demonstrators at Wounded Knee; and ordered that Vietnam vets who had turned against the war be arrested on trumped-up charges.

Nixon understood that the only way he could survive politically was by stonewalling investigators and attacking the inquiry as a partisan fishing expedition. The fact that Rhodes and the Republican members of the Judiciary Committee refused to accept that the president could decline all cooperation wore Nixon down. He decided to promise the House transcripts of some of the additional recordings they had requested, but not the original tapes. Then he dithered, sending his lawyer James St. Clair out to ask for delay after delay.

In early April 1974, the Republican members of the Judiciary Committee lost their patience with the president, and told their leadership they felt they had no choice but to join with Democrats in backing a subpoena. The Democrats sweetened this support by making a concession of their own: The president’s lawyer could attend the committee meetings once the members started reviewing the evidence, and he could call any witnesses he wished to testify. When the White House offered only “partial compliance” with the committee’s request on the eve of the deadline for voluntary submission, Caldwell Butler of Virginia, one of the conservative Republicans on the committee, took Nixon’s stance personally. “This is beneath the dignity of the White House,” he said. “He was trifling with us.” On April 12, in an act that seems unimaginable today, 14 of the 17 Republicans on the committee joined with all the Democrats and voted to compel the president to cooperate.

It remains unclear how the House Republican leadership expected Nixon to respond to the subpoena. Although the ranking member of the committee, Edward Hutchinson of Illinois, did not support the subpoena, neither he nor Rhodes attempted to enforce a party-line stand against it.

When the Nixon White House issued transcripts of the subpoenaed conversations on April 30, 1974, the Republican leadership faced a crucial decision. Nixon had not complied with the subpoena, which had been for the original tapes, not transcripts. And these transcripts were clearly edited, littered with ellipses. Nixon had offered to allow Rodino and Hutchinson to come to the White House to listen to any portion of the tapes they wished to review, but the subpoenaed conversations stretched over hours, and the recordings were often barely decipherable, especially to the untrained ears of the veteran congressmen.

The release of more than 1,000 pages of Nixon transcripts triggered the resignation crisis that Rhodes had envisioned back in January. Below the surface, undetected by the media, the transcripts had unleashed a wave of anger and resentment among congressional Republicans. The first to air this frustration was Senate Minority Leader Hugh Scott, of Pennsylvania, an owlish, courtly politician who had been a staunch defender of the president. But the White House had played him, and Scott had figured it out.

In early 1974, the White House had shared an edited transcript with Scott of a March 1973 conversation between Nixon and his main public accuser, John Dean, that suggested Dean had lied to the Senate. Believing the White House version of what would become known as the “cancer on the presidency” transcript, Scott defended the president publicly. The transcript, however, had been scrubbed of the part where Nixon implicitly supported paying hush money. Four months later, a much fuller transcript, which included the incriminating section, was included in the dump of Nixon table talk. Seeing it, Scott felt duped and used—and he had been—and he was angry. On May 7, Scott issued a statement calling the transcripts “a shabby, disgusting, immoral performance … I am enormously distressed that there is not enough showing of moral indignation that would have been expected under the circumstances.”

Scott’s unfiltered statement freed rank-and-file congressional Republicans to complain to one another about the president. Attending a meeting of the largely social Republican congressional fraternity SOS the evening of Scott’s statement, Conable found “almost unanimous consent the President was a severe liability and that he should resign.” The next evening, May 8, Conable was at a meeting of the Wednesday Club, a Republican caucus that had emerged in the ’60s to support bipartisan civil-rights legislation. He found that “this [pro-resignation] consensus bordered on the hysterical.” The extent of anti-Nixon sentiment unleashed among the Republican caucus shocked Conable. “I find the grave concerns about the President’s viability across ideological lines to a degree I would not have thought possible in view of the blind support the conservatives have given this—not very conservative—President over the past year.”

After a failed initiative to negotiate a compromise with the White House on disclosing the tapes, Conable decided it was time to resume that conversation he’d had with Rhodes in January about getting the president to resign. He discovered that Rhodes was also beginning to believe the moment had come. On May 7, Rhodes had refused to publicly disagree with Scott. And privately, he told his Senate colleague that it might be time to consider encouraging the president to do the right thing for the county and resign. Two days later, both Rhodes and John Anderson, a liberal from Illinois and the third-ranking House Republican, made major public statements. Anderson had been blunt, calling for a “voluntary resignation.” Rhodes’s message was softer, but no less clear.

So why didn’t America’s long national nightmare end in May 1974? The answer, which the release of Conable’s diary brings into timely focus, was the Republican base. In the second week of May, when Conable went to Rhodes to suggest that perhaps it was now time for the leadership to ask the president for his resignation, Rhodes unexpectedly seemed unsure, but agreed to call a leadership meeting for May 15, to discuss next steps. Apparently, as Conable was to learn, Rhodes was feeling some heat. The minority leader’s comments about a presidential resignation had been enough to unleash a wave of hate mail from fellow Republicans. It went “from excoriation of the President to excoriation of Republican leaders who were disloyal to the President.” Some of the mail was so ugly that the FBI stationed an agent by Rhodes’s office in the Capitol. Nor was he the only Republican who was hearing from Nixon loyalists. Bob Michel, a future Republican leader from Illinois, warned that if they voted against the president, that would likely bring about “the termination of all gifts by party loyalists.”

The backlash from the Republican base in response to the resignation trial balloon left most of the leadership skittish, even Conable. Only one Republican leader at the May 15 meeting wanted to push ahead with seeking Nixon’s resignation. “John Anderson,” Conable noted in his diary, “belligerently asserted that the future of the Republican Party did not lie [with the Nixon loyalists], and that we should try to develop a broader constituency than the hard-core Nixon loyalists if we were to achieve any possible success at the polls this fall.” Anderson’s plea did not move John Rhodes.

To break the emerging logjam among the Republican leadership at the meeting, Lou Frey, a moderate from Florida, suggested a compromise. Earlier he had proposed not fighting the issue in the House and letting impeachment be passed on a party-line vote so that the Senate could deal with it. This time he suggested that the leadership poll every member of the caucus. Conable then suggested dividing the 180 members up by Policy Committee region, “and gave every member of the leadership some 25 men to see.”

What the Republican House leadership found in spring 1974 was that members of their caucus were driven less by their support for Richard Nixon than by fear of their own supporters. These men—and they were all men—“expected however they voted to lose a substantial part of their support.” General polls would have suggested otherwise. Nixon’s presidential approval rating had reached its lowest recorded level, dropping to 24 percent in January. The president was clearly unpopular.

But the political problem for Republicans was that Americans were not that keen on removing him. The White House had done its own polling, and shared with House Republicans the results of a private telephone survey of 1,677 Americans, taken from April 29 to May 4. Although put in the field before most Americans had had time to read the transcripts, the White House wanted Republicans to know that 54.3 percent believed Nixon should not resign, as opposed to 35.3 who wanted him out. And only 33 percent supported impeachment, whereas 57.9 percent opposed it. Even the White House wasn’t trying to argue that Richard Nixon was well liked, but despite his deep unpopularity, most Republicans did not want their leaders to show him the door.

As a result of this polling and what they were hearing directly from their constituents, the rank and file “strongly urged the leadership to cool it about talk of a resignation by the President.” Republican members felt that the only way they could survive this political season was by “approach[ing] the problem of impeachment as a Constitutional responsibility rather than a political expression.”

Here, the 1974 consensus may seem alien to us in 2019. It was not that most congressional Republicans were hard-core Nixon loyalists. Like today, presumably, they worried about the president’s loyalists in their districts. Unlike today, though, a significant number believed that they might be able to vote for impeachment and survive politically. But they had to thread a needle. They wanted their leadership to create a safe political space to vote for impeachment. If they remained neutral until the impeachment inquiry reached a conclusion, and “if they indicated an unwillingness to prejudge the President, instead basing their decision on impeachment on the evidence adduced by the Judiciary Committee, [then] they would at least have some basis for some discussion with those disappointed with the final result of their vote on impeachment.”

Barber Conable had not expected this outcome. But he decided, “on reconsideration, that this was the best posture for the leadership also to take.” And he took the lesson to heart: “We should try to avoid the polarizing and politicizing of the issue.”

After his abortive coup, Rhodes never recovered his nerve. And Conable, for his part, decided to make his opposition to the president a personal matter and to leave the president’s fate in the hands of the Judiciary Committee. The passivity of this approach drove a wedge into the remainder of the Republican leadership, largely because John Anderson refused to be silent. “Anderson,” Conable noted in late June, “continues to speak more frankly than most would like.” Meanwhile, House Republicans grew restless, not satisfied with the decision to let the impeachment chips fall where they may. “There is increasing rank-and-file disenchantment with the Republican leadership as the impeachment pressures grow,” Conable noted in his diary in late June. “That feeling [is] based primarily on the comparatively low-key, low silhouette and indecisive type of leadership that Rhodes is giving … He seems to expect us to follow him without making any clear effort to indicate to us in which direction he himself is moving.”

In the end, Rhodes lacked even enough backbone to allow the Judiciary Committee’s process to determine Nixon’s fate. Whereas in January he had seen the possibility of saving the Republican Party by sacrificing Nixon, by July 1974, Rhodes couldn’t stomach the idea of Republicans risking the future of the party by voting against the unpopular president.

As a handful of Republicans on the Judiciary Committee began to waver, Rhodes pressured them to defend the president. On July 18, in one of the most cowardly performances in modern U.S. political history, the House Republican leadership, once again with John Anderson dissenting, told the caucus that the impeachment effort was “plainly political” by the Democrats; that they should all maintain a “strong, straight Republican line”; and that those on the Judiciary Committee should not even try to amend the articles.

In May, it had been the general will of the congressional Republicans that each member act like an impartial juror. When a few of those on the Judiciary Committee did, and courageously decided the president had committed impeachable acts, Rhodes turned on them. But by July, the Republican caucus was deeply divided and Rhodes’s authority was weakening. Anderson debated Rhodes in front of the caucus and, ultimately, seven Republicans on the Judiciary Committee defected, placing country before party. With the notable exception of Anderson, however, Republican leaders refused to support their patriotic colleagues.

The pressure that House Judiciary Committee members Caldwell Butler, William Cohen, Hamilton Fish, Harold Froehlich, Lawrence Hogan, Robert McClory, and Tom Railsback endured for doing exactly what their leadership had originally requested of them makes them the only heroes in this tale. “I feel we [in] the Republican Party ought to be measured by how it responds to the problem,” noted Butler, after Rhodes’s July 18 call to support the president. “If we respond by condoning or putting our feet in the ground we are really going to hurt the party.”

Rhodes’s own flirtation with pushing Nixon out of office, shortly after his ascent to the head of the caucus, makes his later unwillingness to support his members all the more outrageous. By July 1974, Rhodes had stopped looking at public-opinion polls. He was trapped by the struggle within the party. Conable, who felt some of the same paralysis, pitied his chief: “I feel sorry for John Rhodes, who walks a desperate tightrope between the obdurate loyalists on the one hand and the inveterate [Nixon] haters on the other,” he wrote in early August. Fortunately for Rhodes, his members had no inkling of the secret leadership conversations.

So why was Anderson the lone Republican in the leadership to support the Republican impeachers on the committee? Because Barber Conable had given up. He confessed to his diary that he now saw impeachment as a lose-lose proposition. If he followed his conscience, his political career would be over. And if he voted with the president, he would be letting himself down.

A week after the committee approved three articles of impeachment, Rhodes and House Speaker Carl Albert worked out an accelerated schedule for a full debate and vote on the floor. It was assumed that the full House would pass at least one of the articles, if not all of them. Conable asked his staff for the committee’s volumes with all of the evidence relating to the second article of impeachment, on abuse of power, “feeling that that was probably the most serious charge against Mr. Nixon. I never considered the Watergate affair much more than a contrived event of comparatively modest significance, but I was deeply troubled by allegations that the President used the IRS, FBI and others to harass citizens whom he considered to be political enemies of his,” he recorded.

Conable was surprised to learn the evidence filled six volumes. The impeachment inquiry had taken place largely behind closed doors. Conable, like Rhodes, didn’t know a fraction of what his fellow Republicans on the Judiciary Committee knew about Nixon’s obstruction of justice or abuses of power. All of the evidence compiled by the nonpartisan committee staff was presented to the committee members in closed sessions, with only members, staff, and Nixon’s lawyer.

Conable understood that the easiest vote for him would be to stand by Nixon. “I do not doubt that I have a tough political race, the general election fight of my life,” he wrote. But Conable assumed that his angriest constituents were not Democrats, but Nixon loyalists: “I expect a surly electorate, but the ones who are most surly will also be the ones least likely to go to my political opposition.” Even if he won reelection, a vote against Nixon could cost him the trust of a significant segment of his colleagues on the Hill. Nevertheless, Conable believed judging the evidence on its merits was the right thing to do. He made a point of telling Rhodes that he did not expect to run again for the Republican leadership after the 1974 election. “I wanted to feel independent about impeachment,” he wrote.

Rhodes remained under incredible pressure from the right wing of the Republican caucus. At a meeting of their conference, which called itself the “Good Guys,” Rhodes “lost his temper shouting at some of the professional simple-minds of the right wing.” These were largely freshmen, such as Thad Cochran and Trent Lott of Mississippi, who were “especially out-spoken and particularly conservative.”

On Monday, August 5, Rhodes promised to announce how he would vote. He didn’t do it. Rhodes kept his cards close to his chest, even when Conable asked him: “He said that he knew what he had to do but was having trouble with his conscience in doing it.” Rhodes was likely going to defend the president once again, but then he called off his announcement, “claiming he had laryngitis.” A few hours later, at 3:45 p.m., Rhodes called Conable to tell him “the President is about to drop another shoe, that it consisted of a tape showing his involvement from the start and substantial misleading of the Republican members of the Judiciary Committee who had stood up for him and voted against Impeachment.” It seemed over for the president. “I am letting you know,” Rhodes explained, “because you are the only Member of the Leadership I care about and you might want to protect yourself.” The 10 Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee who had supported Nixon were meeting on the Hill with Nixon’s lawyer, and the White House was expected to release the transcript of the tape at 4:15 p.m.

Conable rushed over to the Republican Cloakroom and was among the first members to read the White House statement, which included the transcript of an Oval Office conversation on June 23, 1972. The president was recorded agreeing to a plan to use the CIA to block the FBI’s investigation of checks found belonging to the Watergate burglars. That was it: There could be no remaining doubt that Nixon was not only involved in the cover-up, but that he had led it just days after the burglars were arrested. Conable had gone through more than half of the White House press release when Sam Donaldson of ABC News knocked at the door, looking for a comment from a Republican leader. Would Conable make a statement? After Conable said yes, Donaldson rushed him over to the studio in the House, and Conable addressed the camera: “As far as I was concerned I had found the ‘smoking gun,’” he said.

In his relief at the sudden clarity in his own mind, Conable had coined one of the most memorable phrases in American political history. An hour and a half later, Charles Wiggins, who had been Richard Nixon’s most eloquent defender in the House Judiciary Committee, announced that he had changed his mind and would vote for at least one article of impeachment on the floor because of “the smoking gun.”

The transcript was a godsend for Conable, whose cursory study of information compiled by the Judiciary Committee had left him believing it was “inconclusive.” “I was dreading the two weeks before the beginning of the Impeachment debate in the House, during which time I would have had to read through those 36 books of evidence, squalid as they were, and try to find in them some basis on which I could comply with my Constitutional Responsibility and still survive politically,” he had written. Now he was relieved of that dilemma.

It was also the political cover that Rhodes and many other Republicans had needed. We will never know for sure how many were prepared to vote for impeachment before August 5, but after the release of the “smoking gun,” there was little political cost in doing what the Constitution demanded. “Since I made this statement before the release was really completely out,” Conable wrote in his diary three weeks later, “it got wide currency throughout the country and I was grateful thereafter that I had been one of the early ones to tip over, since it was immediately apparent that not just the ten Members of the Judiciary Committee [out of 17 Republicans] who had previously been for the President, but most of the Members of the House were fed up and that the President had no base of support remaining in the Congress.”

On August 7, 1974, eight months after first contemplating the act, John Rhodes joined Senators Barry Goldwater and Hugh Scott to visit Nixon, telling him it was time he resigned. By this point, the visit was largely Kabuki theater. Two days earlier, Nixon’s congressional staff had projected that the president had the support of only seven senators. Nixon was almost guaranteed to be the first American president to be convicted in the Senate and removed from office. Facing these terrible odds, on August 6, Nixon instructed his main speechwriter, Raymond Price, to draft a resignation speech. He didn’t need to hear from Republican leaders in Congress. They had waited to give Nixon a push until it no longer mattered.

A generation and a half later, there is as much about this story that seems strange as seems distressingly familiar. The televised debates in the Judiciary Committee make clear that in 2019, not even a handful of elected members in the House of the president’s party are interested in serving as nonpartisan jurors, wrestling with dismaying and politically inconvenient facts. In part, that’s because House Republican leaders in 2019 are at least as cowed by their base as Rhodes and Barber were in 1974, despite perhaps privately loathing this president as much as their predecessors hated Nixon.

Barber Conable’s diary also makes clear how difficult it is to impeach and remove a president. Even an impeachment process as serious, fair, and thorough as the one in 1974, against a president as amply and demonstrably guilty as Richard Nixon, evoked little political courage from the president’s party. The remarkable constitutional service performed by a handful of Republicans on the Judiciary Committee was not matched by similar courage from their leadership, except for John Anderson. The Founders detested parties or factions; they might not be surprised to learn partisanship has almost fully neutralized the sanction of impeachment.

In 1974, evidence eventually emerged that gave the Republican leadership enough cover to do the right thing, in the form of Conable’s “smoking gun.” In 2019, though, is there any similar piece of evidence that could have the same effect on the Republican leadership, giving it the courage to perform its constitutional duty? “There will be no difference between the president’s position,” Senator McConnell said last week, “and our position as to how to handle this to the extent that we can.” There has been no realignment back home, and none evident in Congress, either.