Innocent Bystander: A Pledge of Allegiance

For the first time in eleven years, I am not ashamed of my citizenship.

From the day of John Kennedy’s assassination through the slow, painful escalation of the Vietnam War and the grudging, snail-like revelations of Watergate, hardly a week has passed that I haven’t felt slightly sick over the course—and the presumed destination—of our country. On trips abroad in 1966, 1971, and earlier this year, I’ve winced a little at each glimpse of my fat, pea-green, Great-Sealed American passport, a document that seemed to shout my identity as another brash and callous American to my righteous enemies. At home, I’ve braced myself almost daily before settling down with the morning paper, forewarned and all too sure of the official hypocrisies I’d be reading under unending Washington datelines.

Now it is suddenly different. In the silence of a late-summer Saturday after the change of Presidents, I feel myself suffused with a new, unfamiliar circulation of hope. And pride, after all these barren years, pride in a country I’d given up for lost. Not that I think our national warts will fade and clarify over the months to come. Not that I think a new President will routinely face and dispatch all the hydra-headed problems of late capitalism. Not that I think we’ll all be marching forward, two years hence, into a roseate aura of peace, prosperity, and full dinner pails at pre-inflation prices.

No. Simply that I can believe again in the essential goodness and fellow-feeling of this people, and in its capacity to shape its future in a human image. This radical change of heart was brought about not by the slow and evenhanded grinding of Constitutional machinery though that was deeply reassuring, too-but by a totally unexpected three-day revelation of the people and its will: the opening sessions of the House Judiciary Committee’s debate on Articles of Impeachment.

That I was moved, shaken converted, even by the appearance of these thirty-eight grave and troubled faces on my television screen was due, at least in part, to the shattering of several misconceptions that had been growing in my mind. First, like many American dissidents in the past decade, I had made up my mind that most politicians spoke and acted—for publication, anyway—from behind a mask of image, that their every expression, word, and gesture was cynically calculated for electoral effect. The account of the erection of Richard Nixon’s own image in The Selling of the President was a formative influence on my prejudice, but my conviction of guile had been bolstered by many more commercials, press conferences, and public appearances by a host of other aspirants to office.

Second, I had begun to lose faith in the capacity of spoken language to carry sincerity, truth, or even meaning. Partly because of the assaults of politicians and their spokesmen on the language (in, for example, their increasing use of painful euphemisms like “incursion” for “invasion” and “inoperative” for “untrue”), partly because of the growing practice of all sorts of experts, specialists, and power-hoarders to cloak their trade in pseudotechnicalities like “on stream” and “interface,” and partly because of the vain (both senses) tendency of a writer to discount the efficacy of ordinary speech as opposed to extraordinary writing, I’d more or less rejected the possibility of being reached and touched by spoken words.

I should have known that this was not the case; indeed, my enthusiasm, several years ago, for the truth and rhythm of the recorded reminiscences in Studs Terkel’s Hard Times should have reminded me that there are those worth hearing when thev speak.

At any rate, I was wholly unprepared for the consciousness-raising I experienced when I flipped my television set on to the first day of debate. Here was a panel of Representatives—that lower order of legislative life—well and truly empaneled in paneling, prepared to persuade me with their ceaseless droning of platitudes as if 1 needed persuading that their wits were dull, their ambits earthbound, their language trite and hackneved. their chief desire to win the acquiescence of their equally dullard constituents in bars and living rooms back home.

Not so, to say the least. From the first of their opening statements. I was jerked awake and slapped into eye-rubbing incredulity by the spectacle of real people palpable characters, distinct and individual saving real, not manufactured, words in the service of a real conviction. At what amounted to a distance of three or four feet from my face, these dusty, rostered names sprang one by one to life, assumed differentiated features, spoke to me openly and emotionally of their struggles to decide. An hour or two into the debate, someone nearby said scornfully, “It’s a bore,” and to my surprise, I found myself hotly defending the interest of the proceedings. More, 1 was defending the integrity of the men and women who were speaking and the honor of their seriousness.

For the great triumph of the debate, it seems to me, was not in the Constitutional achievements of the committee in the face of each member’s political partisanship great as those achievements were but in the ability of each member to voice, both honestly and humanly, the choices he was torn between. There was little or no attempt to hide behind the cloak of image, to equivocate in fatuous, orotund language; on the contrary, nearly all the members spoke a soliloquy in which they painfully traced their personal and Constitutional options for all to see and hear. These three dozen Hamlets spoke, appropriately, of regicide with all the anguish of the original Prince. And if their language did not soar like Shakespeare’s, neither did it limp along in Federalese. The statements, written for the most part in plain English, came alive because they were thought through, not simply read through. Beyond that, there was the diversity of a dozen ethnic and regional accents and styles, a cross section, as Anthony Lewis called it, of America.

Throughout the debate, those who held the greatest interest for me, perhaps naturally, were those who felt constrained to vote against their conservative constituencies. Of these, I felt that Walter f lowers led all the rest. The dapper, slight, softspoken Alabamian, wilting himself to the logical conclusion of his argument against the almost palpable wills of the voters who had sent him to Washington, held me breathless in the inevitability and the daring of his choice. Step by step, he worried his way to a proof of his contentions before the people of his district and the nation. (I was heartened later to know that this was not simply the stance of a moment in the heat of impeachment; in a limes story filed from Alabama the following week, Flowers was discovered still brooding manfully about his constituents’ willingness to accept his decision. According to a sampling taken by the reporter, most of them thought better of him for it.)

Railsback, the Illinois Republican, had perhaps even more to lose in impeaching a President of his own party, but his defense of his vote was both dogged and impassioned. Like so many members of the committee, he appeared to have an eye on history as well as on the fall elections; “. . . if the young people in this country’ think we are going to not handle this thing fairly, if we’re not going to really try to get to the truth . . . it’s going to make the period of LBJ in 1968, 1967 it’s going to make it look tame.”

Mann, the quiet South Carolinian, lamented the circumstantiality of the case (“How much I would have liked to have had all of the evidence . . .”) but pressed on for impeachment (“The President has the evidence. ... I am starving for it, but I will do the best I can with what I have got”). Ray Thornton of Arkansas spoke softly in the tones of a scholarly small-town lawyer about the role of the House in bringing abuses to justice. Hogan of Maryland, whom some accused of turning against the President to improve his chances for the governorship of Maryland, seemed to rise above that charge in the intensity of his outrage over the perversions of power. Fish of New York coolly represented an old Eastern Establishment view of political rectitude; Cohen of Maine brought a freshfaced questioning to the givens of executive prerogative as practiced by Richard Nixon; McClory of Illinois embodied the troubled, godly businessman whose auditor brings news of peculation in the works.

And the defenders, what of them? Though I could not take their part, neither could I impute mere political hackery to most of them. Wiggins, the leader of the defense, seemed at the least a fine lawyer with a poor case and at best a brilliant Constitutional parliamentarian; one ached for his boneweariness toward the end of the debate, but his rebuttals never flagged. Dennis, the saw-voiced Indianan, buzzed like an angry country lawyer defending a once-prominent client in disgrace, but came down solidly and with impeccable legal propriety on the need for what he called “hard proof.” Sandman—whom many have accused of unfair partisanship seemed to me simply a hard-swinging trial lawyer of the old style, whose thunders and gestures before the jury (whose size he misquoted as 202 million) struck me as funny and admirable in equal measure.

Finally, the arch-impeachers, the majority Democrats. These, too, surprised me by, for the most part, their soft-spoken mien. Even the most hawkish of Nixon-haters like Conyers and Drman appeared subdued, while a number of the lesserknown members—to me, at least— were both thoughtful and moving far beyond the call of mere political partisanship.

Edward Mezvinsky, of Iowa, spoke feelingly as the son of immigrants of his reverence for the presidency. Barbara Jordan, of Texas, moved forward through her paean to the Constitution with a majestic, almost evangelical, beat. Jack Brooks, also of Texas, rapped out a terse and well-constructed catalogue of crimes. And Peter Rodino, the chairman—plainly exhausted by his long and largely nonpartisan leadership of the committee’s hearings— husked his way through a movingly humble statement in which he said, with utter believability, that he would urge impeachment with a heavy heart.

I have always sneered at what I thought a glib phrase of the young John Kennedy: “Profiles in Courage.” Media hype though that phrase may have been and may still be, it is a sufficient description of many of the members of the committee during their debate before the nation. These ordinary men and women, most of them, had the courage of their convictions, the courage the framers of the Constitution must have wished for their successors. It showed. And it shone at what may be the end of an eleven-year-long night.

Belatedly, sheepishly, I pledge allegiance—not to a flag but to a committee. And to the people for whom they stand.