As Dems dither on impeachment, I’m missing Barbara Jordan

I’m from Texas. One of my great political heroes was Barbara Jordan. Representing the sometimes rough Fifth Ward of Houston, Jordan became the first African-American woman elected to the United States Congress from the South. When she spoke, Andrew Young said, it “was like the heavens opened.” One pundit called her “a cross between Lyndon Johnson and Mahatma Gandhi.” It’s hard to imagine, but when I was a law student, Texas had both Molly Ivins and Barbara Jordan. I’m not sure they’re making progress out there.

Forty-five years ago last week, Jordan gave one of the greatest speeches of the twentieth century to the House Watergate Committee. She started, famously: “My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total. I’m not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution.”

Barbara Jordan.jpg
Rep. Barbara Jordan, D-Tex., offers her view on impeachment of President Richard Nixon during a night session of the House Judiciary Committee in Washington Thursday, July 25, 1974. (AP Photo) Anonymous ASSOCIATED PRESS

Impeachment, she said, arises “from the misconduct of public men, the abuse or violation of the public trust.” Notably, she added “it is a misreading of the Constitution to assert that a vote for an article of impeachment means a member must be convinced the president should be removed from office.” The Constitution, she reminded, “doesn’t say that.”

Impeachment is “an essential check against the encroachment of the Executive.” The Constitution “establishes a division” between the two houses — “assigning to one the right to accuse and the other to judge.” The framers “did not make the accusers and judges the same person.”

Impeachment “is designed to bridle the Executive if he engages in excesses; it is a method of national inquest into the conduct of public men.” The founders “confined the power in the Congress.”

President Nixon, she said, “engaged in a series of public statements and actions designed to thwart lawful investigations by government prosecutors.” He had also “made public assertions bearing on the Watergate case he knew to be false.” These false, impeachable assertions “betrayed the public trust.”

The Constitution, Jordan explained, “charges the President to take care that the laws be faithfully executed, yet the President has counseled his aides to commit perjury.” James Madison made clear a “president is impeachable if he attempts to subvert the Constitution.”

Finally, Rep. Jordan reminded her colleagues: “Pettiness cannot be allowed to stand in the face of such overwhelming problems. So today we are not being petty. We are trying to be big, because the task we have before us is big.” Man.

I doubt Donald Trump has any idea who Barbara Jordan was. If she were alive and in the Congress today, Trump would likely say she ought to go back home to her “infested district.” Like he did to Elijah Cummings, and before, to Ayanna Pressly, Rashida Tlaib, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilan Omar.

And like Trump did, in 2017, to the astonishing John Lewis — the greatest living American. There are some sins God ought not allow to occur. Donald Trump talking about John Lewis is one of them.

Barbara Jordan’s call now sounds in a new century. The duty she names is as clear as it is challenging:

“I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution.” I miss her.

Contributing columnist Gene Nichol is the Boyd Tinsley Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of North Carolina.