A 1974 diary mirrors today’s impeachment drama

Rep. Barbara Jordan on the House Judiciary Committee in 1974. (U.S. House of Representatives Photography Office / Wikimedia Commons)
Rep. Barbara Jordan on the House Judiciary Committee in 1974. (U.S. House of Representatives Photography Office / Wikimedia Commons)

In the summer of 1974 the esteemed New York Times columnist James Reston shared his views of President Nixon’s possible impeachment with the world, but his son, James Reston, Jr., wrote an account for himself alone, a diary of those dramatic days from late June to mid-August.

That summer James Jr., then 33, took a break from teaching creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to go to Washington and witness what he thought would be “the greatest drama of my lifetime — the end of a presidency by impeachment.” Now there may be an even greater drama in his lifetime — the possible impeachment of President Trump.

This unlikely second act prompted Reston to look back at his diary from 1974. He said he was “astonished how relevant it is to what is likely to happen in the next two months in Washington.” Reston, the author of “The Conviction of Richard Nixon” and numerous other books and plays, made those entries into a book published last week: “The Impeachment Diary: Eyewitness to the Removal of a President.”

Reston modeled his diary on the writings of Georges Clemenceau, who long before he became premier of France, lived in Washington from 1865 to 1869 and wrote an account of the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson. Reston found Clemenceau’s version “so much more elevated than mine.” The young Frenchman wrote about eloquent statesmen, but Reston’s drama was peopled by pols, burglars and Nixon’s plumbers. In the end, though, the Watergate saga also brought forth actors of high character and courage.

Reston’s account tells of his visits to Capitol Hill, where he watched the Watergate figures in hearings and press conferences, but he also gives the flavor of simply living through those days, jogging on the Mall, standing in the crowd outside the Supreme Court as the justices prepared to hear United States vs. Nixon, listening to Rep. Barbara Jordan of Texas read from the U.S. Constitution at the National Archives, and the sense of time rushing into history. On Aug. 6, he wrote: “The day moves quickly. Republicans are abandoning Nixon all over town.”

In his preface, Reston writes: “In the summer of 2019 we heard a lot about how an impeachment process would be ‘divisive.’ In 1974 it was ultimately not so divisive as healing, an imperative, if wrenching, catharsis after so much shocking abuse in the Oval Office itself. This was, and is, the road map. It should be read metaphorically. Read Nixon and imagine Trump.”

Reston’s intimate view of those tense and engrossing events also has a UNC thread. A 1963 UNC graduate, Reston dedicated his book to two of his late classmates, Henry Mayer, a historian and biographer of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, and Myron Simmons, who, like Reston, was a Morehead Scholar. For the introduction he turned to his sophomore year roommate, Walter Dellinger, a constitutional scholar and former solicitor general of the United States.

Dellinger’s introduction does more than announce the book. It also includes criticism of special counsel Robert Mueller’s “voluntary restraint” of his investigation and the “overly cautious initial response” to the Mueller report by House Democrats. Dellinger, a Duke law professor, thinks Trump is ripe for impeachment based on the Mueller report alone. He writes that the special counsel’s investigation “fully established not merely crimes, but the betrayal of the president’s office.”

The echoes of 1974 are growing louder and it feels now like Reston said it felt then. At the close of his first entry on June 22, 1974, he wrote: “I’ve decided I’m going to write a diary of the coming months. No matter how it all turns out, this will be worth remembering.”

Barnett: 919-829-4512, nbarnett@ newsobserver.com