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Watergate and Defending the Constitution

Representative Barbara Jordan’s Statement on the Articles of Impeachment of President Richard Nixon.

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Summary

Mr. Chairman, I join my colleague, Mr. Rangel, in thanking you for giving the junior members of this Committee the glorious opportunity of sharing the pain of this inquiry. . . . Thank you for allowing me to speak today. 
Earlier today we heard the beginning of the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States. “We, the people.” It is a very eloquent beginning. But when that document was completed on the 17th of September in 1787 I was not included in that “We, the people.” I felt somehow for many years that George Washington and Alexander Hamilton just left me out by mistake. But through the process of amendment, interpretation and court decision I have finally been included in “We, the People.”  The first three words of the Constitution are “We the People.” But when the Constitution was written, Black women like me were not included in “We the People.” Over time, I have been included in “We the People.”
Today I am an inquisitor. I believe it would not be fictional and would not overstate the solemnness that I feel right now. My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total. I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution. . . . My job in these hearings is to ask questions. I believe in the Constitution. I will not let the Constitution be destroyed.
It is wrong, I suggest, it is a misreading of the Constitution for any member here to assert that for a member to vote for an Article of Impeachment means that that member must be convinced that the President should be removed from office. The Constitution doesn’t say that. The powers related to impeachment are an essential check in the hands of this body, the legislature, against and upon the encroachment of the Executive. In establishing the in division between two branches of the legislature, the House and Senate, assigning to the one the right to accuse and to the other the right to judge, the Framers of the Constitution were very astute. They did not make the accusers and the judges the same person. . . . The Constitution does not say that voting for impeachment is voting for the President to be removed. The writers of the Constitution were smart. They created a system of balance.
Common sense would be revolted if we engaged upon this process for petty reasons. Congress has a lot to do. Appropriations, tax reform, health insurance, campaign finance reform, housing, environmental protection, energy efficiency, mass transportation. 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 a big one. . . . Congress has a lot of work to do. This process takes up a lot of our time, which means it must be important.
Beginning shortly after the Watergate break-in and continuing to the present time the President has engaged in a series of public statements and actions designed to thwart the lawful investigation by government prosecutors. Moreover, the President has made public announcements and assertions bearing on the Watergate case which the evidence will show he knew to be false. . . . The President has tried to stop this process. The President has also lied about his knowledge of Watergate.
The Constitution charges the President with the task of taking care that the laws be faithfully executed, and yet the President has counseled his aides to commit perjury, willfully disregard the secrecy of grand jury proceedings, concealed surreptitious entry, attempted to compromise a federal judge while publicly displaying his cooperation with the process of criminal justice. . . . The President is supposed to protect the law, but he has broken many laws.
If the impeachment provision in the Constitution of the United States will not reach the offenses charged here, then perhaps the 18th-century Constitution should be abandoned to a 20th-century paper shredder. Has the President committed offenses and planned and directed and acquiesced in a course of conduct which the Constitution will not tolerate? That is the question. We know that. We know the question. We should now forthwith proceed to answer the question. It is reason, not passion which must guide our deliberations, guide our debate, and guide our decision. If this process does not result in an impeachment there is something wrong. We know what we need to do. We must make decisions based on information, not on feelings.

Representative Barbara Jordan’s Corrections to the Transcript of Her Statement on the Articles of Impeachment of President Richard Nixon, ca. 1974. Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, 1789 – 2015.

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Background

In June 1972, five men broke into the Democratic Party’s headquarters at the Watergate building in Washington, D.C. The burglars were caught and identified as members of President Richard Nixon’s reelection campaign. Later that year, President Nixon won reelection in a landslide. However, his win and popularity did not eliminate concerns about Watergate. 

Legal proceedings and media investigations revealed that President Nixon knew about the break-in and tried to cover it up. In July 1974, the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives investigated the President’s involvement. The Committee concluded there was enough evidence to pursue impeachment. The next step was for the entire House to vote on this issue. However, President Nixon resigned before a vote could take place. 

About the Document

Barbara C. Jordan, a Black woman from Texas, joined the House of Representative in 1972. She was the first African American woman from the South to serve in the House. In 1974, she sat on the Judiciary Committee. The Committee’s job was to investigate the Watergate scandal and determine if an impeachment vote should take place on the House floor. During the committee’s work, Representative Jordan made this speech. Because the proceedings were televised, people across the nation heard her speak. 

Knowing that emotions were running high, she grounded her argument in the Constitution. This approach captured the attention of many Americans who were feeling disillusioned by the President’s disregard for the law. Representative Jordan’s speech was so effective that it advanced her career. She went from being an unknown junior Congresswoman to a well-respected orator who asked tough questions and held all Americans to high standards.

Vocabulary

  • impeachment: To formally accuse a public official of acting inappropriately or illegally. 
  • Judiciary Committee: A committee of the House of Representatives that closely examines issues related to the legal system and is the first to consider whether the House should pursue impeachment at all. 
  • orator: A public speaker. 
  • proceedings: A series of steps in a process.

Discussion Questions

  • Why do you think Representative Jordan starts her statement with a reflection on the first three words of the Constitution?
  • Why do you think Representative Jordan outlines the purpose and process of impeachment within Congress? What challenges might she and her fellow Democrats have been facing? 
  • Representative Jordan lists many of the issues Congress was weighing in 1974. What are some of these issues? What do they tell you about American policy and interests at the time? 
  • Representative Jordan reflects on the difference between being “petty” and being “big” during the impeachment process. What is she talking about, and why do you think she is addressing this? 
  • What does Representative Jordan mean when she says, “If the impeachment provision in the Constitution of the United States will not reach the offenses charged here, then perhaps the 18th-century Constitution should be abandoned to a 20th-century paper shredder”?
  • Do you find Representative Jordan’s overall argument convincing? Why or why not?
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Suggested Activities

  • The words “We the people” have been invoked by Americans for generations. Invite students to study the artwork We the People by Nari Ward and connect it to Representative Jordan’s remarks at the start of her speech. How do Nari Ward and Representative Jordan interpret these words? Is there a connection between these two resources? Describe it.
  • By focusing on the phrase “We the people” and her relationship to it, Representative Jordan evokes the centuries of struggle African American women faced. Connect her life story to resources on the experiences of Black women by using this link
  • Trace Richard Nixon’s connections to American women in history by linking this resource to the life story of Helen Douglas and the transcript of the Kitchen Debates.
  • The 1960s and 1970s saw women making more speeches in official public spaces. Compare this speech to congressional testimony made by Rachel Carson and Gloria Steinem. How did each woman frame her argument? Are there any similarities or differences?

Themes

POWER AND POLITICS

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