Congressional investigation of the presidency can lead to extreme consequences: impeachment and removal of the president. Two notable instances have taken the country down that road. In 1868, Congress impeached President Andrew Johnson but failed to convict him. In 1974, the House of Representatives was just days from debating articles of impeachment when President Richard Nixon resigned. Caught up in the later firestorm was Speaker of the House Carl Albert (D-Okla.). The Speaker and the president had first met as freshman Congressmen at the opening of the Eightieth Congress in 1947. Fate brought them to a less congenial meeting some twenty-seven years later.
Albert's position was unique. After the vice president, he was second in line to the nation's highest office. In October 1973 when Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned and several members of Congress submitted legislation to commence investigation of Nixon for impeachable offenses, the Speaker was in a position to succeed the president and to influence his investigation. But he did not hinder confirmation of vice presidential nominee Gerald Ford, and he did not accelerate congressional activity on impeachment, despite great pressure from some of his colleagues. In fact, he proceeded cautiously and maintained a stance of impartiality to ensure that all the evidence was gathered and would speak for itself. He did not want to be seen as stealing the presidency from the Republicans. Above all, he did what he believed would best uphold the constitutional form of government. In correspondence with colleagues and constituents and in speeches, statements, press releases, and interviews, Albert made known where he stood. He maintained a good written rapport with his constituents, and he could be quite candid with those with whom he had a close relationship. He remained forthright with the press and gave press conferences as developments occurred. A review of his papers in the Carl Albert Center's Congressional Archives makes for an interesting account of the House impeachment investigation of 1973 and 1974.
In early 1973 the Senate organized a committee, chaired by Senator Sam Ervin (D-N.C.), to investigate the Watergate break-in, but the House of Representatives officially remained silent on the issue. In May, Albert wrote to a constituent,
It appears that some of the President's top aides have done irreparable damage to the Presidency and to the nation and I am saddened and sickened by their actions. At this time I know of no evidence direct or hearsay that the President approved the flagrant abuse of power and the abbrogation [sic] of the law by the people on his staff. I believe, however, that this matter must have a full and thorough investigation by an independent prosecutor.But while some members of the House called for impeachment and Representative Robert Drinan (D-Mass.) introduced an impeachment resolution that summer, Albert held back. To a constituent he revealed in July,
Since I, as Speaker of the House, could conceivably preside over impeachment proceedings and am second in the line of succession to the presidency, I think it would be unwise for me to make any public comment at this time concerning the Watergate affair.A deluge of letters was hitting his office by September, and he responded to many of them by writing, "I do not think there is any evidence at this time that would justify impeachment proceedings against the President of the United States. He could remove suspicion easily, however, by releasing the relevant tapes."
The "relevant tapes" were those recordings of White House conversations that the Senate committee and special Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox had subpoenaed but which President Nixon refused to hand over.
Albert was willing to give the president the benefit of the doubt, and he wrote in a letter that is now ironic, "Although the tape recordings could throw some light on specific issues, it is unlikely that they will provide conclusive proof of wrong doing. . . ." Nonetheless, he was gravely concerned about the effect Watergate was having on the country:
Watergate and its general implications are creating a governmental crisis of tremendous proportions. Respect for governmental procedures has been tarnished. Too many of our citizens are cynical about the operations and management of this government. The long promised Presidential explanation has further undermined public confidence in the nation's integrity.The Speaker remained watchful.
Events in October 1973 forced Albert's hand. On the tenth of that month Vice President Agnew resigned after pleading no contest to a charge of income tax evasion. This made Albert next in line to the president. Ten days later came the infamous "Saturday Night Massacre" in which Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus resigned and special Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox was fired.
Pressure from colleagues to impeach the president mounted. Impeachment resolutions are considered privileged under House rules, meaning that they take precedence over all other House business. Albert had to act quickly before the impeachment process fell out of his hands. In his 1990 autobiography, Little Giant, he remembered:
To that point, I carefully had kept the House clear of any investigation of the president. Everyone knew that the House of Representatives alone held the constitutional power of impeachment. Any investigation, whatever its focus, would raise the shadow of that singular but ultimate sword. After the departure of the three top justice officials, all apparent victims of the president's need to conceal evidence, there was no choice. Impeachment was a possibility. Its consideration was the House's duty. How to manage it responsibly required the Speaker's decision.1In a speech given at Oklahoma State University in January 1974, the Speaker reflected on events of the previous October:
Members [of Congress] would not be restrained [after the Saturday Night Massacre]. Calls for the impeachment and resignation of the President started coming in from both Democrats and Republicans, especially from Republicans. Calls for the President's resignation started pouring in. The situation itself had taken the matter out of my hands. The very fact that the President had prohibited the Special Prosecutor from looking into affairs directly with his office made it impossible for me to prevent impeachment proceedings from taking place in the House of Representatives.On Monday, October 22, Albert announced,
The President's action, in my opinion, only contributes to the divisive feelings which already exist in this country. For Congress to act in a hasty or reckless manner would demonstrate equally poor judgment and would be just as divisive as the President's action. . . . Resolutions urging impeachment or an investigation of the possibility of bringing charges of impeachment will be introduced. Consequently, the Committee on the Judiciary, at my request and with my concurrence, will begin consideration without delay of the impeachment resolutions referred to it. It is my belief that the House should proceed cautiously and responsibly. No resolution should be reported by any Committee until it has been thoroughly considered. The House Democratic Leadership does not believe any resolution should be acted upon by the House at this time.The Speaker had decided to refer the impeachment issue to the House Judiciary Committee, a standing committee chaired by Peter Rodino (D-N.J.). Albert explained his action in a 1979 interview:
I just decided that that [the referral of impeachment resolutions to the Judiciary Committee] was the proper way. First, that that [the Judiciary Committee] was a young committee. It was not a well-known committee, that it would raise the image of Congress, that you would just pick right out of a basket all of these people and see how they'd perform, because I didn't know how they'd perform, because any committee nearly would perform just as well. I think it helped the country.If Albert had formed a select committee, he would have been under extreme pressure to appoint to it members opposed to Nixon.
In a press release on October 23, Albert stated,
The House should not hold the nomination of the Vice President Designate [Gerald Ford] hostage as it considers matters related to any impeachment proceedings. We owe it to the country to consider the Ford matter entirely separate from these other deliberations.This may have been a reworking of a sentence suggested by Democrat party advisor Joseph A. Califano and which read,
I have absolutely no desire to be President of the United States and action on the nomination of Mr. Ford in advance of any hearings related to impeachment will make it clear that the House is performing its Constitutional functions in an atmosphere free of personal political ambition and narrow party considerations.In that 1974 speech, the Speaker stated what he thought to be the difference between the House and Senate investigations:
We [the House] were not faced with a question of investigating elections and trying to improve the election process as the Ervin committee has been. We were face to face with the momentous questions of dealing with allegations made against the President of the United States which, if true, would amount to high crimes and misdemeanors within the terms of the Constitution. . . .For the next several months, the Speaker stated that evidence to impeach was lacking but that an investigation was needed nonetheless. At a November 5 press conference he indicated,
At this time, based on the information I now have, I would say that I do not join the group who want the President to resign. . . . It needs to be disposed of once and for all, but it can't be till we and the public know all the facts. I hope sincerely that when the facts are out, we won't have this traumatic expression of the public wanting the President to be impeached.To school children in his district who had sent him letters, he commented, "I personally feel the President has not been the wisest in selecting subordinates but I can't equate that with criminal conduct on his part. It is important that hasty judgments not be made before we have all the facts." In December 1973 Albert wrote to several constituents about the issues that were heavy on his mind:
Impeachment of the President is an extremely serious matter, not only for the President but for the country, and all safeguards provided in the Constitution must be observed. Any other course would be irresponsible.
Congress must know whether the President exceeded the prerogatives of his office, which would then perhaps make him subject to the law or statute, and possibly to contempt charges, whether he abused the powers of his office, or whether he is ignorant as he claims of the carrying on of the ignominious activities revealed in the hearings. . . . I am sure a majority would not vote to impeach the President let alone commit on the basis of the evidence thus far brought up.But to Albert and the House Judiciary Committee, the confirmation of Vice President Ford was the first order of business. After it was accomplished in December, attention turned toward investigation of the president. Criticism of the committee grew, however. By February 1974, the Speaker was responding to letters received by his office by saying,
I see no evidence that this is a partisan proceeding. The impeachment counsel is a Republican and the Judiciary Committee is made up of both Democrats  and Republicans  who were elected by all Members of the House before Watergate and with no thought of impeachment.To other correspondents he stated, "I do not know whether or not they [Judiciary Committee members] will recommend impeachment, but I am confident the Committee will act judiciously and I hope we will soon be able to dispose of the matter."
Albert was soon fielding internal criticism. On March 21, Judiciary Committee member John Conyers (D-Mich.) implored the Speaker to appear on national television to refute Richard Nixon's televised criticism of the House investigation. Albert responded,
Your committee, under the leadership of Chairman Rodino, is doing an outstanding, professional, and fair job. It is proceeding scrupulously and carefully, and I have said so in every appropriate forum. I feel most strongly that we must not allow the inquiry to be distracted from its constitutional purpose and disintegrate into an adversary confrontation. . . .Responding to letters from numerous citizens concerned about the inquiry, Albert wrote,
This is not an adversary proceeding and I have tried to keep from making this an adversary proceeding. I do not want to see this turn into a public debate between the President and the Congress of the United States. The Constitution gives the House of Representatives the power to impeach and I can assure you that we will act forthrightly when the Committee reports its findings to the House as a whole.Tension continued to mount in April 1974 when the Judiciary Committee issued subpoenas for tapes of White House conversations and Nixon appeared on national television to explain that he would only release edited transcripts of them. The committee considered this a failure to comply. Albert responded to an Oklahoma citizen's letter by writing "the Judiciary Committee was given jurisdiction over this matter by the House of Representatives and the President cannot define the Committee's limits" by providing transcripts instead of tapes. He wrote his constituents,
The President responded to a congressional subpoena by going before the public on television. I think this is very serious business and so far as I am concerned evidence would have to be really convincing before I would vote to impeach a president. Impeachment should be taken only for the most serious reasons but [for Congress] not to take action when the integrity of government is at stake would be a bigger mistake.The House Judiciary Committee formally began its impeachment hearings on May 9. A few weeks later Albert was writing in his letters,
It is my contention that the House Judiciary Committee . . . will act judiciously and in a nonpartisan manner in bringing their findings before the House. The Congressional leadership is united in feeling that the President should not resign under political pressure and that the Constitutional process should run its course, thus allowing all the facts to be brought out.By this time Albert was telling his constituents and citizens throughout the country that the impeachment process was entirely in the hands of the Judiciary Committee, thus implying that he had no say in the matter. And in response to calls to hurry the process, he wrote, "The House Committee on the Judiciary has conducted its inquiry with proper professionalism and devotion to duty. The impeachment procedure is far too serious to the nation's future to be determined on the basis of political expedience."
One advantage of having an autonomous committee handle the impeachment investigation was that the Speaker could deflect responsibility to it.
The Judiciary Committee and White House continued to struggle over the tapes during the early summer of 1974. Albert stated in a letter to a college student organization, "The House Judiciary Committee's requests for material from the White House have been very specific and very much related to questions raised about the President's involvement." On June 10, he issued the following statement:
I think the President has not responded responsibly to the requests of the Committee for certain relevant evidence.By this time the Speaker was silent on whether or not the evidence supported impeachment. Clearly, Albert was irritated with Nixon's refusal to give tapes to the committee, and he may have begun to doubt the president's innocence. At the same time, he had to contend with the criticism of such members of Congress as Tip O'Neill (D-Mass.), Bella Abzug (D-N.Y.), and John Conyers, who lambasted Peter Rodino's handling of the investigation. Rodino and Albert feared that if the House moved too quickly, public opinion wold turn to Nixon's advantage.
On July 24, the Supreme Court ruled that the president had to turn the tapes over to the House Judiciary Committee. During the following week, the committee approved three articles of impeachment. Albert wrote to a fellow Oklahoman,
The impeachment process is now irreversible. . . . When reported from the Committee, the House will make the impeachment bill its first order of business. It will be our purpose to handle this very serious matter with fairness and responsibility.Throughout July the president's support in the House of Representatives had been dwindling.
Letters that Albert wrote during the first few days of August show that the House was scheduled to begin debate of the articles of impeachment on August 19. But then on August 5 President Nixon released what would be called the smoking gun--transcripts of incriminating taped conversations--and he admitted to attempting to halt investigation into the Watergate break-in.
Support for the president completely eroded in the House, and several members called for immediate debate on the articles of impeachment. Albert responded to Representative Gilbert Gude (R-Md.) that "the leadership of the House and the [Judiciary] Committee on both sides of the aisle met this afternoon and the Chairman said that they simply could not write the reports and get this matter up for floor consideration until August 19."
While it can be assumed that Albert definitely supported pursuing a vote on impeachment, it is less clear if he would have voted for it in the affirmative. He still believed the House should act cautiously and thoroughly and with great thoughtfulness.
But there was not to be an impeachment of Richard Nixon. On August 8, 1974, the president announced on national television that he would resign. Beforehand, he met with congressional leaders, including Albert. The Speaker related in a 1979 interview that he told the president, "I have not once pushed anybody to accept any kind of evidence. I have nothing to do with recommending that you be impeached." At a press conference after the president's announcement, he told reporters,
All of you who have talked to me everyday . . . know that I never made a judgment on the President of the United States and said I never would until the case was in. You didn't have to be a counter. I think I know how to count Congressmen. I think I know when there were enough members in the House to give a small margin for impeachment but the margin grew by yesterday to astounding proportions and they grew because the President had not come clean about a certain conversation that took place about ten months before he said he knew anything about it.Although Nixon resigned at noon on August 9, the impeachment process did not immediately die. On August 20 the House voted to approve the report of the Judiciary Committee on the impeachment inquiry. It was published on August 22. At this point the impeachment process came to an end.
A few months later Albert responded to a citizen who praised his work:
The reassuring experience of our recent orderly and responsible change of government leadership is evidence that our constitutional system works. . . . The Congress completed its' [sic] role within the Constitutional definition when it began the impeachment process.While Albert certainly was concerned with the presidency, he was more concerned with the orderly operation of government as spelled out in the Constitution. About his own roll in the process, he wrote in Little Giant,
I did not run the House, I only respected it. My job was to let Pete Rodino and his thirty-seven committee members do their job. My job was to let the House of Representatives do its work its way. . . .
Yes, we were slow. Committee hearings and debates consumed nine full months. But because we were slow, we ensured that every view was aired and examined, every piece of evidence weighed and measured. Yes, we were inefficient. But because we were, we were thorough. Yes, we were divided. The thirty-seven committee members were individually loyal to no one man but were collectively bound to the U. S. Constitution and its faith in deliberative government. . . . They were all average members working in a way long derided, but those people and that process worked just as well as I had expected and as the Founding Fathers had intended.2
1. Carl Albert with Danney Goble, Little Giant: The Life and Times of Speaker Carl Albert (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990), 362.
2. Ibid., 365-366.