The Virginia Republican who defied his mom on impeachment

By: - October 7, 2019 12:02 am

The dome of the United States Capitol in Washington. (Wikimedia Commons)

WASHINGTON — Virginia Republican Congressman Manley Caldwell Butler was a freshman in the U.S. House when he found himself at the center of impeachment proceedings against President Richard Nixon.

The Roanoke lawyer had eked out a win in his congressional election in 1972 with just over 50 percent of the vote. He was the only Virginian on the Judiciary Committee at the time, and took center stage during the impeachment proceedings over the Watergate scandal. 

He was getting harsh mail and bomb threats. His own mother had sent him a letter warning that a vote against the Republican president would spell political doom. 

Butler did it anyway, and voted for two of the three articles of impeachment against Nixon. 

“Dear Mother, you are probably right. However, I feel that my loyalty to the Republican Party does not relieve me of the obligation which I have,” the congressman wrote, according to The New York Times. He believed Nixon had lied and obstructed justice.

Former Virginia Congressman Manley Caldwell Butler, a Republican from Roanoke, played a pivotal role in the impeachment of President Richard Nixon. (U.S. House of Representatives photo)

Butler was one of seven Republicans on the committee — part of a centrist bloc dubbed the “Unholy Alliance” — that went against the majority of their party to support impeachment.  

It was not a decision Butler took lightly, and he later told news outlets that he cried after the vote. But at the time, he spoke unequivocally. Columnists pointed to Butler as a bellwether for eroding support for the president. Nixon resigned before the full House or Senate could vote on impeachment. 

“For years we Republicans have campaigned against corruption and misconduct,” Butler told the committee, according to The New York Times. “But Watergate is our shame.”

Butler told the Judiciary Committee there would be “frightening implications” for the standards of conduct expected of a president if Congress did not impeach Nixon.

“The people of the United States are entitled to assume that their president is telling the truth. The pattern of misrepresentation and half-truths that emerges from our investigation reveals a presidential policy cynically based on the premise that the truth itself is negotiable,” Butler said. 

His mother’s forecast did not play out. In November 1974, as lingering voter anger led to the defeat of many congressional Republicans who had supported Nixon, Butler won his re-election. He won again in 1976 and was not even challenged in 1978 and 1980. He chose to leave Congress in 1982 and returned to private law practice. He died five years ago.

Trump impeachment

Now, another Virginian finds himself in a similar situation. U.S. Rep. Ben Cline, another freshman Republican representing the same Rockbridge district, is the only Virginian on the House Judiciary Committee.

The panel will be at the center of  the House of Representatives’ impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump. 

But so far, Virginia’s congressional representatives have taken party lines on the issue of an impeachment investigation for Trump. Cline called the Judiciary Committee’s hearings an “embarrassing spectacle” and voted against a resolution last month that laid out procedures for an impeachment investigation. 

“While the speaker and her party are now focused on new rumors, phone transcripts and third-party allegations involving the president, I remain focused on doing the job that I was elected to do by the citizens of the Sixth District,” Cline said in a statement last week. 

Virginia’s other three Republican congressional representatives have also questioned the effort. Rep. Denver Riggleman (R-5th), who sits on the Financial Services Committee, called the impeachment proceedings a “political distraction” in a tweet.

Meanwhile, Virginia’s seven Democratic members in the U.S. House have each said impeachment hearings are in order. Sen. Tim Kaine (D) also supports the impeachment inquiry; Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, hasn’t taken a public stance on the inquiry. 

The Democrats’ sentiment on impeachment has taken a remarkable shift over the past month, in light of revelations about Trump’s attempts to get Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son. In July, all seven of the Virginia House Democrats voted to table, or effectively kill, an impeachment resolution. But since then, all have said an investigation is needed. 

Notably, Reps. Elaine Luria and Abigail Spanberger, who represent swing districts and each of whom narrowly defeated Republican incumbents in the last election, wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post last week with five other freshman Democrats that called for impeachment proceedings.

“We do not arrive at this conclusion lightly, and we call on our colleagues in Congress to consider the use of all congressional authorities available to us, including the power of ‘inherent contempt’ and impeachment hearings, to address these new allegations, find the truth and protect our national security,” the lawmakers wrote. 

Back in 1974, there was broad bipartisan support for Nixon’s impeachment inquiry. The House voted 410-4 to give the Judiciary Committee subpoena power for an impeachment investigation. 

In that vote, all but one member of the Virginia delegation backed the impeachment inquiry, including six of the seven Republicans. The exception was Rep. Joel Broyhill, a Northern Virginia Republican who did not vote. Broyhill lost his election in the Democratic landslide in 1974 — a defeat that was considered a major upset.

‘In retrospect, it makes me feel like a jerk’ 

The impeachment of President Bill Clinton also saw Virginia lawmakers cross party lines, but not all of them are proud of that decision now.

When the House voted to move forward with an impeachment inquiry to investigate Clinton’s relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, 31 Democrats joined with Republicans to back the impeachment proceedings. That included five of the six Virginia Democrats in the House at the time. 

One of those supporters was Rep. Jim Moran, a Democrat who backed the impeachment inquiry over the objections of constituents in his northern Virginia district. At the time, Moran said it was a vote “that had to stand the test of time.”

But now he thinks it did not stand that test, at least not for him personally.

“In retrospect, it makes me feel like a jerk, an immature, naive and self-righteous jerk,” Moran told the Mercury this week. “Because what happened in Bill’s private life had no substantive impact on his ability to govern, and that is what should have mattered, but I got caught up in the thing.”

Moran says his vote came out of frustration that Clinton, whom he knew and admired, did not tell him the truth in a private conversation about his relationship with the White House intern.

“My vote to proceed with the inquiry was impulsive, but I never would have voted to impeach him,” Moran said of Clinton. “Even now, when I look back, I would not vote for the inquiry, because he never compromised the United States.”

The House voted on four articles of impeachment against Clinton and passed two. Moran and the rest of Virginia’s Democratic representatives voted against the impeachment articles. The Senate ultimately acquitted Clinton, largely along partisan lines. Then-Sen. John Warner (R) crossed party lines to vote “not guilty” on one of the articles of impeachment. 

“The two impeachment processes are very different. We know about Trump’s private life and it is far worse than Clinton’s, but the issue is really their public life and that is where there is such a vast difference,” Moran said. “I would vote to impeach President Trump on a dime, but that is why I regret my vote on Clinton.”

Moran’s new perspective is a marked shift from how he felt in 1998, when he told reporters he was confident in the inquiry.

“Because of the pressure to vote in a partisan way, it was important to understand why you had to buck the tide and alienate both the White House and most of your Democratic colleagues,” Moran told The Hill newspaper in October 1998. “Having thought it through, I realized there was no question in my mind. I had no ambivalence by the time it was time to vote.”

The first impeachment

Virginia lawmakers played no role in the nation’s only other presidential impeachment proceeding — the 1868 attempt to remove Democratic President Andrew Johnson from office. There were no Virginia representatives in the House and Senate at the time, because the state had not yet been readmitted to the Union in the wake of the Civil War.

Virginia was readmitted to the Union in January 1870.

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Allison Winter
Allison Winter

Allison Winter is a Washington D.C. correspondent for States Newsroom, a network of state-based nonprofit news outlets that includes the Virginia Mercury.