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Peter Rodino: A Member Who Rose to the Occasion

Ah, Watergate. Back in the news 30-some years later, a firestorm of nostalgia triggered by the revelation of Deep Throat’s identity. The look back actually began earlier for me and many, with the death of Peter Rodino, the former House Judiciary chairman who earned a place in history when he presided over the impeachment deliberations that were triggered, in part, by Mark Felt’s conversations with Bob Woodward.[IMGCAP(1)]

In 1973 and 1974, I was in my second year teaching political science at Catholic University. I had helped bring my best friend from graduate school, Michael Robinson, to join my department from the University of Oregon. His wife, Ronna Freiberg, had been taking graduate courses in French literature, and she needed a job in Washington. After a bit of networking, she found one as personal assistant to Rodino, a New Jersey Democrat.

Rodino, despite being the new chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, had labored in relative obscurity. But with the impeachment proceedings against then-President Richard Nixon, he soon vaulted into national and international prominence — and through my connection, I became an accidental, and tangential, eyewitness to history.

Rodino, in the fashion of the day for Northeastern lawmakers, had kept his family back home in Newark from the day he arrived in the House in 1949. It was a classic Tuesday-to-Thursday life, coming down to Washington on Tuesday morning and returning home on Thursday afternoon. On his two nights a week in Washington, he resided in a tiny, barely furnished apartment in the Southwest urban renewal area, a five-minute drive to the Capitol.

The job of personal assistant included far more than making appointments and taking care of Rodino’s schedule. His personal assistant was expected to stay with him until he finished his work on the Hill and make sure he got home afterward. Despite the late nights, the job was not unduly burdensome by Hill standards: Under normal circumstances, Congress was out of session much of the time and on its shortened weekday schedule the rest. Not surprisingly, Rodino did not want to spend more time in his apartment than he had to.

But the Watergate investigation began to metastasize with the Senate hearings chaired by Sen. Sam Ervin (D-N.C.). Once they moved to a stage of examining impeachment charges in the House, Rodino’s schedule and life changed, as did Ronna’s. Soon Rodino was working days, nights and weekends, and she was, too. Michael, Ronna and I shared a house on Capitol Hill. As the impeachment process moved along, Michael and I found ourselves regularly spending evenings in Rodino’s office, hanging out and waiting for Ronna. Often, that meant hanging out with Rodino and going out to eat with him when he was ready to leave the office at 9 or 10 at night. Sometimes it meant staying until 1 or 2 in the morning.

The transformation was fascinating to watch. For most of his career on Judiciary, Rodino — despite a deep involvement in civil rights, immigration and fair-housing bills — had been overshadowed by the long, dominant chairmanship of Emanuel Celler. Rodino was not a leading intellectual light of the House, nor a master politician. He was not a hack or a journeyman, but neither was he a star.

Like Harry Truman, however, Rodino turned an ordinary career extraordinary when circumstance thrust responsibility on him. As I watched Rodino up close and talked to him at those meals (listened, mostly), I saw a man who was at first overwhelmed by what hit him. Frankly, it was more than a little frightening to see somebody who did not seem up to the job.

But it was also clear that he understood the gravity of his position and that he was absolutely determined to work hard to get up to speed, to do the right thing and to make the process work fairly and reasonably. As time passed, he became more confident. He needed that confidence: The Speaker at the time, Rep. Carl Albert (D-Okla.), did not have much confidence in Rodino and wanted to bypass Judiciary in favor of a special ad hoc panel. But Albert was wrong. Rodino was up to the task, and he grew daily as the process unfolded.

For anyone not around Washington then, it is hard to convey how tense the atmosphere was. We were into uncharted territory. Many people saw the impeachment process as a test for the constitutional system — a test in which it was not foreordained that the system and the Constitution as we knew it would prevail. There was dark talk, and not by the usual conspiracy theorists, of a constitutional coup. It could easily have degenerated into partisan warfare, or into a challenge to the role and power of Congress.

But several key people stepped up to the plate and ensured that Congress and the country survived it without a hitch — indeed, with a greater commitment to the rule of law. On the House Judiciary Committee, they included Republicans like William Cohen of Maine, Charles Wiggins of California and Caldwell Butler of Virginia, and Democrats like Paul Sarbanes of Maryland, Don Edwards of California and Barbara Jordan of Texas. But Rodino was the glue.

Rodino managed to keep some of the more restive and partisan Democrats in line even as he worked patiently with committee Republicans to sift through the evidence and reach consensus, or at least bipartisan conclusions. He did not spill secrets or tell tales out of school when we were together; often he just wanted to unwind with small talk. But he said enough for us to understand his burden and the delicacy of his task. What also was clear was his unwavering commitment to the House and the Constitution.

Ironically, Rodino’s success at averting a constitutional crisis in 1974 made it easier a quarter century later for the impeachment process against President Bill Clinton to move in a different direction — a harshly partisan and increasingly petty direction — because Members did not feel there was any risk to doing so. But that does not diminish Rodino’s accomplishment.

Rodino remained as chairman of the committee for almost 15 years after Nixon resigned in the face of impeachment articles voted overwhelmingly by the Judiciary Committee. His subsequent tenure was mostly routine, but he never lost the glow of pride that came from his role in the Watergate crisis. His 40-year career in the House ended in 1988, and he died last month at 95. We all owe him a debt for his service. History will treat him kindly and well — much better, I am afraid, than the current leadership of Congress.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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