In 1973, as a student journalist, I stood against the back wall of the ornate Senate Caucus Room and scribbled notes as the Senate Watergate Committee held hearings on the tangled misdeeds of President Nixon.
In 1999, as a Times reporter, I stood in the Senate Press Gallery and watched senators solemnly pronounce their verdicts in the impeachment trial of President Clinton.
And last week, I watched House Democrats launch the third formal effort to impeach a president in the last half century, this time against President Trump.
No two presidents are alike, of course, and no two impeachment battles are alike. Nixon resigned in disgrace in 1974 once it was clear that he would be impeached by the House and removed by the Senate. Clinton was impeached by the House but acquitted in the Senate, and finished his term as a largely popular figure.
The obvious question is whether Trump’s experience will be more like Nixon’s, ending his presidency, or like Clinton’s, an ordeal he turned into a victory of sorts.
Nixon’s offenses were weighty. In August 1974, the House Judiciary Committee approved three articles of impeachment, including one for abuse of power stemming from his attempts to use the FBI and the Internal Revenue Service to investigate his political opponents.
Clinton’s offenses stemmed from his extramarital affair with a former White House intern and his false denials under oath. The principal charge was perjury.
In both cases, impeachment began as a partisan affair. Most Americans initially opposed removing either president. But the two impeachments went in opposite directions.
In Nixon’s case, two years of investigations unleashed an avalanche of new facts: abuses of power, an elaborate White House cover-up and undeniable evidence that Nixon had directed the entire criminal affair.
Yet public opinion shifted very slowly. Only after the discovery of a “smoking gun,” an Oval Office recording of Nixon ordering the cover-up, did a majority want him to resign.
In Clinton’s case, an independent counsel found that he had lied under oath to cover up his affair. Most Americans didn’t see that as just cause to oust him. When the House voted to impeach Clinton in December 1998, only 29% of voters approved, few of them Democrats.
Lesson One: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is correct: An impeachment effort can succeed only if it has bipartisan support. That’s why Republicans, not Democrats, are the ones to watch. For now, impeachment is only a Democratic cause.
Lesson Two: Facts, not arguments, drive shifts in public opinion. Republican politicians edged away from Nixon as damning new evidence of his guilt emerged. In Clinton’s case, Democrats never wavered in their support.
That makes the whistleblower’s complaint ominous for Trump. It alleged that Trump blocked congressionally approved military aid to Ukraine to back up his demand for dirt on Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son Hunter, who had worked for an energy company in Kyiv.
Lesson Three: The offense must be “impeachable” — but there’s no consensus on what that means. The Constitution cites bribery, treason and “high crimes and misdemeanors” as impeachable offenses, but doesn’t specify them.
Some Republicans have argued that Trump’s efforts to get Ukraine to help his 2020 campaign were “inappropriate” but not “impeachable.” But if the House investigations find that Trump delayed badly needed weapons to bully Ukraine into meddling in a U.S. presidential election, more Republicans may think twice.
The irony is that the strongest evidence against Trump so far is the summary he released of his phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Final lesson: Impeachment proceedings are long, painful and ugly. But eventually a resolution comes.
Our republic has survived two impeachments in my lifetime. It can surely survive a third.