tv Oral Histories Trent Lott on Nixon Impeachment Inquiry CSPAN December 14, 2019 10:00am-10:41am EST
bcus. of one, aloyee college in south carolina, i want to hear more about what the candidates plan to do to sustain in these financially challenging times. >> voices from the road on c-span. >> up next, republican trent lott of mississippi talks about his time as a new member of the u.s. house on the judiciary committee during the impeachment of president nixon in 1973 and 1974. the interview is from the president nixon presidential library and was conducted by the library director in 2008. timothy: you surprised a lot of people by winning and you came
to washington. how was it you got on the judiciary committee? mr. lott: well, i was looking at the demographics, i got access to some of the polling numbers and when i ran, i think maybe in the district i was running in, the fifth congressional district of mississippi, 8% of the people identify themselves as republican, but if you studied the internals, the majority of them were republican and i also knew honestly they would vote for richard nixon by overwhelming numbers, well over 80%, which is what happened. i was comfortable with them on an individual basis, philosophically, and i thought a republican could win in mississippi. a lot of people didn't think so and i remember when i called some of my friends and supporters, they said you would not be able to win, but events
worked out. i was 31 years old. just turned 32, but as time went on, i could sense a change in attitude and the people. you are young, a republican, what is this? by the end, they were saying, look. i like what you are saying. you will be a part of the nixon team and i won by a comfortable margin. then i came up here and i wanted to get on the committee, we build ships and we have fisheries. i wanted to be on appropriations, and i think i probably requested what was then the commerce committee, subsequently became energy and commerce in the house and basically said even though you have been a staff member, you are still a freshman and by the
way, we've got a fine committee, the judiciary committee. we see you practice law in your hometown, that would be a good committee for you to start on. i had an interest in the rules committee but knew as a freshman i probably couldn't get that, so i found myself sitting on committee with 37 other lawyers. one of the more miserable experiences i have endured, i might say. timothy: and you start on this committee, you don't have any idea this committee will be in the spotlight, do you? mr. lott: how could i possibly have known that would end up being where we had the nixon watergate hearings? i would be sitting there voting on articles of impeachment and leading the argument against one of the articles of impeachment, the one having to do with the transfer of his papers to university and getting a tax consideration for that. i was stunned, dismayed,
heartbroken, crushed, worried about the damage being done not only to a man i admired but to the presidency. i can remember looking at the tv when he resigned, just sick. timothy: now we have to go into purgatory. i apologize. tell us about -- after the saturday night massacre, there was a lot of pressure on the judiciary committee to get the investigation going. in the book, you write that you brushed it off as long as you could. mr. lott: i did. i thought this was just a political gambit to try to tarnish him or to get president nixon. i still admired him and looked up to him. i thought a lot of the allegations, you're going to impeach him for bombing cambodia and giving his papers to the
university and getting a tax deduction, in fact, i knew it could be done because i had done it with commerce papers. i knew what the law was because i had dealt with it. i thought a lot of it was mean-spirited, partisan politics. i sat on the democratic side in the house as a staff member, and i never was comfortable with them. not only philosophically. just their approach. it was a negative and mean-spiritedness that i did not agree with. i resisted across the board. i was identified as one of the 10 hard heads on the judiciary committee. not all republicans took that position. the guy that sat next to me was bill coyne. the only guy in the house that was younger than i was at the time, a congressman from maine and right next to him, both of whom started getting shaky on
some of the articles of impeachment. i remember there was a run-up of procedural votes before we got to the vote on articles of impeachment. i remember turning to bill and saying, please at least stick with us on procedural votes. he did not do it. he and i had a long relationship. wound up in the senate, wound up being good friends. he always supported me in my leadership roles in the senate, partially because what we knew about each other from the past. i resisted all that. i sided more with the congressman i admire very much, chuck wiggins from california, who went on to be a federal judge. charlie sandlin from new jersey and several others. let me go back and correct that. carlo butler from virginia, carlos moorehead was on the other side.
i remember i got a call from a mississippian working at the white house. i was in florida on vacation with the family. he said i think there is something you should read. i think he maybe even described it as a smoking gun. i got on a plane and flew back. he met me at the baltimore airport late at night. i read it by car light on the way back to washington. it was obvious to me now at that point that the one article of impeachment for obstruction of justice was going to be unavoidable. so i basically acknowledged i would support that one article of impeachment. i actually had one newspaper in my district, and ironically, the name of the newspaper was the
"poplarville democrat" that wrote an editorial condemning me for not sticking with nixon. even at that point. timothy: you wrote a statement, i think it was august 5, when the tape came out to say though you had voted against all three articles of impeachment -- mr. lott: i voted against all articles of impeachment on the judiciary committee, yeah. timothy: but you said when it went to the house, you would vote for it. that must of been very difficult. mr. lott: very difficult. but at that point, there were not but about two or three still resisting. timothy: did you talk to wiggins, sandman, and moorehead? did they come to the same conclusion as you? mr. lott: in retrospect, i can't recall that i specifically talked to each of them on that. i may have. i'm not sure i did. i think i came to that conclusion on my own and probably wrote a statement on my own.
timothy: tell us about lawrence hogan and congressman railsback. mr. lott: they also were interesting studies. railsback, as i recall from illinois, tried to stick with nixon. he had a relationship with nixon socially in that form. he was struggling with the issue and was more inclined than some of the rest of us oppose all of the articles of impeachment. the other one, hogan from maryland was an interesting study. i think he started off pretty much a hardliner, but began to soften up as we got toward voting on articles of impeachment. i'm not sure he ever voted for the articles of impeachment. i think roy railsback had an influence on him. timothy: first of all, let me
ask you about john doar. what do you remember of john doar and his efforts to give you information? mr. lott: not a lot except i had a negative reaction to him from the beginning. i was not a big fan of john doar . timothy: rodino? mr. lott: well, you know, he was the chairman. i thought he ran a fair hearing in that he gave everybody their chance to be heard. but it was obvious to me from early on that he intended to impeach him. timothy: do you remember seeing the watergate special prosecutor hand over what was described as a roadmap, a 120-page document with all the information they had on the cover up, that was handed to your committee? mr. lott: i do remember that.
he was from texas, wasn't he? timothy: yes he was, sir. mr. lott: highly respected, not thought of as a terrible partisan, more of a texas kind of democrat. i remember thinking at the time it was pretty devastating material he gave us. timothy: you had a very dramatic conversation with gerald ford that summer. mr. lott: actually, that conversation, i think i talked about it in the book. "herding cats." we were at a social event and were out by the swimming pool having cocktails. i'm sure a wednesday. it was during the process of the judiciary committee. i was having some pretty profound statements about my support about how bad it was. i remember him saying basically be careful what you say. i can't remember the exact
words, but don't get too far out on that limb. i remember, it struck me like a bolt of lightning. i'm hearing this from the vice president. what does he know? i never have forgotten that. timothy: let's stop for a minute. mr. lott: i remember it almost took my breath away. i just stood there and looked at him. i thought about it and remembered it over and over again as events unfolded. timothy: you still voted against. the articles of impeachment, i think the vote came after. mr. lott: it did. i'm sure they did. this would have been probably in i'd say mid-july. i think the votes on the articles came after that in late july. it had not gotten as deep into the weeds as it did after he told me that, but it was the first warning i had from anybody
to be careful. timothy: did you have a group -- we have interviewed senator cohen on the group that worked together. did you meet with congressman wiggins? mr. lott: yeah. he was the one i really looked to because i thought he was the best lawyer on the committee. i thought he was our most effective speaker. so yeah, i made it a point of talking to him and talking to the people down the line on the republican side. i was beginning my instincts as a whip trying to hold our ranks together. i was having trouble with the guys up the line for me a little bit. i guess even to a degree, hogan was getting to be a problem. of course, our ranking member was hutchinson from michigan who was solid as a rock from our
standpoint, but clearly not the leader of our side. the leaders were clearly wiggins and charles sandlin. timothy: you write about agnew in your book. you get out on a limb about agnew. mr. lott: yes. i had to. i had taken a trip with a group of republican staff members in the late 1960's. they did not like agnew even then. they were mad at nixon, too, because they did not feel he was conservative enough. remember, nixon was the guy that created epa. he was a moderate on a lot of subjects. they were unhappy.
i wound up working for democrat, arguing with republicans in defense of nixon and agnew. would it all started out, i had no idea what he had been engaged in. i was shocked at what happened. but pleased gerry ford would be selected to be vice president. that was the first time that article of the constitution was used. i actually voted in support of gerry ford's selection to be vice president. and by the way, had to do it again later with nelson rockefeller. timothy: oh, right. in your book, after you describe your reaction to president nixon's resignation speech, you write that this was a constitutional crisis and i had contributed to it. what did you mean by that?
mr. lott: i had been on the judiciary committee. in some respects, i thought maybe i had not asked the right questions. i also had put out a statement saying based on what i had learned, that obstruction of justice was a legitimate charge, and i felt badly even about doing that. here is a guy who had an influence on my decision to run for office and was helpful in my winning and that i looked up to as the president. and i wound up having to sit in judgment of him and eventually having to say i would vote for an article of impeachment. i felt devastated by that. i wondered if i would ever get over it politically. i did not know how it would play out in my congressional district. my district had been 84% or something like that had voted for nixon. it was a mixed reaction as to
how they reacted to watergate and his resignation. it was potentially going to be a real political problem for me. one of the things i have said, and i'm not sure i put it in my book, but it was certainly an interesting and trying experience, but for the next 35 years, it was all easy. after that, nothing was more trying and more disappointing than that experience. i went through a lot of things over the years, including the impeachment and trial of william jefferson clinton. timothy: i read those chapters. that sounded pretty trying. you almost lost your caucus. mr. lott: very trying. yeah, i did. i was always trying to find a way to deal with our constitutional responsibility.
it was trying more in terms of trying to deal with the constitutional questions, deal with the scheduling, deal with how you set it up, how do we get through it in a timely way and come out the back end where you could still do some things for your country. but it did not drain me the way the nixon matter did, partially because i think i was a lot older and had a lot of experience under my belt. yes, i did almost have a revolution in my own caucus. but i don't mind getting in trouble by commissions. it is ommissions. i was trying to find a way to work through it extremely difficult thing and the caucus did not agree with some ideas i tried to put together with the best minds in the senate. i never felt personally as devastated.
in this case, i was trying to get through the process. i was accused by some people that if you wanted to, you could have removed him from office. again, i knew from the beginning, we were not, because i was a vote counter. by then, i had been a whip in the house and senate. i had been leader for several years. i knew how to count votes. i knew the votes were not there to remove president clinton from office. it was always a question of, how can we get the facts without demeaning the institution in a period of time that was reasonable, but that does not go on for months and months and then on we get through, to be able to say we did our job the best we could and let's move forward. i think we achieved that. i felt i did the best i could as
leader during that difficult process. i did not feel the same way after the nixon matter. it was so much more emotional for me. maybe because i was 32 or 33 years old. i had never seen anything like that or dreamed anything like that would happen. by the time the clinton trial came around, i had seen just about everything politically and legislatively. timothy: you said you thought there were the votes to impeach nixon but not the votes to impeach clinton. what did that mean? what was the difference? mr. lott: well, i just think in the house, there would have been enough votes to vote for the impeachment of the president. by then, the majority of the republican congress have come to the conclusion he made mistakes
or broke the law and it was going to get through the house. in the senate, you have people, close friends of nixon's that went to him and basically said the jig is up. and this is going to sound partisan, but i never thought there were enough democrats in the senate that would vote to remove bill clinton from office no matter what he had done. i looked at them individually. i counted them repeatedly. i listened to what they had to say for the slightest little sign. there were a few signs early on. i think tom daschle was very uncomfortable with all of that. there was no question joe lieberman made some speeches that were pretty tough. one of the ones i was watching for reaction was bob burr. when he started signaling where he was, i knew it was over. there were no democrats that could go to bill clinton and say to him what that group of
republican senators did and said to richard nixon. i think when you get in trouble, i have learned over the years, it is better to be a democrat. because republicans will shove you over the cliff if you make a mistake. democrats will surround and protect you. timothy: let's step back for a moment. there will be some kids who watch this, students who watch this 25 years from now. please compare and contrast the constitutional crises of clinton versus nixon. are they the same seriousness? mr. lott: gosh. i voted for articles of impeachment of clinton. i would have voted for the one on nixon. i do think it was more of a constitutional crisis with nixon than there was with clinton. maybe it was the times. maybe it was the break-in and the illegal aspects of it.
maybe it was what the tapes revealed in terms of his discussions and the effort to cover it up in several different ways. i also think i voted for what i thought was the right thing with clinton on the articles of impeachment. most people, if you lie to a grand jury, that is a crime. people have been removed from the federal courts for lying to a grand jury about a crime that you were found innocent of. i felt like he did not tell the truth there. i think the differences were, i don't know why you would differentiate these, but one is about human relationships, sex, if you will, and the other is about breaking the law in terms
of something like a serious obstruction of justice. i really think the nixon matter and the timing, the vietnam war, all that was going on, all that had gone on, was part of the atmosphere we were still dealing with. timothy: you write in your book that this was a watershed for you. you imply, because the next chapter is on reagan, that this pushed you toward reagan in some sense. mr. lott: yeah, it did. i supported gerry ford because i thought gerry ford did a good job coming in with the circumstances he came in with. i will never forget his first state of the union address in
which he said, "i am a ford, not the lincoln." i thought that was very good. i'm not necessarily top-of-the-line. i was not elected to this office. i was selected and confirmed. and i'm not a fancy guy in these media times. it was just a it was just a humbling thing. i think he did reinstate faith in the people in the government to do the right thing. i thought he did the right thing pardoning nixon. because of the circumstances he came in under, because he was the incumbent, and because i had a relationship with him, i admit, on a personal basis, i supported him for election as president in 1976. but my heart was really with reagan even then. but i felt like ford deserved a chance after what he had been through to try to get it in his
own right in four years. so after four years, i was very anxious to get on board with reagan. i thought we needed reagan. i thought it gave me a chance to make up for what i felt i had to do for president ford, so i committed to him early. like in december of 1979. by the spring, i was his chairman in mississippi. i was excited about that. i thought he was what we needed at the time. it also gave me a chance to salve my conscience for what i have done in 1976, even though i endorsed him and i tried to be helpful, i did not go to the convention because i could not stand the thought of all i knew would happen at the republican convention in 1976. timothy: in your book, you give the impression that you might have actually switched the mississippi delegation, in which reagan would have been nominated.
mr. lott: the vote was 17-16 in favor of the ford position. if i had been there and voted my conscience, i probably would have switched that vote the other way. timothy: what did you mean in the book when you said that your watergate judiciary experience was a watershed? what did that mean? mr. lott: it had so many profound effects on me, both in terms of what i was exposed to and the disappointment, but the learning i went through with how the media conducts itself. it really showed me the partisan side of congress, the ugly side of congress, too, quite frankly. it made me a tough partisan for a long time. i became a partisan warrior in the house as a republican and as
a republican whip. i was a loyalist and considered myself a reagan lieutenant. but i was a hard-nosed partisan republican. i did not respect the democrats, i lost a lot of respect for a lot of them. i developed quite a dislike for them in the house. it took me probably 15 years or 20 years to get over that. i did not get over it until i got in the house. still thinking very much as a partisan warrior in the senate. moved over to the house in 1988. i saw a lot of things in the house i did not like. then i started trying to change it. as the years went by, when you get in these leadership positions, you can be a partisan warrior and get nothing accomplished or you learn how to work with people of both parties. you learn how to begin to forge
a bipartisan coalition. you learn how to reach out. by the clinton years, my attitude had changed somewhat. clearly, a defining moment in my political career was that first two years in the nixon impeachment hearings. timothy: what is interesting is you do mention your disappointment at the smoking gun tapes. i wondered if that also had -- mr. lott: it did. i obviously was disappointed and really upset at what happened there and what i was afraid it would do to my country. it made me, not cynical, but it always made me make sure when i was told something in the political arena or in washington or legislative arena, of its veracity. i have a lot of sayings or anecdotes i collected over the
years. one of them is, in washington, it is always about something else. what that means is, the reason they are telling you they are doing something is probably not the real reason. it is probably something else over here. the current debate about the automobile situation is a good example. some people say it is about the workers or you are opposed to to bailouts but it is about who do you represent? timothy: the gentleman who called you on july 31 or august 1, was that jean ainsworth? mr. lott: yeah, had been administrative assistant to a democrat. we had become close friends.
he was with me at the luncheon. the day i officially converted to being a republican. there were other events that led to it, but there was a moment when i said it out loud. i am a republican. he was with me that day. subsequently, he wound up going to work during the ford administration. working so hard, and he was the one that they tasked to call me and say, you need to be aware of this. timothy: he was working for bill timmins at that point? in the nixon administration? mr. lott: no -- i guess it was the nixon administration. yeah. that's right. i jumped over the ford administration, but you are right. it was in the nixon administration. timothy: that is really -- mr. lott: you know, i got to remember my dates and people. after all, that was 36 years ago. timothy: yeah, i know.
is there an anecdote we have not preserved that you would like to add? mr. lott: yeah, i'd like to add one. i kept my relationship up with nixon over the years. i still admired him for his knowledge of the world situation and his leadership. i remember when reagan was going to send troops into granada, i was not sure this was a good idea. i called nixon. by then, i am the whip for the republicans in the house. i called president nixon. he took the call. i said i don't know much about what is going on here about this part of the world. is this the right thing and should i come out for it? he gave me a little history lesson and said absolutely, it is the right thing. i am for it. i put out a statement and he immediately came out very supportive of the effort.
he would still come occasionally to member meetings. or events. i remember when i was elected to the senate in 1988, he had done a fundraiser for me. on an amway yacht in new york harbor. i guess i had sent him up copy of a picture with my wife and with him on the boat. after i got elected, i got from him after the election the picture of the three of us with the statue of liberty in the background in the harbor with a note on it, "congratulations and all of those that were elected, i think you have the best chance
of rising to leadership." timothy: by the way, why were you -- mr. lott: it really struck me at the time. until he got really in poor health, i would periodically call and seek his advice. timothy: it has been a while, but senator, why did you have doubts about granada? mr. lott: i didn't know anything about what was going on. i don't remember why. there wasn't a lot of run up, but i remember i just wasn't sure direct military action was really called for. even though i am a republican and had been supportive of the vietnam war, over the years, i learned, don't just jump out there when military action is involved and say this is a good idea. take your time and check it out a little bit. i think that was it. i wasn't sure why that was the right move. didn't know a lot about the
region. i figured he would and he did. timothy: when iran-contra happened, did you use your watergate experience to give counsel to the reagan administration? mr. lott: i probably did. i am sure whatever advice i gave was probably along the lines of, be careful. about what you say and what you do. don't underestimate this. bring in strong people. i was very pleased when howard baker agreed to go in and close things out. remember, the first six years of reagan, we had won almost every legislative battle even though we were a small minority throughout the 1980's. the beginning of 1987, the wheels started to come off. in retrospect, i think about
1988, president reagan was showing some of the effects of what he had to deal with later on. i was in some of those meetings, iran-contra was talked about and i was very nervous about it. and really liked the fact he brought in some really senior people to get him through that last year without disgrace. timothy: we had an opportunity to interview vice president cheney. did your having met him on that trip in mississippi help you years later when he would be vice president and you were in the senate? mr. lott: i remember that experience, and he always remembers it fondly. of course, he served as chief of staff to gerald ford, got to know him. marveled at what a good job this very young man from wyoming was doing. and then a year or so after that, two years, he wound up
getting elected to the house. i had been in the house by then for six years. i was very impressed with him and developed a friendship with him. by the 1980's, we were in the leadership together. my wife always loved lynn and we went to wyoming and speaking at a lincoln day dinner forum and snowmobiling and skiing. we developed a real friendship during that time. i guess we served in the leadership together for eight years during the reagan era and then he was my successor as the whip when i got elected to the senate. he says he had a 100% record of winning every issue while he was the whip. they never had a single vote hip, because he went on to be confirmed as
secretary of defense. so our relationship continued and it does to this very day. we were with them last monday night and we are good friends aside from all of our political activities. timothy: senator lott, thank you for your time. it has been excellent. [captions copyright national cable satellite corp. 2019] [captioning performed by the national captioning institute, which is responsible for its caption content and accuracy. visit ncicap.org] >> american history tv, exploring the past every weekend on c-span3. as the impeachment inquiry continues in the house, we are looking back to watergate and the impeachment of president richard nixon. for more interviews with key players and discussions of politics in the process, visit c-span.org/history and search nixon impeachment. american history tv products are now available at the new c-span online store. what is new for american history tv and check out all of the c-span products. sunday night on q&a, a professor
of medicine at columbia university talks about her book and human costs of pursuing cancer to the last. >> i should be proclaiming victory from the rooftops that we have gone from a universal 68% ofentence to killing cancers today. only 32% of people die. the treatable and non-treatable once. i asked the fundamental question my frustration is why are we of poisong approaches and burn. 200 billion dollars of research gone? why are we not finding better ways of treating cancer? 8:00 easternht at
on c-span's q&a. >> next, former u.s. house member elizabeth holtzman , a democratic -- a democrat from new york, recounts her time on the judiciary committee during its impeachment inquiry of president richard nixon. the interview is from the richard nixon presidential library oral history collection and was conducted by nixon library director timothy naphtali in 2007. timothy: we are here on april 5th, 2007 with elizabeth holtzman with the richard nixon oral history program. we are taping this in new york city. hello, liz. thank you for joining us. rep. holtzman: glad to do this. timothy: let's start, it's the summer of 1972. you have toppled a senior leader of the democratic congressional leadership. you're running for office. the watergate break-in takes place. you're very busy running for office. do you notice it at all?