Published December 27, 2006
WASHINGTON – Nixon and Watergate were not the only time Gerald R. Ford wrestled with the issue of impeachment.
In April 1970, at the request of White House aide John Ehrlichman, Ford led an effort by more than 100 House members to impeach Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. The effort stemmed from the Senate's rejection of two Nixon nominees to the court, Clement Haynsworth Jr. and G. Harrold Carswell.
In a now-famous speech on the House floor, Ford told his colleagues that "an impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers (it) to be at a given moment in history."
Ford based his case on Douglas' association with a foundation built partly on gambling money and the appearance of some of the eccentric justice's writings in an issue of Evergreen Review magazine, in which nude photographs also appeared.
The Evergreen charge earned Ford the mocking of Democrats, who painted him as a bluenosed prude.
A House judiciary subcommittee concluded in December 1970 there was no link between Douglas and gambling and that none of Ford's other complaints warranted impeachment, even if true.
Three years later, appearing before a Senate committee as vice president designate, Ford was asked if he still held to his definition of an impeachable offense and whether Nixon could be impeached on the same basis. He replied, surely to Nixon's discomfort, that the reality was the same. Of course, Nixon resigned, before impeachment could be brought.
Years later, when President Clinton faced Congress' wrath over the Monica Lewinsky affair, Ford publicly urged Clinton to "accept full responsibility" and a "harshly worded rebuke" — and try to avoid the trauma of impeachment.
"At 85, I have no personal or political agenda," Ford wrote, "nor do I have any interest in 'rescuing' Bill Clinton. But I do care, passionately, about rescuing the country I love from further turmoil or uncertainty."
After the House impeached Clinton, Ford joined ex-President Jimmy Carter, in an op-ed article, appealing to the Senate to end the impeachment proceeding with a bipartisan censure resolution:
"Make no mistake, the judgment of history does matter," they wrote. "... And impeachment by the full House has already brought profound disgrace to President Clinton. Whatever happens now will do little to affect history's judgment of him."