The week in Washington began quietly, but you can feel the rustle of a gathering storm as the public phase of the House's impeachment inquiry opens Wednesday.
All the capital's main players are taking their places onstage for a grave turn of events that harkens back to Watergate. Congress, the White House, the Justice and State Departments, the press — and, soon enough, the Supreme Court — are girded for a major moment few thought would come.
Echoes across time are clear. President Donald Trump, like President Richard Nixon, got tangled and twisted in a trap of his own words — dark words uttered freely, with no worries about how they would sound to the world. Trump's words were reported by a whistleblower, and Nixon was ordered by the Supreme Court to give up incriminating White House tapes.
Trump's rough transcript of a call with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy reveals a sordid transaction that may rise to bribery, abuse of power or, in the Constitution's words, "high crimes and misdemeanors."
That's for the House to decide, based on testimony from ambassadors and intelligence officers disgusted by Trump's explicit tie of military aid to 2020 political gain by requesting a Ukrainian investigation into Joe Biden and his son.
Nixon's private words on ugly plots, enemy lists and stonewalling were caught on 64 tapes and became his undoing.
Nixon's fall the summer of 1974 was Shakespearean; so tragically flawed was he. About half a century later, Trump may manage to turn the historic proceedings into farce; such a cunning showman is he.
In that span of time, the American people have changed. A solid block loves Roman bread and circuses — the running reality show Trump provides, dishing up daily helpings of hate and besieging even his own government. Nixon saved his hate talk for private consumption.
So the people are part of this constitutional drama, the fourth wall. Our character as citizens will be tested in the days ahead.
The House will likely impeach Trump within weeks, with support from every Democrat in Speaker Nancy Pelosi's, D-Calif., caucus. Pelosi moves around the House floor, holding hands and mobilizing her merry band like King Henry V in army camps on the eve of the great Battle of Agincourt. Strategically, she resisted all temptation to move against Trump earlier.
Isn't timing everything in love, comedy and battle?
Then the Senate will consider whether to remove the president. Anything could happen during a Senate trial, only the third ever in history. Public opinion will sway the 23 Senate seats Republicans are defending, and 20 Republicans would need to join 47 Democrats to make a two-thirds majority. Public opinion, favorable to President Bill Clinton during his impeachment, saved his neck in 1999.
Nixon's resignation came when it was clear both the House and the Senate would vote against him. A handful of trusted Republican senators, including former Sen. Barry Goldwater, broke the news in person.
Simply speaking, Nixon had no friends left in this town. In fact, 18 of his men, including White House counsel John Dean, would go to prison for burglaries, cover-ups and lying under oath.
Whether we'll see three Republican senators dare to face Trump's wrath to say he has lost support is worth pondering. I see no House Republicans up to breaking ranks. They are team players like you haven't seen since the lore of Vince Lombardi's Green Bay Packers.
But there will be more time to think in the solemn Senate trial phase. Kentucky Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, is not fond of Trump. Like Nixon in his final days, Trump has few remaining friends. The only senator who craves Trump's company is Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
Trump let it be known he won't go as easily: "He (Nixon) left. I don't leave."
Catching history's rhymes, author James Reston Jr. published "The Impeachment Diary," his clear-eyed telling of the 1974 political drama as it unfolded. Nixon's last words to the nation were awkward. "He showed no contrition," young Reston noted.
The most eloquent impeachment passage came from Thaddeus Stevens, a Republican champion of emancipation, in a post-Civil War diatribe directed at President Andrew Johnson:
"Unfortunate man, thus surrounded, hampered, twisted in the meshes of his own wickedness ... Unfortunate, unhappy man, behold your doom!"
To find out more about Jamie Stiehm and other Creators Syndicate columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website, creators.com
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