I long admired Rep. Caldwell Butler in my reporting days in Washington, and was sorry when I read of his death last week. I offered a remembrance of Butler's role to a newspaper I had not written for in decades, and Roanoke Times Editorial Page Editor Dwayne Yancey put this on his pages this morning:
The death of former U.S. Rep. Caldwell Butler of Roanoke July 28 was more than a sad moment in Virginia politics; it was a reminder that the model of the elected politician who chooses to do the right thing rather than bow to pressure of party or electorate has virtually disappeared from American politics. Don’t get me wrong: Caldwell Butler could be a fiery proponent of his Republican Party’s conservative mainstream, fighting against an entrenched state Democratic machine that controlled Virginia politics early in his career and bringing about the vibrant two-party political system that gives Old Dominion voters real choices in today’s highly-charged atmosphere.
Where Butler stood out was in the depth of his integrity — everything from his careful parsing of legislation to make sure it did what it purported to do, to his determination to ignore potential for personal political damage on questions of governmental ethics. Many regarded the owlish, bookish Butler as a modern-day Founding Father, as concerned about principle and fairness as about policy. He became a central figure in the House Judiciary Committee’s Watergate impeachment inquiry. He at first regarded the committee as overloaded with “crazies” and maintained a stout defense of the president who helped him win election — right up until he concluded President Nixon had committed at least two impeachable offenses.
Butler’s remarkable speech about his vote, delivered 40 years ago on July 25 and reprinted on these pages in recent days, was the most riveting and memorable drawing of the line in the sands of politics I can recall while working in the Roanoke Times and World News’ Washington Bureau in the early 1970s and covering Virginia and N.C. politics for going on 40 years. He was one of several Republicans on the committee — an “unholy alliance,” as they put it — whose influential votes not only helped move the committee to adopt articles of impeachment, but sent a clear message to the American public that this was a bipartisan indictment of impermissible presidential conduct.
Butler might well have played an even more visible role in the continuing impeachment process had President Nixon not resigned on August 9, 1974, after the release of tape recordings showing the president was deeply involved in a cover-up. His resignation came before the full House was to vote to formally adopt articles of impeachment and send them to the Senate for a trial whether to remove President Nixon. For weeks, Butler had quietly been discussing, on an entirely off the record basis, his views on the impeachment process with my colleague in the Washington Bureau, Wayne Woodlief, for a book that might appear after the process ended. Butler was thought to be the perfect lawmaker to serve as one of the House “managers” of the impeachment trial in the Senate, where House members would act as prosecutors and make the case for the president’s removal. The Roanoke Republican would have been a formidable opponent for the president’s dwindling number of supporters in the Senate, and it would have given him a world-wide platform to demonstrate his legal and oratorical skills. I have no doubt Butler would have ignored the opportunity for dazzling publicity and concentrated instead on doing what he regarded as an unpleasant but necessary job. President Nixon’s resignation short-circuited that book.
That summer of 1974 was fraught with strain and turmoil for members of both parties struggling to resolve a great constitutional quandary. Butler’s wife, June (who died June 28), read to him from Woodward and Bernstein’s book, “All the President’s Men” at bedtime, but the calls and letters from Nixon’s supporters kept rolling in. Late in the proceedings I spoke with Butler and wrote about how he was handling the pressure. The phone rang at my Arlington home the night before the story was to run. An editor had a question that went something like this; “Jack, in your story you say that Caldwell Butler keeps an $80,000 concubine down at Southern Pines. Didn’t you mean ‘condominium’ instead of ‘concubine’?” Knowing that Butler liked a good story, I confessed the almost-error to him the following week when he got back to Washington. Butler quipped something like, “I’m sorry they caught that. It would have done wonders for my reputation.”
Even in duress, Butler knew when to laugh at himself. Then he went back to work.