The impeachment trial of President Donald J. Trump is progressing, slowly, ceaselessly and until the wee hours of the morning.
For me, this impeachment process stirs sharp memories of the Watergate burglary and ensuing cover-up scandal, which ended with President Richard M. Nixon resigning his office before the House of Representatives could impeach him. It also triggers memories of the disgusting way that Gov. Roy Blanton ended his term in Nashville in the 1970s. Though neither of those scandals resulted in an impeachment trial, the issues are similar — corruption, cover-ups and coercion.
In the congressional inquiry into Nixon’s actions involving the Watergate scandal, Tennessee’s Sen. Howard Baker played a very crucial role in a very dramatic series of hearings. Baker sided with the law and reason rather than partisanship and expediency, and cemented his legacy when he asked, “What did the president know, and when did he know it?” For those of us who think the House properly impeached President Trump, our hopes lie with Sen. Lamar Alexander, whose political ideals were shaped by his mentor, the late Sen. Baker. The efforts to seek justice in this case have been met with GOP-led protests and machinations from the outset, but Alexander can rise above party pettiness. I am holding out hope that, at the end of this protracted process, we don’t conclude: “Lamar is no Howard Baker.”
As each day on the Senate floor passes, the need for impartiality is becoming even more apparent. Alexander’s emphasis on objectivity is crucial, while Tennessee’s junior Sen. Marsha Blackburn is sending biased tweets and paying little attention during the proceedings, characterizing them as “attacks” against Trump. Imagine if a juror in a criminal trial acted with such prejudice, tweeting during testimony about the innocence of the defendant. This outrageous behavior is unbecoming, particularly from a person we elected to be our voice in solemn proceedings like this. Alexander’s silence and avowed intent to remain objective is appreciated, despite the fact that those characteristics are what we should be able to expect from every senator.
The most powerful presentation to the jurors of the Senate was by Rep. Val Demings, a Democrat from Florida’s 10th congressional district. Her words were frank and clear. Her opening statements, which echoed the articles of impeachment, discussed the president’s “corrupt motives,” as Rep. Demings stated “his use of power for personal gain harmed the national security of the United States.”
Demings’ background amplifies her words: She was the first female police chief of Orlando and served in law enforcement for nearly 30 years. Her commentary has been profound, both during the trial itself and on social media. “I am a descendant of slaves,” she recently tweeted, “who knew that they would not make it, but dreamed and prayed that one day I would make it. So despite America’s complicated history, my faith is in the Constitution. I’ve enforced the laws, and now I write the laws. Nobody is above the law.”
Nobody is above the law.
In addition to allegations of cover-ups and withholding evidence, Trump has also been accused of manipulating members of Congress using anything that might be an effective tool. One carrot Trump dangles, as The Washington Post investigated and reported upon, is the promise of coveted invitations to the presidential Camp David retreat.
It is not surprising to see our state congressional delegation in lockstep with Trump’s overall message and, particularly, his vitriolic attacks against those investigating the allegations and testifying to their findings and experience. The one glimmer of hope that our conservative delegation may still hold objectivity is Alexander, whose statements to date have been brief and straightforward.
It is not without irony that Alexander’s first day in office as governor of Tennessee in 1979 was accelerated by the General Assembly to forestall a corrupt governor from accepting bribes for pardons. In dramatic fashion, Alexander was sworn into office early to remove Gov. Blanton. In a recent op-ed in The Tennessean, Laura Brown encouraged Alexander to do the right thing. “Tennessee U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander began his political career after doing the right thing to end a corruption scandal,” she wrote. “The decision he makes in 2020 will bookend his legacy.”
A second powerful call to action directed squarely at Alexander urged him to remember the lessons learned in childhood. “We were taught early on the basic values of honesty, civility and shame,” Alexander’s college fraternity brother (and current Oregon State professor emeritus of political science) Richard Clinton wrote. “Where is your courage and decency?”
Powerful words. As we watch the impeachment trial unfold with GOP protests and posturing, I hope we summon the courage and decency to find truth and objectivity. Our Tennessee members of Congress should do the same. “All eyes are on Lamar,” as the Tennessee Holler tweets. They are indeed.
Bill Freeman is the owner of FW Publishing, the publishing company that produces the Nashville Scene, Nfocus, the Nashville Post and Home Page Media Group in Williamson County.