Moment of Truth Reflection: Twenty-four years after voting to impeach a president he'd long admired, former Maryland Rep. Lawrence Hogan sees disturbing echoes of Watergate on today's Capitol Hill.

October 12, 1998|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

FREDERICK -- This time no one would applaud his courage or send sympathetic letters. Neither would supporters of a disgraced president address him as "Benedict Arnold" and "Judas," or send him packages of human excrement. This time,for former Maryland Republican congressman Lawrence J. Hogan, there would be only televised echoes of Watergate summer.

When the House of Representatives voted last week to launch an impeachment inquiry of President Clinton, Hogan sat at safe distance, at home in a white wicker chair, watching the debate unfold on C-SPAN. The family room, the one overlooking the indoor swimming pool, resounded with Watergatean patter. Quotations from former House Judiciary Committee Chairman Peter W. Rodino Jr., references to a "third-rate burglary," charges of perjury and obstruction of justice.

Hogan listened to the current members of the congressman's club for about three hours. Their turn now. Poor souls.

"I guess 'simpatico' was the overwhelming feeling I had," says Hogan, who served on the House Judiciary Committee that conducted the inquiry and, at the end of July 1974, approved three articles of impeachment against President Richard M. Nixon. Two weeks later Nixon resigned.

"Watching the debate, it brought home to me exactly the same things we faced in 1974," says Hogan. "People on both sides did not look at the evidence. They did not make up their minds intellectually, on both sides. They made up their minds emotionally. If they disliked Nixon they were for impeachment. If they loved Nixon no amount of evidence was going to convince them. And that was really astounding. All I kept asking was 'Look at the evidence that I looked at and you'll come to the same conclusion I did.' But nobody would. And I think it's the same situation now."

Hogan turned 70 last month. He still has the thick hair slicked back as it was in the newspaper photographs from Watergate days. It's gray, now, not black, and his stocky frame has grown around the middle. A lawyer and former FBI agent who now teaches at the National Fire Academy and writes books and articles, Hogan has been out of politics since his unsuccessful U.S. Senate campaign against Paul S. Sarbanes in 1982.

When he talks about the conflict he faced that Watergate summer, the emotion seems fresher than 24 years old.

He watches C-SPAN and thinks about the decisions members of this House Judiciary Committee may have to make. Many will be publicly condemned no matter what they do. There is the evidence, and then there are other things. Loyalties, politics.

That summer of 1974, Hogan says, he spent a lot of time explaining to GOP colleagues in letters and conversation why he voted for impeachment. Sometimes he got through, many times not. He received about 15,000 letters, some addressing him as "Benedict Arnold" Hogan and "Judas" Hogan. He was mailed packages of feces. Ultimately, he says, he felt he became a pariah among Republicans in Congress.

What an unlikely trip it was for a Nixon man from way back.

"I worked in all three of his campaigns for president," says Hogan, who served three terms in Congress and later four years as Prince George's County executive. "He had campaigned for me. His two daughters and his son-in-law had campaigned for me. I was ideologically in sync with him. I was his ally in many legislative battles. I admired him."

Not important

When it first hit the papers in June 1972, the Watergate story seemed to Hogan nothing more than another round in the long-standing grudge match between the press and Richard M. Nixon. For months Hogan paid little attention to it. When Nixon defeated Sen. George McGovern in a landslide that November, Watergate seemed destined for a future as political trivia. Even in Hogan's largely Democratic congressional district, Nixon was quite popular.

Hogan continued to dismiss the importance of the scandal into the spring of 1973, when the U.S. Senate impaneled a Watergate investigation committee chaired by Sen. Sam Ervin of North Carolina. Hogan's support for Nixon scarcely wavered after the president ordered the firing of the Watergate special prosecutor and the deputy attorney general, triggering the resignation in protest of the attorney general. The debacle of Oct. 20, 1973, became known as the "Saturday Night Massacre."

Soon after this, the House Judiciary Committee inquiry began.

"I started out with a very strong bias in favor of Nixon," says Hogan. Little by little, though, his confidence eroded.

The Nixon investigation went from the fall of 1973 to July 1974. For eight months Hogan and his colleagues on the committee -- 17 Republicans, 21 Democrats -- read stacks of documents, heard witnesses, listened to the tapes. Yes, there was occasional drama, but mostly there was the relentless daily drumbeat of information piled atop information.

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