Commentary: Controlled flight into terrain

By Todd R. Nelson

I grew up outside of Boston and was a political observer from an early age. Perhaps it was having a journalist father, and dinner table conversations that made current events seem vital and engaging. From middle school on I was encouraged to be involved — intellectually and through volunteerism.

And I vividly remember being glued to the televised impeachment hearings for President Nixon during the summer I graduated from high school. It has been oft cited as a distant mirror or historical correlative of the present impeachment trial in the U.S. Senate. It has been a flashback for me. Regardless of the rules, evidence and trial mechanisms, I remember the statesmanship and resounding voices of the representatives of the House Judiciary Committee.

There was the Democratic committee chairman, Sam Ervin of North Carolina, whose vast collection of folksy aphorisms and quotations from Shakespeare were sprinkled through the hearings. He emphasized the virtues of sacrifice and heroism — even in the Civil War — but saw no commensurate redeeming features in Watergate. I would say that his voice is a redeeming feature, as remembered in posterity.

There was the Republican ranking member, Howard Baker, whose famous encomium, “What did the president know, and when did he know it,” has been frequently cited this time around.

Baker surfaced on television in a recent interview in which he reviewed his moment of truth. He had gone to the White House to reassure Nixon that, as the ranking Republican on the committee, he would protect the President’s cause. Then he learned that his good friend John Mitchell, Nixon’s attorney general, might be in legal jeopardy as well. Baker resolved to follow the facts, not the man; the Constitution, not personal loyalty. This safeguarded his legacy.

And it is the stentorian voice of Barbara Jordan of Texas that still rings in my ears. “My faith in the Constitution is whole,” she said. “It is complete; it is total. And I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction, of the Constitution.” It’s a solemn oath; a solemn charge today; a principled stance that guards the republic. It still inspires.

History has not been kind to many, many Watergate participants.

I missed these bipartisan, stalwart voices as the trial of Donald J. Trump unfolded in the Senate. Jordan’s statement reminds me that it was actually a tri-partisan legal proceeding, the U.S. Constitution being an invisible third party — an impartial participant in almost every speech and legal opinion, by senators and pundits alike. Above the fray regarding particular desired outcomes, the Constitution is the voice of reason, process, fairness and protection of the “republic — if they can keep it.” That’s another oft-cited sound bite from Benjamin Franklin answering a question following the constitutional convention in Philadelphia. Could he have imagined his relevance in 2020?

And that’s my deepest takeaway and primal fear following the trial of the President: that the Constitution has been so battered and abused that the republic will not survive as a guarantor of our democratic form of government.

Presidents and politicians come and go. The great document establishing the rule of law — an enlightenment achievement that is the world’s best hope for the rights of man and planetary stability — seems mutilated and abused. The consequence isn’t just a particular impeachment outcome, but the stress and dismantling of the system — a trial that isn’t a trial; truth that is “alternative;” power corrupting and anti-corruption suffocated.

Don’t leap to a defense of your party. Reflect on the voice of Barbara Jordan, Howard Baker, Sam Ervin … or Ben Franklin. How does that voice sound today? Haunting? Informative? Accurate? Cautionary?

Another voice came to mind. Surprisingly, it involves a terse label for one kind of airline disaster came to mind, as I binged on televised coverage of the trial: “controlled flight into terrain.”

The crash occurs not because there’s something wrong with the plane. If visual flight rules are vexed, then instruments will do. However, the instruments and mechanisms must be applied. So it is with our Constitution. It works, if you use it. Pilot experience is crucial as well. But if good people do nothing and the voices of wisdom and ethical behavior are absent or outvoted, it feels like the cockpit autopilot intoning, “Pull up! Pull up!” Alas, it may be too late by the time you hear the warning.

Oligarchy, demagoguery, and tyranny are hostile landing terrain indeed. No chance for a smooth emergency water landing on the Hudson. The historians already warn that it’s later than we think. We are the pilots in this case. How will we land this crisis? The plane wants to fly. Bernoulli’s principle supports the wing’s lift. And whose voice will still ring out for future generations from the “world’s greatest deliberative body”? It’s in the hands of the “lender of last resort” — the American electorate. The capital at stake is ethical, bi-partisan government and preservation of our constitutional liberties…and obligations.

Todd R. Nelson is a retired educator.

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