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Editor’s note: This column first appeared on the website of North Star Writers Group.
In 1974, 27-year-old Hillary Rodham found herself at the center of a congressional firestorm over the question of whether Richard Nixon had a right to counsel as he faced impeachment proceedings.
In my column of Monday, March 31, 2008, I reported the account of Jerry Zeifman, who served at the time as general counsel and chief of staff to the House Judiciary Committee. Zeifman minced no words about Hillary’s behavior when she worked on the House Judiciary staff during the impeachment investigation.
After signing her termination papers, Zeifman refused Hillary a letter of recommendation. He told me in an interview that this was because she had shown herself to be a liar and an unethical lawyer.
During the past week, I have done further reporting and interviewed two others who were close to the proceedings at the time. The picture that emerges from all this is that of a very ambitious young lawyer who was eager to please her political patrons, and was willing to mislead and undermine established committee staff and senior committee members in order to do so.
To recap, Hillary was hired to work on the impeachment investigation by the Democratic Judiciary Committee staff. During the investigation, two camps formed on the question of whether Nixon should be afforded the right to counsel. Chief counsel John Doar was one of the leaders of the no-counsel camp, which also included Hillary, future Clinton White House Counsel Bernard Nussbaum and Yale Law professor Burke Marshall, who served as an outside consultant to the committee. Marshall had been one of Hillary’s law professors at Yale and was also close to the Kennedys, having served as Ted Kennedy’s lawyer in the aftermath of Chappaquiddick.
Zeifman’s allegations against Hillary center on a memorandum she wrote arguing that there was no precedent for a person facing impeachment to be allowed counsel. Zeifman says he told Hillary that the 1970 impeachment attempt against Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas established an impeachment target’s right to counsel, and as Hillary prepared the memorandum on the issue, Zeifman briefed her thoroughly on the Douglas case and directed her to the Douglas case files in the Judiciary Committee archives.
According to Zeifman, Hillary then removed the Douglas case files from the Judiciary Committee archives without his permission, and proceeded to write a memorandum arguing that no right to counsel existed in impeachment cases – as if the Douglas case had never happened and the Douglas files did not exist.
Franklin Polk, who served at the time as chief Republican counsel on the committee, confirmed many of these details in two interviews he granted me this past Friday, although his analysis of events is not always identical to Zeifman’s. Polk specifically confirmed that Hillary wrote the memo in question, and confirmed that Hillary ignored the Douglas case. (He said he couldn’t confirm or dispel the part about Hillary taking the Douglas files.)
To Polk, Hillary’s memo was dishonest in the sense that she tried to pretend the Douglas precedent didn’t exist. But unlike Zeifman, Polk considered the memo dishonest in a way that was more stupid than sinister.
“Hillary should have mentioned that (the Douglas case), and then tried to argue whether that was a change of policy or not instead of just ignoring it and taking the precedent out of the opinion,” Polk said.
Polk recalled that the attempt to deny counsel to Nixon upset a great many members of the committee, including just about all the Republicans, but many Democrats as well.
“The argument sort of broke like a firestorm on the committee, and I remember Congressman Don Edwards was very upset,” Polk said. “He was the chairman of the subcommittee on constitutional rights. But in truth, the impeachment precedents are not clear. Let’s put it this way. In the old days, from the beginning of the country through the 1800s and early 1900s, there were precedents that the target or accused did not have the right to counsel.”
That’s why Polk believes Hillary’s approach in writing the memorandum was foolish. He says she could have argued that the Douglas case was an isolated example, and that other historical precedents could apply.
But Zeifman says the memo and removal of the Douglas files was only part the effort by Hillary, Doar, Nussbaum and Marshall to pursue their own agenda during the investigation.
After my first column, some readers wrote in claiming Zeifman was motivated by jealousy because he was not appointed as the chief counsel in the investigation, with that title going to Doar instead.
Zeifman’s account is that he supported the appointment of Doar because he, Zeifman, a) did not want the public notoriety that would come with such a high-profile role; and b) didn’t have much prosecutorial experience. When he started to have a problem with Doar and his allies was when Zeifman and others, including House Majority Leader Tip O’Neill and Democratic committee member Jack Brooks of Texas, began to perceive Doar’s group as acting outside the directives and knowledge of the committee and its chairman, Peter Rodino.
(O’Neill died in 1994. Brooks is still living and I tried unsuccessfully to reach him. I’d still like to.)
This culminated in a project to research past presidential abuses of power, which committee members felt was crucial in aiding the decisions they would make in deciding how to handle Nixon’s alleged offenses.
According to Zeifman and other documents, Doar directed Hillary to work with a group of Yale law professors on this project. But the report they generated was never given to the committee. Zeifman believes the reason was that the report was little more than a whitewash of the Kennedy years – a part of the Burke Marshall-led agenda of avoiding revelations during the Watergate investigation that would have embarrassed the Kennedys.
The fact that the report was kept under wraps upset Republican committee member Charles Wiggins of California, who wrote a memo to his colleagues on the committee that read in part:
Within the past few days, some disturbing information has come to my attention. It is requested that the facts concerning the matter be investigated and a report be made to the full committee as it concerns us all.
Early last spring when it became obvious that the committee was considering presidential “abuse of power” as a possible ground of impeachment, I raised the question before the full committee that research should be undertaken so as to furnish a standard against which to test the alleged abusive conduct of Richard Nixon.
As I recall, several other members joined with me in this request. I recall as well repeating this request from time to time during the course of our investigation. The staff, as I recall, was noncommittal, but it is certain that no such staff study was made available to the members at any time for their use.
Wiggins believed the report was purposely hidden from committee members. Chairman Rodino denied this and said the reason Hillary’s report was not given to committee members was that it contained no value. It’s worth noting, of course, that the staff member who made this judgment was John Doar.
In a four-page reply to Wiggins, Rodino wrote in part:
Hillary Rodham of the impeachment inquiry staff coordinated the work. … After the staff received the report it was reviewed by Ms. Rodham, briefly by Mr. Labovitz and Mr. Sack, and by Doar. The staff did not think the manuscript was useful in its present form. …
In your letter you suggest that members of the staff may have intentionally suppressed the report during the course of its investigation. That was not the case.
As a matter of fact, Mr. Doar was more concerned that any highlight of the project might prejudice the case against President Nixon. The fact is that the staff did not think the material was usable by the committee in its existing form and had not had time to modify it so it would have practical utility for the members of the committee. I was informed and agreed with the judgment.
Mr. Labovitz, by the way, was John Labovitz, another member of the Democratic staff. I spoke with Labovitz this past Friday as well, and he is no fan of Jerry Zeifman.
“If it’s according to Zeifman, it’s inaccurate from my perspective,” Labovitz said. He bases that statement on a recollection that Zeifman did not actually work on the impeachment inquiry staff, although that is contradicted not only by Zeifman but Polk as well.
Labovitz said he has no knowledge of Hillary having taken any files, and defended her no-right-to-counsel memo on the grounds that, if she was assigned to write a memo arguing a point of view, she was merely following orders.
But as both Zeifman and Polk point out, that doesn’t mean ignoring background of which you are aware, or worse, as Zeifman alleges, confiscating documents that disprove your argument.
All told, Polk recalls the actions of Hillary, Doar and Nussbaum as more amateurish than anything else.
“Of course the Republicans went nuts,” Polk said. “But so did some of the Democrats – some of the most liberal Democrats. It was more like these guys – Doar and company – were trying to manage the members of Congress, and it was like, ‘Who’s in charge here?’ If you want to convict a president, you want to give him all the rights possible. If you’re going to give him a trial, for him to say, ‘My rights were denied’ – it was a stupid effort by people who were just politically tone deaf. So this was a big deal to people in the proceedings on the committee, no question about it. And Jerry Zeifman went nuts, and rightfully so. But my reaction wasn’t so much that it was underhanded as it was just stupid.”
Polk recalls Zeifman sharing with him at the time that he believed Hillary’s primary role was to report back to Burke Marshall any time the investigation was taking a turn that was not to the liking of the Kennedys.
“Jerry used to give the chapter and verse as to how Hillary was the mole into the committee works as to how things were going,” Polk said. “And she’d be feeding information back to Burke Marshall, who, at least according to Jerry, was talking to the Kennedys. And when something was off track in the view of the Kennedys, Burke Marshall would call John Doar or something, and there would be a reconsideration of what they were talking about. Jerry used to tell me that this was Hillary’s primary function.”
Zeifman says he had another staff member get him Hillary’s phone records, which showed that she was calling Burke Marshall at least once a day, and often several times a day.
A final note about all this: I wrote my first column on this subject because, in the aftermath of Hillary being caught in her Bosnia fib, I came in contact with Jerry Zeifman and found his story compelling. Zeifman has been trying to tell his story for many years, and the mainstream media have ignored him. I thought it deserved an airing as a demonstration of how early in her career Hillary began engaging in self-serving, disingenuous conduct.
Disingenuously arguing a position? Vanishing documents? Selling out members of her own party to advance a personal agenda? Classic Hillary. Neither my first column on the subject nor this one were designed to show that Hillary is dishonest. I don’t really think that’s in dispute. Rather, they were designed to show that she has been this way for a very long time – a fact worth considering for anyone contemplating voting for her for president of the United States.
By the way, there’s something else that started a long time ago.
“She would go around saying, ‘I’m dating a person who will some day be president,'” Polk said. “It was like a Babe Ruth call. And because of that comment she made, I watched Bill Clinton’s political efforts as governor of Arkansas, and I never counted him out because she had made that forecast.”
Bill knew what he wanted a long time ago. Clearly, so did Hillary, and her tactics for trying to achieve it were established even in those early days.
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This column first appeared at North Star Writers Group, of which Dan Calabrese is editor in chief.