The man in the impeachment hot seat this week end is House Minority Leader John J. Rhodes of Arizona.
Anyone who watched the anguished faces of House Judiciary Committee members on television last week could not help but be sympathetic to what Rhodes has suffered as he tried to think his way through his dilemma.
The congressman, who helped launch fellow Arizonan Barry Goldwater’s presidential bid, and who shares most of Goldwater’s conservative views, is a Nixon loyalist all the way.
At least he always has been.
Now he is coming face to face with his conscience on impeachment, and he has told reporters he is deeply troubled by some of the evidence against the President.
“He’s probably in the most difficult position of anyone right now; he’s damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t,” says his longtime close friend Melvin Laird, former congressman, defense secretary and staff aide at the Nixon White House, now with Readers Digest.
“He’s not the only one on the spot, but it’s a problem for him sooner because he’s a leader,” Laird added.
“I assume all his instincts are to stay with Nixon and the party, but he’s a decent, honorable man, a man of integrity,” says Rep. Morris Udall, a liberal Democrat from Arizona.
“He’s a team player, he wants to help his party, his President, but he would not do anything wrong,” Udall added. “I would say he would not be a lackey for the White House. He would call the signals on his own.”
Rhodes has said if he decides he must vote against “my President” he will temporarily step down from his leadership post, turning it over to someone “who could lead a vigorous, vociferous and effective defense of the President. I think the President is entitled to that.”
That leadership decision gave Rhodes less time than his colleagues to make up his mind, because if he does relinquish his post to someone else, he owes that person time to prepare his defense.
Rhodes says he will announce his decision at a 10:30 a.m. press conference tomorrow on live TV. He had said he would make his announcement last Wednesday but postponed it because he had not yet made up his mind. He did decide, however, later that day.
He has been spending long hours reading the House Judiciary Committee evidence and testimony, and there is a report that he is particularly disturbed by the apparent misuse of government agencies by the Nixon White House. Those charges form the core of the second article of impeachment voted last week by the Judiciary Committee.
House colleagues and others following the course of the impeachment are watching Rhodes’ moves closely, because there has been a view that if the conservative Arizonan deserts Nixon, he will pull many conservative GOP members over the side with him.
Rhodes acknowledges that probably would be the result, if he does defect.
Melvin Laird disagrees.
“Impeachment is a matter of individual conscience,” he argues. “Nobody is going to cast his vote just because of what someone else does. I really feel most members will vote their conscience. It’s not easy. This will be the toughest vote most of these people will ever have to cast.”
Laird, who was seen prowling the halls of Congress at least two days last week, presumably knows what Rhodes is going to do, but he’s not talking. Whether Laird was up there twisting arms for the President—or just taking soundings—was not clear either.
Other observers say the tide is now running so fast against Nixon in the House of Representatives that “pretty soon John Rhodes won’t be leading no matter what he does. He may be running to catch up.”
Rhodes himself agrees that as of now a majority of the House would vote for impeachment—but not a majority of Republicans, he says.
“You have to bear in mind that it Is a very volatile situation that ebbs and flows—though the tide seems to be flowing away from the President right now.”
Rhodes warned Ben Cole of the Arizona Republic last week not “to second guess me,” but there is a growing belief around the Capitol that the Arizonan probably will come out against Nixon.
The mere tact that he raised the possibility himself, by saying he might have to step down from the leadership, fuels that view, and a few of the GOP congressmen who were meeting with him in rap sessions all last week came to the conclusion.
While he is not willing to tip his hand on the ending, he seems to have the scenario all worked out in his mind. He should step aside if he deserts Nixon, he says, because:
“One, Mr. Nixon was elected by the Republican party. Two, I think most Republicans would expect the leader of their party in the House to support the head of his own party. And three, if I don’t support him, then I think the leadership post should be held by someone who does.”
He even has thought through the process for finding a temporary leader. He believes he should make the selection. “I think I would pick someone obviously and openly in support of the President,” perhaps (House Republican Whip) Leslie Arends or “a Judiciary Committee member who voted with the President. It should be somebody that the people who would support the President would find no fault with.”
Rhodes thinks his Republican colleagues probably would “forgive” him if he opts for impeachment, even though be thinks the majority —in their hearts, if not their votes—lean the other way.
Rhodes is a loner in congressional matters, unlike his more gregarious predecessor, Gerald Ford.
“Jerry Ford would never have had to hold a series of meetings with members to find out what they were thinking; he would just always know; he’d sort of absorb the ideas from around him,” says a veteran Capitol Hill reporter.
Rhodes, who barely got his feet wet as minority leader before impeachment began, “was catapulted into that position at a very difficult time,’’ says a colleague.
Succeeding without contest (potential rivals all faded away) after Ford was sworn in as vice president last Dec. 7, Rhodes has tried to rally GOP forces, but the enlarging shadow of impeachment has tended to fog the whole congressional process this year.
His colleagues give him good marks for diligence and intelligence.
“He’s not a slap-on-the-back kind of guy, but he’s one of those people who does not have enemies; I do not know anyone who dislikes or distrusts him,” says Udall. “He’s reasonable, sensitive, introspective—really a first rate man.”
“A man of exceedingly high character; he reigns with a cool hand,” says reporter Ben Cole, who has covered him for years. “He has a sense of the appropriateness of things. I think that’s what gives him such outstanding leadership qualities.”
“He doesn’t joke and back slap like Jerry Ford, but he’s smarter; he’s highly respected,” says a colleague.
From time to time Rhodes has dropped mini bomb shells on the White House in the Watergate matter. He said on May 9, after the edited transcripts were released by the White House, that the President “should be considering” the possibility of resigning.
He also called on the President to give the Judiciary Committee the evidence it said it needed. And when invited on one of those Nixon cruises down the Potomac on the yacht Sequoia, he pleaded a previous engagement.
Kidded later by a reporter for rejecting “Cleopatra’s barge,” the usually shy, restrained congressman astonished his listeners by saying: “When I get on a barge, I want a broad.”
It was hardly what the White House had expected from a loyal lieutenant on Capitol Hill.
Yet Rhodes had tried to carry water for the President earlier in the year, by getting what he thought was an agreement from Judiciary Committee chairman Peter Rodino to bring impeachment to the House floor by April. He thought that would get the matter out of the way before lengthy hearings could inflame the public and before election panic set in among members of Congress.
The agreement fell apart for various reasons—one big one being White House intransigence in turning over subpoenaed tapes, which slowed down the whole process. The committee finally acted without the tapes.
John Rhodes, 57, first came to Congress in 1953 in the Eisenhower landslide. He and Goldwater had started out in Arizona politics together. He says he is “somewhere to the right of center,” but his record seems to put him further to the right than that. He is an ardent defender of “right to work” laws, for instance. He sees the Democrats’ drive to create a “veto-proof Congress” as opening the door to “a wave of pro-labor legislation.” But he denies he is “a labor baiter or hater.”
He worked his way up the seniority ladder in the House to the second ranking spot on the powerful Appropriations Committee, and was chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee before moving to his new spot.
Until he became minority leader he generally has tended to work behind the scenes. The subjects that fascinate him, in any case, do not generally make for zippy headlines. He considers his work on the Joint Committee on Budget Control “one of the most gratifying experiences of my congressional life.”
Rhodes and his wife Betty live in Bethesda. Their four children give him the accolade that they never felt a generation gap.
The family had the time of its life last summer taking a five-day float trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. It was a big group that included several in-laws of eldest son Jay (John III), 30, the only one who is married.
The others are Tom, 27, who works in a bank in Phoenix; Elizabeth, 20, a junior in political science at Whittier College (Richard Nixon’s alma mater, but there is no connection, Mrs. Rhodes says), and Scott, 17, who will be a junior at Landon School in Bethesda this fall.
This year’s vacation for the Rhodes’ has consisted of two days at Ocean City, Md., and they think that’s all they are likely to get.