It’s a Saturday night in late October of 1973. I’m nineteen, in my second year at Columbia, in for the night at Phi Epsilon Pi, a rundown row house across the street from the university in which my luck in the lottery landed me a single room with a private bath and a small alcove that I turned into a makeshift kitchen. Never much part of the college social scene, I’m alone, eating some Hamburger Helper and watching the Mary Tyler Moore show, when it’s interrupted with a bulletin that Richard Nixon, engulfed in the mounting Watergate scandal, has fired the Special Prosecutor, Archibald Cox — or rather, ordered his firing — and sacked a series of senior officials who refused to do it, including the Attorney General, until he found one, Solicitor General Robert Bork, who would carry out his orders.
I was outraged at this affront to constitutional government, but in this pre-internet, pre-social media time, had no ready outlet. The next morning, walking on campus, I noticed flyers announcing an emergency meeting on Nixon to take place that night in the law school auditorium. I went and found the room packed with hundreds of people, mostly students. There were a variety of speakers urging demonstrations and other direct actions — this was just a few years after the Columbia campus had been shut down by antiwar protests — that struck me as insufficient to the moment. I raised my hand and stood up to speak — though trained as a debater in high school, this was one of my first forays into speaking to a large crowd — and said that I thought what was really needed was Nixon’s impeachment, that it had to originate in the U.S. House of Representatives, and our focus should be on grassroots pressure (though I probably didn’t use that language, which would have been unfamiliar to me then) on Members of Congress in their districts. I said this with some force, and at least a slight tone of annoyance at the feel-good prescriptions of other speakers, and sat down to some applause.
A little while later I left the meeting, frustrated at its direction, and found myself trailed by three or four others in the audience. They gathered around me, and one said he thought I made a lot of sense, and why didn’t we form a small group to work on Nixon’s impeachment? I said sure, we agreed to meet the next day, and we got to work.
What we did for the next few weeks was quaintly simple and direct. While the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where Columbia was located, was a bastion of liberalism — our own Congressman, William Ryan, was already staunchly anti-Nixon — we recognized that students at Columbia, all of voting age, came from all over the country and still voted in their home towns. So we set up a card table with a few chairs outside the main gate of the campus, and purchased a World Almanac, which contained a list of Congressional districts and their representatives, some rolls of stamps, a few pens, and a stack of envelopes and paper. We stopped students walking by and asked them to sit for a few minutes to write to their Member of Congress urging Nixon’s impeachment.
To arm students with arguments, we had some flyers from the American Civil Liberties Union, where I already worked as a volunteer, and which had come out for Nixon’s impeachment before almost anyone else, with a Bill of Particulars laid out in a full-page ad in the New York Times. We probably had a box or coffee can, too, for voluntary contributions to help cover the costs of the stamps and stationery.
We generated hundreds of letters, even garnering a little local television coverage, and of course the rest is history. The House Judiciary Committee moved by the next summer to approve Articles of Impeachment, and as his position was crumbling, Nixon resigned. Our little grassroots effort was a blip in the movement of history, but in taking action we felt we were playing a small role in rescuing our democracy. It was good for the country, and good for our souls.
Today, the 45th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, in circumstances eerily similar to those which launched my political activism, seemed a good time to tell this story.