In 1973, when Elizabeth Holtzman was 31 years old, she was elected to the United States House of Representatives.
She was the Democrat who upset Emanuel Celler in the primary that year; Mr. Celler had held his Brooklyn-based seat for 50 years, such a long time that it seemed as if it were almost part of his body. Ms. Holtzman, on the other hand, seemed at first to have no business being there. A brilliant student, a Radcliffe and then Harvard Law School graduate, already a successful lawyer in a prominent firm, a local politician and a delegate to the Democratic national convention, she became the youngest woman elected to Congress, a record she held until 2014.
Ms. Holtzman’s career went from height to height, from strength to strength; she’ll talk about some of its highlights on Tuesday, May 21, at a meeting of the Bergen County section of the National Council of Jewish Women. (See box.)
Her life and her choices always have been influenced heavily by her Jewish identity, Ms. Holtzman said. The daughter of two immigrants — her mother, Felia Ravitz Holtzman, came from a small town outside Kiev, she said, and her father, Sidney Holtzman, was from a town near Pinsk — her resume is full not only of civic accomplishments — she was the first and so far only woman elected as New York City comptroller and she was Brooklyn’s district attorney — but also, and relatedly, to causes that spoke particularly to Jews.
“Some of the work that I’m proudest of that I was able to do as a Jewish woman, for the Jewish people and for the American people, includes uncovering Nazi and Japanese war criminals,” Ms. Holtzman said. She later built on that congressional work as a member of the Nazi and Japanese Imperial War Criminal Records Interagency Working Group. In that position, to which she was appointed by President Bill Clinton, she and the other members were in charge of declassifying “more than eight million pages of secret Nazi war crimes files held by the U.S. government,” her bio says. She’s also immensely proud of her work with Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy on the Refugee Act of 1980, which “was the foundational act for refugees in the United States,” she said. “My mom was a refugee, so that was very important to me. And I played a role in the admission of Soviet Jews into the United States, and in the paroling of Iranian Jews into this country.”
At this inflection point in our nation’s history, however, as extraordinarily groundbreaking as all of Ms. Holtzman’s work has been, it perhaps is fair to say that right now the part of it that happened when she was young — just 10 months into her congressional career, as she points out — was when she and her colleagues on the House Judiciary Committee found themselves researching possible articles of impeachment for President Richard Nixon. What was that like?
“Having lived through Watergate, it is very distressing, to say the least, to see some of the same misconduct that is almost identical to that in which Richard Nixon engaged is reoccurring,” she said drily.
To back up, when the Saturday night massacre happened — that was the night of Saturday, October 20, 1973, when Mr. Nixon, desperate to get rid of his special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, who was looking into the odd, almost farcical break-in at the Watergate Hotel, ordered the U.S. attorney general, Elliot Richardson, to fire Mr. Cox; instead, Mr. Richardson resigned. Nixon ordered the next lawyer in line, Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus, to fire Mr. Cox, and instead, Mr. Ruckelshaus also resigned. The next man in line, Solicitor General Robert Bork, did fire Mr. Cox, but by then the bodies were lying unignorably out in the open, and in a few days the House Judiciary Committee, backed by newly ignited public rage, began its work on impeachment.
“That was just 10 months after I took office,” Ms. Holzman said. And her presence on the Judiciary Committee was a major accomplishment. Barbara Jordan, the nearly legendary Democrat from Texas whose groundbreaking work for civil rights made a world-changing difference, “and I were the first women to sit on the House Judiciary Committee,” Ms. Holtzman said.
So how is the situation now similar to what it was in 1973, and how is it different? Ms. Holtzman, whose most recent book, which came out last year, is called “The Case for Impeaching Trump,” sighed.
“Let’s look at the articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon,” she said. “The committee voted to impeach him, for example, for offering presidential pardons to the Watergate burglars to keep them from cooperating with the prosecutors. It was part of the coverup. We see something that looks almost identical now. In Watergate, one of the articles charged President Nixon with trying to enlist the CIA in obstructing the FBI’s investigation. That’s almost identical to the claim that Donald Trump tried to enlist the head of the CIA and the director of national intelligence to shut down the FBI’s investigation. And Nixon’s firing of the special prosecutor was one of the articles of impeachment. Here we have not only the firing of Comey but the attempt to fire Mueller for the purpose of inhibiting or stopping the investigation.” (She’s talking about Mr. Trump’s removal of FBI director James Comey and his attempts to fire special counsel Robert Mueller III, attempts reported by Mr. Mueller himself in his recently issued report.)
“It’s really shocking to see a repetition of this behavior, and it’s awful for our democracy,” she said. “The president doesn’t seem to have learned from history. What we are talking about is the perversion of our democracy.”
What about impeachment? “We have to study what the framers meant,” Ms. Holtzman said. “The impeachment power was given to Congress to protect the democracy from a president run amok. The framers feared executive power.” As with so many things, there’s a tension there, a balance that’s hard but necessary to maintain. “They knew that executive power is necessary to run a country, but they also knew that there could be excesses. They had seen it. They had fought a revolution over it. They didn’t want to repeat it.”
Because nobody knew much about impeachment when the hearings began, “We had to start from scratch,” Ms. Holtzman said. “The last one had been about one hundred years before. So I read. I read memos. I read some pretty big British tomes about impeachment. Everybody was in the same boat. Nobody had known much about it.” As it turns out, impeachment has a long and colorful history; she found herself reading about Warren Hastings, the first Briton to hold the wonderful title of Governor-General of Bengal. The House of Commons tried but failed to impeach him for offenses committed in Calcutta, giving up the effort in 1795. (Some parts of this information were more relevant than other parts of it.)
Impeachment is a powerful tool. “It was a huge responsibility, and nobody knew what the outcome would be when we started. We just knew that the president was a danger to the country, and that we had to follow the Constitution fairly and honorably.
“The impeachment process has to be used carefully,” she continued. “It has to be used fairly and appropriately, and only when it is justified.” It worked with Richard Nixon, she said, although he quit before he could be impeached. “The evidence against Nixon was fairly overwhelming, and the consensus was bipartisan. The country accepted it, history accepted it, and Nixon resigned, forever disgraced.”
What about now? There are many similarities, but surely there also are differences. Trump and Nixon are very different presidents. “Nixon was well informed about foreign affairs,” she said; he knew and cared about policy and programs. “Trump doesn’t seem to care about much beyond the wielding of power.”
Another difference, at least for now, is the American people’s understanding of the situation, but that’s because we’re at the beginning of it, she suggested. “We don’t have the whole story yet.” It’s not public. The public had a chance to hear about Watergate firsthand, to watch the story as it unfolded on television, “because of the Senate hearings, led by Sam Ervin,” the folksy Democrat from North Carolina who chaired the Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, known less formally as the Senate Watergate Committee, “and Howard Baker,” the committee’s ranking member, a Republican from Tennessee “who really was very conservative.” Together, they allowed the hearings to be televised, and members of both parties took the chance to gather information and assess its value seriously. And so could everyone else.
“The American people could see the key witnesses testify, and they could see exactly what their demeanor was,” Ms. Holtzman said. “It was an important education for the American people,” and it gave people the chance to make up their own minds, based on evidence as well as emotion.
“Now, with the Republicans controlling Congress until this year, and controlling the Senate still, they basically are not holding public hearings. The public has not had a chance to see Don McGahn, who basically is the John Dean equivalent” — like Mr. McGahn, Mr. Dean was White House counsel for the president — “testify in public. There hasn’t been a coherent narrative presented yet.”
But she thinks it’s possible, because providing the facts and allowing the public to learn them takes time “When we started our impeachment process, there was no head count,” Ms. Holtzman said. “Nobody knew if there even would be enough votes on the Judiciary Committee to support impeachment.
“We don’t have to know what the outcome of a trial will be before it starts.” In fact, we can’t. “But you have to get the evidence.”
To go back, way back, before Watergate, what was it like for Ms. Holtzman to be elected to Congress? Unexpected and surprising, she said. “We were unable to raise very much money for my campaign,” she said; her opponent, Mr. Celler, was thought to be unbeatable. “So my victory was a big shock to the political establishment. I wasn’t a familiar presence on TV. We had no TV commercials. We didn’t even have any radio commercials.”
So when she was elected, not only was it a shock to the rest of the world, it was, a bit, to her too. “I didn’t know what it would be like.” So when the House Judiciary Committee hearings made her an ultra-public person, “when I had a huge public recognition on a personal basis, I didn’t expect it.”
Elizabeth Holtzman approached the idea of impeachment in 1973, as she has approached the other public issues she’s dealt with, from a strong sense of Jewish identity and values. “What I brought as a Jew is the concern about preserving our democracy, because the rule of law and our constitutional system is really important to the survival of the Jewish people,” she said. “We see how fragile our situation is, no matter where we are, so having a government that is lawful is very important to us as a people — and to me as a person.”
Who: Elizabeth Holtzman
What: Will speak at the general meeting of the Bergen County section of the National Council of Jewish Women
When: On Tuesday, May 21, at 12:30 p.m.
Where: At Temple Emeth, 1666 Teaneck Road, Teaneck
How much: Free for members; $10 for nonmembers
What else: Refreshments
For more information: Go to www.ncjwbcs.org or call (201) 385-4847.