A most extreme circumstance
Richard Nixon resigned the presidency 40 years ago today, which is not to say that he has gone away.
The ghost of the talented but deeply flawed Mr. Nixon haunts the capital today, finding sustenance in politics that are much more polarized than when he held office.
Mr. Nixon clearly was guilty of egregious abuses of power aimed at undermining the democratic process itself. He actively participated in the attempt to cover the trail of the Watergate break-in that led back to his own re-election effort, and attempted to use the power of the executive branch in that endeavor and to punish his enemies.
Soon after Mr. Nixon lifted off the White House lawn for the last time, a parade of his former advisers began to head off to prison for their roles in executing the coverup.
It's worth remembering, four decades later, not just that the scandal happened but that it also produced a triumph for democracy. As President Gerald Ford said upon succeeding Mr. Nixon: "Our Constitution works. Our great republic is a government of laws and not of men. Here, the people rule."
That outcome hardly was seamless; rather it resulted from a struggle. Democratic institutions, especially the free press in the form of The Washington Post, were able to maintain enough pressure on the administration so that government agencies - the FBI, the Justice Department and the appropriate arms of Congress - eventually did their jobs.
Mr. Nixon clearly would have been convicted of the "high crimes and misdemeanors" required by the Constitution for removal from office, if he had not done the right thing by resigning and sparing the nation that further trauma.
The Congress, for its part, engaged in a quest for facts rather than mere partisan advantage. It is telling that the singular phrase that emerged from the proceedings was the query by Republican Sen. Howard Baker: "What did the president know and when did he know it?"
The conduct in the national interest of responsible members of Congress at that time should be a guide today to those who speak frivolously of impeachment as a mere political tool.
It must, as the Founders intended, be used only in the most extreme circumstances, rather than to settle scores.