Francis O’Brien Discusses the House Committee on the Judiciary Impeachent Inquiry, Part 2


bjbj Naftali: Talking about pressure on the
Congressman. When do you remember Tip O Neill starting to tell him, s move this along. Brien:
Oh, it came early and, again, relationships and trust became very important because Tip
O Neill has shown great encouragement in supporting Rodino s choice to lead this investigation
in the Judiciary Committee, but Tip O Neill was a man of action and Rodino was a very
methodical person and those always didn t match up well. So on a regular basis Tip the
large Tip O Neill and the diminutive Peter Rodino would be getting together and Tip would
be putting his finger on him saying, Peter, we have to move this process along, you know,
and Peter would say, Yes. I understand. I understand. This went on a regular basis,
both informally and then when the Chairman would be called over the Speaker s office
formally, that this process had to move forward and each time Again, being as it turns out
historically that they re all great master politicians, he bought more time. He d always
buy more time. It s not that he said d go to the staff. He d go to John Dore and to
the staff and what he had to do was give them the time. Again, he was extremely protective
of the staff because they had to do that work isolated from the pressures, the political
pressures even though we started this conversation it s a political process. He wanted them away
from that pressure. So whatever had to be absorbed he would take that pressure or other
key members other allies, but no pressure on the staff and there was constant effort
to put pressure on the staff where they would call John Doar and others, What s going on?
Of course, John, as we know, is one of the more discreet people in the world, but this
is enormous pressure. First of all, it taught me, just watching Congressmen, just how to
deal with pressure. He just absorbed it and I think it bothered him. Yes, it bothered
him. I mean, he s human, but he felt the process was so important that this had to be done
in a way in the end that was considered bipartisan or nonpartisan and that he felt that you could
not rush this. Naftali: Did he get a little impatient at any point with Mr. Doar? Brien:
Oh yes. Oh yes. That s another story. Naftali: Well, no. Let s hear it. Brien: Yes because
John was so methodical and so cautious – John is very cautious and many evenings John would
come over, in his way I hope you get a chance to talk to him. Just an extraordinary human
being, but yes and the Chairman, in his way would say, I think we have to move this process
on. That was why he would ask me to help if I could sit and talk to John and help the
process and the answer was usually, no. That John needed the time he needed. There was
some give, but again, deep respect. I mean, that s the keyword. He respected John. He
respected the staff. He respected what they felt and he was willing to take the pressure.
Naftali: So the pressure would come from his fellow Committee members in addition to Tip
O Neill. Do you remember? Brien: Jeez, first and foremost, first and foremost. Naftali:
Do you remember who were some of the tough ones or tougher ones? Brien: Well, on both
sides. On the Republican side, you had people like Congressman Sandman. I think he was from
New Jersey just. He was way out there, but there were more important Republicans. There
was a Congressman in California. Naftali: Wiggins? Brien: Wiggins, very important, who
Congressmen deeply respected and he was a very strong supporter of President Nixon.
Very strong supporter and he was putting enormous pressure. s move this. Let s conclude this.
This is being dragged on. This is partisan. This was etcetera, etcetera and respect had
to be paid there. On the other side, you had sort of a young Congressman Conyers. You had
Congressman Waldie from California. You had Father Drinan. You had Jack Brooks first and
foremost, very powerful figure in the House and on the Committee, just putting enormous
pressure on the Congressmen on a regular basis to bring this to a conclusion. s get some
articles. Let s get some votes here. Looking back on it, you d say how he held this together
just by sheer force of personality and he was never confrontational. You couldn’t get
him in an argument. So it s sort of the worst kind of opponent to have. You couldn t draw
him out because he just would absorb it. He would listen to you. He would. He would understand
you and then he would answer you and have no idea what he said because you never knew
what he said to members. It wasn t me because he would just talk in these riddles and it
was just extraordinary and you just didn t know Hm. Did he say we re going to move forward
or not? Naftali: Give us an example, for instance. Brien: Oh, I can t remember anymore. It s
so hard, but I remember it s sort of you had to get what we used to call the Chairman Speke.
You had to understand, he had to just come out of the meeting and say, Okay, this is
what he meant, because he just never said anything directly to you. Naftali: But he
knew what he wanted, right? Brien: Exactly. He knew exactly what he wanted. He was telling
you, but he never told you in a direct way and I guess one of the reasons I got hired
was because I sort of understood, I guess, what he was saying and could understand him
very well actually. No, he was very sure what he was saying. He just never said it in a
way that, say, you and I would say something, but his outreach was extraordinary. He felt
that he had to keep lines of communication to a broad spectrum of the membership on the
Committee and in those days, remember, the Chairman was a very powerful figure and rank
was very important. If you re a freshman, you re lucky you ever got to speak to the
Chairman. On the Republican side, every once in a while he d invite Congressman Cohen from
Maine up to his office to get his thoughts. He d invite Barbara Jordan up. Charlie Rangel.
These were all freshmen and then on a regular basis, which I don t think many people knew.
I was sent out on a regular basis to meet with a group of members just to make sure
that they felt that they were being connected to the Congressman Congressman Flowers of
Alabama, Congressman Mann. These all became very critical people. He already identified
in his mind very early who was really important here in terms of that would have an important
public impact. There was how these people voted yea or nay would become very important
in the outcome didn t know how they d vote at the time but he felt it was very important
that they trust him, that they felt that both personal contact and a rare contact from myself
and others, that they had a line, that they felt their voices were being heard. I mean,
this was never reported or anything, but on a regular basis I would make the rounds of
members and just talk to them. I wasn t a lawyer. I didn t talk particularly about the
case. They would tell me what they thought which I would then come back to the members
or come back to the Congressman. He would have a phone conversation with them, invite
them over. So this was his way of keeping his Committee members intact in a very low
key way, where they had a these people s lives, their political lives, were at stake. They
had to put a lot of trust in him and they have their own lives or own political lives
to worry about and they knew this was an extraordinary undertaking, which had the whole nation s
attention. So they had to trust him and he had to build their trust up. Naftali: This
group that you d go and see, did you see them individually or as a group? Brien: No, individually.
Naftali: Did they include the group that would be the swing Republicans, like Hogan and Railsback
or were you just meeting with the southern Democrats. Brien: Southern, mostly southern
Democrats. Naftali: In the beginning where were they leaning or where they leaning anywhere
on the issue of the President? Brien: Oh, I think very reluctant very, very reluctant
on both sides of the apple. I mean the early readings and, again, Congress would never
ask the question. They would never because you d never want somebody to answer. I ve
learned from him never ask a question til you know the answer. So he would never ask
them how you lean. That question would never come up in any form, but his political instincts,
he understood these people were very, very reluctant to bring any charges against a President
of the United States. It didn t matter who the President was and there was some partisanship
there, but you had a very skeptical center audience that he thought were key. So his
conclusion very early on was they re going to decide. It s this group that you talked
about Republicans and Democrats were going to decide this issue and that they either
felt the case against the President was substantial or not and that was the strategy from day
one. Naftali: In the beginning and it s a long time ago, but do you think it mattered
to the Chairman which direction it went? Brien: No. It sounds corny. He was a patriot. He
really was a patriot. He was a great institutionalist and it s almost like being picked for a jury.
I don’t know if you ever were picked of a jury? All of a sudden you take on this responsibility.
You do oh my God. I m a juror. I think that s the way the Congressman looked at this.
This extraordinary duty was thrust upon him and that was more than anything he ever thought
about his life or prepared for and he did not know what the outcome would be. I mean,
that s why it turned out historically. He was the right person. You would not know that
going down the line of who you re going to pick. You know, that s fate. His demeanor,
his intellectual strength, his institutional belief, his sense of being from immigrant
roots, he was extraordinarily patriotic and that you would be charged with this task of
potentially taking the President of the United States it was in some way unimaginable to
him at the beginning. Unimaginable and yet, as he said, once the process begins it had
to have a conclusion. Naftali: Mr. Doar begins to present the Statements of Information May
9th. So now we ve been at it for some months, a lot of pressure. Finally, the material is
coming up. Again, I ve read that a number of the members were just bored and confused.
In the beginning, how did the Chairman view the process as Mr. Doar began to lay out the
information? Brien: He thought it was too it wasn t crisp, too legal. Again, these are
all lawyers, but it was too dense. Lawyers over write anything and I think that was his
and that s rather a flip statement, but he said, This has to be understandable, but it
has to be understandable to the members. It s more important this has to be understandable
to the American citizens. This is just not understandable. He said, You have to make
these points that you’ve just mentioned understandable to the members and eventually to the American
public. So go back, and over time, these had to be made more understandable. Naftali: For
six weeks? Do you remember that? Brien: Mm-hmm. There was just a lot of pressure. There was
a lot of pressure and there was a lot of back and forth. Remember, we did have a hundred
and something lawyers here. It was difficult and again, as we said in the beginning, this
is a political process. This is not a legal process. Naftali: So does Mr. Doar then, he
finally gives a much more impassioned speech? Brien: Yes. Naftali: Some have said it s because
the Chairman talked to him. Brien: Well, I think the Chairman had many conversations.
He and John had many conversations and I think Mr. Doar has just decided he just would Naftali:
But do you remember that moment? Brien: I remember that moment. Naftali: Please tell
us. Brien: Well, I mean, I just remember that s one of those conversations in the evening.
He said, Do you accept that this expression was used in that stage, but Jesus, you just
have to step this up. He said, You have to do something at that table. Again, he never
talked this way. That s the thing of it, but John Doar fully understood that this was it,
that he had it make the case to these members. Whatever the case would be he had to make
the case and I think John sort of went home and processed that and came back and there
s a lot of back and forth. Naftali: Given how important this was in this history of
the case, did the Congressman present ? There was a famous Congressman speech or Chairman
s speech, but did he show emotion when he Brien: Oh yes. There was emotion here. First
and foremost, Peter Rodino was Italian, so he s very measured, but there were times when
he could get emotional in his measured way. There was no doubt that John and staff understood
what had to be done and I think that was the relationship, but again, by then there was
such incredible trust between them. Great differences of opinion why wouldn t there
be? I mean, again, these were monumental decisions. I can remember the night moving off your subject
for a minute. I remember the night we had to send a letter to the President. I mean,
the debate went deep into the night. I mean, do you actually send a letter to the President
of the United States? Every day we had to make these kinds of decisions. We had no guidance.
So all of these things every issue, every legal issues, every political had to be discussed,
thought through, talked out. re dealing with an intellectually powerful staff on both sides
of the aisle, just powerful, intellectually powerful people. In terms of their intellectual
heft and then you had to sort of bring that political process to it. So there was a lot
of coming there was a lot of a debate. I don t think there was an easy day in this process
from the day it begins to the day it ended. Naftali: Well, the story of the letter. This
comes after the White House has issued its transcripts. Brien: Right. Naftali: ve interviewed
former Senator Cohen who wanted to participate in that letter. Brien: Brought to the Chairman
s office? Naftali: This was a really hard event for him because he felt sort of left
in the cold here. Do you remember? He was, at that point, your only Republican ally on
this particular issue. Brien: Correct. Naftali: I think. Brien: Right and he had been courted,
right. Courted is the wrong word, but he certainly had access to the Congressman. There had been
conversations because the Congressman, again, he thought he’d be important even though he
was a young member, he thought that Mr. Cohen would be helpful to the process. Naftali:
But in the end Cohen s draft of the letter is not the one that was sent. Brien: No, it
wasn Naftali: re smiling. Brien: It just wasn t, that s all s called politics. Naftali:
Okay. The Democratic members needed to be satisfied. Brien: Correct and also I think
the Congressman decided what the correct letter had to be and he was deeply appreciative of
Congressman Cohen s input. Naftali: s talk a bit about the tapes. Did you listen to any
of them? Brien: Mm-hmm. Naftali: What affect did they have on you? Brien: Not much, actually.
The Congressman asked me a couple of times to listen to tapes and I tried not to. In
this process again, this is going back I didn t want to get personal. In other words, I
wanted to keep a distance in this. Someone remarked to me, which I think is a compliment.
They said, You never said any anti-Nixon word ever. It was a reporter said that to me all
those years later. They were telling me I had dinner with a reporter years ago. I mean,
recently, Elizabeth Drew, who covered the event for The New Yorker at the time, she
said, You know, all those years you never all those times we covered you, you never
said a word about Nixon ever, and I think that came from the Chairman. It also came
from a personal not that I didn t have a view, but I didn t think it was my place to be talking,
but to get there you had to keep some distance. So I wasn t actually very curious about the
tapes. There was enormous curiosity with the thing and I wasn t that curious. It wasn t
my job. It wasn t where I fit in. Nobody on the Committee s going to ask me what I thought
of tapes and so I sort of stayed out. It wasn t my so to speak. So I didn t have any opinion
and then I ve never even thought about listening to them again. Naftali: The Chairman listened
to some tapes? Brien: Yes, he did. He was bothered. Naftali: Can you tell us more? Brien:
Well, he was bothered at the language. He was bothered by sort of the tone. It s the
same rack as everybody. I think he was surprised about President Nixon. A lot of tapes surprised
him. I don’t know a lot of the tapes, but I mean, some of the tapes he d come back and
we d talk a little about it at night. He was bothered, I thought. He didn t think some
of the things were Again, he was very proper. He d just think some of the things were very
proper, language and that, but we never talked about nor did he ever comment about the substance
of the case, the substance of the tapes, but I can tell you just bothered by some of the
tapes and the condition of the President. Naftali: Did you see a sort of a shift in
his position? Brien: No. Whatever he and I talked about never went beyond he and I from
day one to that last day. It s just not what his views were, but he tried to keep intellectually
as best as he could, he tried to keep centered. Naftali: Was it hard for him to keep centered?
Brien: Not really because it fit his personality. In other words, he was not very partisan so
it didn t fit his personality and I think the obligations so overwhelmed him and put
just a weight on him and I think an important quality all of us had, he was very fearful
in the sense of not doing the right thing and I think fear is a wonderful emotion to
have at a time like this, that it keeps you on track. So he didn t have to time to get
out and be bothered by this. The whole thing was so overwhelming. Naftali: I apologize
for the analogy, but we were a little like the canary in the mineshaft. When you were
out talking to these conservative Democrats, when did you start seeing a shift because
they re talking to you what they re thinking and, obviously, they ultimately vote against
President Nixon? Is it slow? Brien: Very slow. It s a very slow process. We would talk about
that, but never publicly. Never to the staff, to John s staff actually, about where we thought
these people were. That was a conversation that was very deeply held. It may have gone,
though, I ve no knowledge. It may have gone to the Speaker or to someone like that. I
mean, we sort of knew what the case was at a certain point. Naftali: Voting starts July
27th. It s a long time ago, but did you think you had a majority for Article One? Brien:
Yes. Naftali: Did you think that a month before or was it a week before, a day? Brien: I don
t remember when, but we had talked about it as those night approached, those days approached,
that he thought that the case had been made. That s a better way to put it, actually. He
thought the case had been made against the President and he thought that the key scent
that he felt was so important probably as a Democrat that they believed that the case
had been made. Naftali: When Railsback and Cohen and Hogan are meeting with Flowers is
somebody telling you about that? Brien: Flowers and I had a good relationship. He died very
young. We had a good relationship. So we d talk about, you know d get a sense of where
people were. He talked to the Chairman Flowers would not to me. Naftali: ve seen the images
of the debate. Flowers would be very emotional. He was very emotional. Brien: Very. Naftali:
Tell us a little bit about other kinds of fears. This is a very tense Washington, isn
t it? Brien: Well, it was an incredible time looking back on it. It s hard for Americans
to think now. I mean, we had some of the most senior members of an administration, some
of the Justice Department, go to prison, being charged with serious crimes and there was
fear. There was fear on my part that we were going to go to jail. I mean, that sounds crazy,
but I thought, man, these people will put us in jail. They can do anything. I mean you
couldn t trust the FBI, you couldn t trust the Justice Department and you couldn’t trust
your government, was our feeling. It didn t affect because we were only interested in
one thing. Why did the President In other words, we had to sort of separate all of these
out from our duty, but we re citizens and we re living in Washington, DC. There s no
doubt we felt we were all tapped and under some kind of investigations. I mean, we just
took that as our course, that that s sort of the environment and we just had to be extreme
cautious on how we conducted business. Naftali: Did you have some conversations outdoors so
that you wouldn t be heard? Brien: Oh, I had conversations everywhere. I don t remember.
You’re just cautious on what you said, but I wasn t so worried about that, but I thought
I never served the government again. I thought that was the most it was obviously an extraordinary
experience, but I couldn t do that again. The pressure was just so overwhelming on everybody.
Forget me and I had the least of the pressure. It was on all these people, but it just was
you were drained at the end. You were just an enormously draining and not a very happy
experience. It wasn t a very happy experience. There was nothing pleasurable about doing
this. You don t look back and say, Well, that was a great job. It wasn t a great job. I
thought my responsibilities were the least of all. I was a young staffer. It was these
members. I don’t think anybody thought it was a great experience. I think they think
historically they did an incredible thing this process to go through and that the American
public accepted this process but I never heard a member say this was on a personal level
sort of one of their highlights. Naftali: Do you remember anything from the moments
after Article One was passed? Where were you? Brien: I think I was in the back. I was in
the Committee apartment. I don t remember. Naftali: Did you know how the Chairman looked
afterwards? Brien: He was exhausted. That s all been public…he came back and he cried
after it was over, just an emotional experience. It wasn t the only he had cried during the
process, but it was a very emotional night that I remember. Naftali: Can you recall another
time he cried? Brien: Well, he s Italian so he s very emotional. So he cried a number
of times. There were a couple of other times that he had tears sort of through the experience.
I think the pressure, the emotion of the whole process, sort of the darkest days of this
process where there was just a lot of pressure on all of us, but then there s another piece
when I told them that this was going be televised. That s another story. hch [Content_Types].xml
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