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Peter Rodino Jr., the man who stared down Richard Nixon 30 years ago as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee during Watergate, is in a hurry. He is running late for a guest lecture he is to give at Seton Hall University School of Law in Newark, N.J., where he holds an endowed professorship and where the law library is named after him. Blind in one eye and half-blind in the other, the 94-year-old Rodino shuffles along the familiar hallways with worrisome speed, aided only by a cane. He enters the classroom, but as he nears the podium, he stumbles, almost buckling to the ground. For a moment everyone in the room freezes. At Rodino’s age one misstep could start the end of an era, and no one wants to witness it. This repository of nearly a century’s worth of memories in the law still has too many stories to tell. Remarkably, Rodino recovers his footing without help, and soon he is reciting — from memory — the preamble of the Constitution to a rapt classroom full of criminal law students. Securing the “blessings of liberty,” he tells them, more than once, is the true goal of the nation — and of the profession the students are about to enter. Rodino, whose scrupulous nonpartisanship sold the nation on impeaching Richard Nixon, is a living, walking resource for lawyers-to-be, having left his stamp on dozens of laws they will be studying: the Hart-Scott-Rodino antitrust law and Simpson-Rodino on immigration, to name two. Look at the photos of Lyndon Johnson signing the civil rights laws during his presidency, and there behind Johnson, next to Martin Luther King Jr., is Pete Rodino. He helped usher them through Congress. He is asked about the dispute over the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, now before the U.S. Supreme Court. Without a pause, Rodino recalls that he co-sponsored the bill in Congress that added those words in 1954 — nearly 50 years earlier. “I embraced it wholeheartedly,” Rodino says, even though he believed then and now in the separation of church and state. “I wasn’t thinking of establishing a certain religion. That question did not enter my mind. It was just a concept of a being greater than us. If the courts are supposed to look into the minds of the people who wrote the legislation, I can tell you that I never had any thought of establishing religion.” Asked about a more recent piece of legislation that he had no involvement in, Rodino expresses disdain for the USA Patriot Act and Attorney General John Ashcroft. “If we’re going to divest people of their liberties, where are we? Back to the Alien and Sedition Acts,” says the lifelong Democrat. Inevitably the questions go back to Watergate, and Rodino talks about the events preceding President Nixon’s impeachment hearings in the summer of 1974. Matter-of-factly Rodino paints a scenario that is stunning to consider. If Rodino, as Judiciary chairman, had made different decisions regarding the handling of Vice President Spiro Agnew’s legal troubles and, later, Gerald Ford’s nomination as vice president, he suggests, the nation would have been torn apart with multiple impeachment inquiries, and with no president or vice president around to pick up the pieces. House Speaker Carl Albert, next in the line of succession, might have become president. As for Watergate, Rodino offers a little-known anecdote. When, as chairman of the committee, he privately reviewed the audiotapes of the Nixon White House that ultimately undid the president, Rodino heard Nixon make a crude remark about an Italian-American under consideration for an appointment. “Nixon said to Haldeman, ‘Isn’t he Italian, doesn’t he smell of garlic?’” Rodino recalls, paraphrasing. “I put down the earphones and said [to a fellow committee member], ‘I’m fit to be tied, but I don’t intend to release it to anyone.’” Rodino was concerned that if the Nixon slur became known, his vote on impeachment would be viewed as personal. After the class ends, a second-year student approaches Rodino and says quietly, “This has been the best class I’ve had in law school.” Rodino, who first became a lawyer in 1937 and left behind a 40-year career in Congress in 1989, beams as if he had won over a hard-fought constituent’s vote — or the vote of a juror. At a time when many people think Rodino is long dead, he still has a restless energy and a quick mind. Astonishingly, his memory (long-term and short-term) is sharper than that of most people half his age. The New York Times and others have made the mistake of referring to Rodino in the past tense. But Rodino still has business to attend to, stories to tell and a legacy to lay out. No time for dying. It would be a stretch to call Rodino the forgotten hero of Watergate. The accolades over the years for Rodino and his role in Watergate have been plentiful. But as the collective national memory of Watergate has faded, Rodino’s scrupulously unassuming conduct of the inquiry has left less of a lasting imprint than expected. The Senate Watergate hearings that preceded Rodino’s impeachment inquiry produced star personalities — from Sam Ervin to Howard Baker to John Dean to Fred Thompson. A recent PBS documentary on Watergate makes only brief mention of Rodino. “He’ll never get all the credit he deserves,” says John Doar, whom Rodino hired as special counsel in charge of the impeachment inquiry. “He had some committee members who were firebrands, who wanted to be more militant, more partisan. But he did what he felt was right. He was unflappable.” Doar, 82, is now senior counsel at the New York firm Doar Rieck & Mack. From the start, Rodino vowed to make Nixon’s impeachment hearings as unflashy as possible. Leaks to the press were strictly forbidden. The first six weeks of the inquiry took place behind closed doors. After Nixon resigned instead of being removed, Rodino says he was offered “astronomical sums” for his inside story or his memoirs, but he declined, preferring to return to mundane legislative work on the Judiciary Committee. “I didn’t want to compromise what had been done,” he says. “I wasn’t looking to impress people, I was looking to see what had to be done.” But now he is eager to tell stories before his voice is stilled — not for self-aggrandizement, he insists, but for the record, for the students. “I’m not working for the plaudits,” he says back in his memento-filled office at the law school. “I have served my time and my purpose. My time now is for teaching.” So he tells of the time that House Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill (Rodino calls him “Tippy”) came to him as the impeachment inquiry was slowly getting under way. “Tippy O’Neill sits me down, says he had something to talk about. It was all about getting moving. He had heard the committee members were eager, and I had yet to appoint a special counsel. This was going to go down the drain, he said,” Rodino recalls. “I was in the process of the selection of a counsel who would conduct a thorough investigation. Frankly I was beyond being a Democrat, a Republican. I had a thorough job to do… . I saw myself really torn between what I needed to do, to do it correctly and right, and the fact that I was being driven by Democrats to make it political. I listened to him quietly, almost passively, and finally I said to him, ‘Tippy, are you done?’ I’m not used to saying anything that sounds bad. I looked at him and said, ‘Tippy — go fuck yourself.’ He didn’t say another word.” A few days later, on December 20, 1973, Rodino announced his appointment of Doar, who had been a civil rights attorney at the U.S. Department of Justice during both Republican and Democratic administrations. Doar accepted, and he recalls that during the initial interview, “Congressman Rodino gave me the clear impression that he didn’t like to be talked down to by lawyers. I don’t talk down to people, and I was hired.” Politics did not enter the discussion, and Rodino insists that he did not learn Doar’s party affiliation until the day he announced the appointment. Rodino says he received a note from Melvin Laird, former Nixon secretary of Defense. “The note said, ‘Pete, a wonderful appointment. Did you know that John Doar was a Republican appointed by Eisenhower?’” Rodino recalls. “That’s the first time I learned it.” The impeachment inquiry, as a result, was run by two Republicans — Doar and minority counsel Albert Jenner Jr., the longtime name partner in Jenner & Block who died in 1988. (Among Doar’s staff hires: a young Yale Law School grad named Hillary Rodham, now New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.) Looking back on Watergate, Rodino says that what stunned him during the investigation was the extent to which the burglary of Democratic headquarters at the Watergate was “the tip of the iceberg.” The Nixon cover-up that followed the burglary, Rodino says, was “not only of the break-in but the fact that Nixon and his team had conducted themselves in such a manner as to not only abuse the power of the presidency, [but] obstruct justice in so doing. I am deeply aware of the fact that when people think about Watergate, they think about the president. They don’t seem to be aware now of the depth of the abuses of the various plans that he put in motion, plans that had been presented in the presence of [H.R.] Haldeman, [John] Mitchell, and [G. Gordon] Liddy, with the assent of the president. Putting money together in order to be able to implement those plans.” Rodino continues, “What we have to remember is that while Nixon resigned, he didn’t just resign; he resigned because he was compelled to; he knew that the jig was up.” Still, deciding to impeach Nixon was not easy for Rodino. After approving the first article, Rodino called his wife at home and broke down, sobbing. At an earlier stage in the inquiry, Rodino was hospitalized for a few days, exhausted. A doctor told him, Rodino recalls, “You’re all right now, but you have got to just slow down.” Then the doctor said, “We need you.” Rodino resumed work on the inquiry, but the pressure was still brutal. The media was dogging him, with some pursuing a question that recurred throughout his career: whether Rodino had any connection to organized crime. Rodino was resentful about the seemingly widespread assumption that because he grew up in an Italian neighborhood in Newark, he must have had Mafia ties. Then and now he cites a letter handwritten to him by the local U.S. Attorney attesting to his integrity. The enormity of the task before him also weighed heavily on Rodino. “The last thing I wanted to do was to impeach the president and to hold him responsible for misdeeds that would have caused us to remove him from office,” Rodino says. “You’ve got to remember that I, coming from the background that I did — my father taught me to regard men of authority … and to make sure that my conduct was exemplary. To me, the office of president is venerated — the office — regardless of whether he was Republican or Democrat.” Rodino’s perspective on impeachment left him upset, even disgusted, when the awesome weapon was hauled out against President Bill Clinton in 1999. Scholars and journalists sought his views at the time, but, as usual, Rodino was circumspect, not wanting to appear self-righteous about the contrast between the two events. But after Judiciary Committee chairman Henry Hyde, R-Ill., invoked the “Rodino rules” and cited the Watergate precedent, Rodino could not remain silent. In an op-ed in The New York Times six months after the Clinton impeachment proceedings, Rodino wrote that, unlike in Watergate, “the House chose to taint the process from the start with a destructive partisanship.” He singled out independent counsel Kenneth Starr and Judiciary counsel David Schippers for criticism. In more recent interviews, Rodino described Clinton’s relationship with Monica Lewinsky and his efforts to conceal it as “morally offensive, personally offensive,” but in no way serious enough to warrant impeachment. He fears the Clinton impeachment has erased the spirit of nonpartisanship he sought to impose on the constitutional process. Rodino’s conduct of the impeachment inquiry 30 years ago had an immediate impact on his career. His popularity and reputation for integrity grew, and by the time of the 1976 election, he found himself drawing big crowds as a campaigner for Democratic candidates. Some in the party tried to get him to run for president, which he dismissed out of hand. But as Jimmy Carter rolled toward the nomination, a concerted effort began to recruit Rodino as his vice presidential running mate. “It was during that time that I was visited by Joe Califano and Jack Valenti, who sat in my office and discussed the vice presidential candidacy,” he recalls. “They were saying that I was going to be Jimmy Carter’s running mate, that he was going to select me. I said to them, ‘Well, he may be, but I’m not interested.’ They said, ‘You can’t do that,’ and I said, ‘Hell, I can,’ and they were numbed.” Later O’Neill tracked Rodino down by phone at a New Jersey restaurant to tell him that polling showed Rodino to be Carter’s most popular possibility for vice president. Rodino was concerned about his eye problems and did not want to be a liability for the ticket. “I might end up in the hospital during the campaign, and then what are you going to do?” Rodino asked O’Neill. O’Neill replied, “I’ll be goddamned. You have to be vice president!” The importuning continued, and finally Rodino told Carter no in a face-to-face meeting before the Democratic convention. Rodino ended up giving the key nominating speech for Carter at the convention. Today, Rodino still keeps up with the news, watching with wonderment the rise of Arnold Schwarzenegger (“so upsetting”) and President George Bush’s new initiative on immigration — which recalled Rodino’s own efforts in the 1980s to win amnesty for millions of undocumented aliens. He reads the papers daily, including the obituary page. Rodino laughs that when he was in Congress he read those pages as well, sending sympathy notes to survivors who were constituents. Now he finds himself reading obituaries for a different reason: “I think, what kind of life did they lead? Did somebody do something that we don’t know of?” Rodino is at peace with his own career as a lawyer and legislator: “I’m dismayed to see so many lawyers just trying to amass fortunes. What you do as a lawyer does involve the lives of people, and you have to better the lives of those people.” He says he has one more campaign left in him, at least. A co-founder of the National Italian American Foundation, Rodino has an ear that is keenly attuned to ethnic slurs in society. He finds “The Sopranos” an offensive portrayal of Italian-Americans: “It’s vulgar; it never should have been.” But he has not gone on the warpath against it, noting with typical acuity and evenhandedness that the HBO series is governed by different legal standards than broadcast TV. “It’s on cable, so people can choose to buy it or not,” he says. “And, of course, you have the First Amendment.” But another unfortunate depiction of Italian-Americans has stuck in his craw for 37 years. A presidential task force report in 1967 pinpointed 24 criminal cartels under the loose umbrella of La Cosa Nostra as the core of the nation’s organized crime problem. The membership of these cartels is “exclusively men of Italian descent,” the report stated. “I took issue with it then, and I take issue with it now,” Rodino says. “It is very stigmatizing.” Rodino wants the characterization expunged from the record, and at his urging Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Pete Domenici, R-N.M. — both of Italian descent — have written letters to the Justice Department seeking redress. “We’ve gotten no response yet,” he says, but adds that he will keep trying, as long as he is able. “If there has been a wrong, and I am aware of it, I try to right it,” he says — with emphasis, as always, on the present tense. Tony Mauro is Supreme Court correspondent for American Lawyer Media. In addition to his own interviews with Rodino, Mauro was given access to transcripts of interviews conducted over several years by Bill Berlin, professor of political science at Montclair State University in New Jersey. E-mail: [email protected]

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