As the select committee on investigations delves into the Bridgegate controversy, it’s hard not to reflect on a New Jerseyan who presided over the one of the biggest scandals in the country’s history.
Political insiders, particularly following Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman’s recent on-air comments that resulted in her departure from the joint investigatory committee, are revisiting the style and substance of the late Peter Rodino, the former Newark congressman who served as the chairman of the U.S. House committee that brought articles of impeach against President Richard Nixon.
The proceedings led to the president’s resignation and plucked Rodino from obscurity as he led the U.S. Judiciary Committee during the Watergate scandal.
“The guy provided the leadership to allow people who wanted to do the right thing to easily follow,” said Rodino’s son-in-law, Charles Stanziale, who, like others, recalled how Rodino’s deliberate approach and steady demeanor kept him away from partisan bickering.
“It was his integrity that engendered the integrity of the other members of the committee,” he said. “He refused to be pushed into a position one way or another.”
And the pressure from Rodino’s own party was present.
Former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neil, who served as majority leader during the Watergate proceedings and was an outspoken member calling for Nixon’s resignation, made his position clear.
But so did Rodino, Stanziale said.
“He was pushing hard to get that hearing up and going, and was kind of on Rodino’s back to get moving on it,” he said. “He told Tip, ‘It’s going to be done my way on my timeline – not yours.’”
While Tip O’Neill wanted to rush into impeachment, Rodino was much more cautious and deliberative, according to Jimmy Breslin, who covered the impeachment process and wrote “How the Good Guys Finally Won.”
“When it started, when Rodino was a congressman from Newark whom nobody knew, Rodino regarded impeachment as a word that had danger hanging from it the instant it left the mouth,” Breslin wrote. “Rodino pointed out to O’Neill that there was absolutely nothing to go on. This irritated O’Neill.”
O’Neill wanted to pick the counsel.
“Rodino said he was going to bring in a big name from the outside. He ruled out his staff, including Jerome Zeifman,” Breslin wrote. “O’Neill went back to his office began sending Rodino the names of prospects for the job. Rodino said thank you, but did not bite. Others suggested names to him. Rodino took none of them.”
“I have to take my time. I want this done, I want this very carefully done,” said Rodino, Breslin recalled.
Rodino, the son of an Italian immigrant who worked as a carpenter and factory worker, spent 40 years in Congress. He was a decorated soldier who served in World War II with the First Armored Division in North Africa and Italy, rising to the rank of captain.
Elected to Congress in 1948 after losing his first election, Rodino was a liberal lawmaker known for championing civil rights legislation, and immigration and antitrust reform.
He was also a graduate of the University of Newark Law School (later Rutgers Law School) and held the Constitution in high regard.
“He used to carry a pocket sized copy of the Constitution with him all the time,” Stanziale said.
The respect transcended into his work, political observes agreed, and brought fairness to the committee proceedings.
“He wasn’t vocal with any type of bias,” said Essex County lawmaker, Assemblyman Thomas Giblin (D-34).
“He felt strongly about the Constitution and he felt the enormity of the task,” he said. “He wanted to be perceived of doing the right thing. Even though he was a Democrat and Nixon was a Republican, he still didn’t want to rush to judgment.”