President Richard M. Nixon was running low on bipartisan allies.
Indictments were piling. Impeachment was coming. Mr. Nixon was not a crook, he insisted, though that 18-and-a-half-minute gap in the Watergate tapes did make the town wonder.
But from the Senate floor in April 1974, Joseph R. Biden Jr., a 31-year-old freshman Democrat, addressed his congressional elders with a plea: Let the Republican president have his say.
“In the case of an impeachment trial, the emotions of the American people would be strummed, as a guitar, with every newscast and each edition of the daily paper,” Mr. Biden warned. “The incessant demand for news or rumors of news — whatever its basis of legitimacy — would be overwhelming.”
He urged against “Alice-in-Wonderland” justice: “sentence first, verdict afterwards.” He said that if he had to render a judgment on that day, his choice would be “Not Guilty.” Mr. Biden was no fan of the president’s, he said — and might well find him culpable once all facts were aired. But this was a time for “restraint.”
“I have a feeling,” he said, “that my children and my grandchildren will be looking back on what I said or did not say in April of 1974.”
Forty-five years later, Mr. Biden finds himself consumed by an impeachment moment of a different sort. He is at the inadvertent center of the emerging Democratic case against President Trump, who in a July phone call pressed the president of Ukraine to investigate Mr. Biden and his son. It is a testament to the long and winding arc of Mr. Biden’s public life that he has been a player in three of the four major impeachment debates in American history, absent only from the Andrew Johnson affair of 1868 among such presidential dramas.
Yet while other 2020 candidates have long argued that Mr. Trump’s conduct demands an extraordinary constitutional response, Mr. Biden has approached the subject with striking wariness — quick to defend his name but reluctant to position himself as an impeachment crusader — despite the perils the president’s unsubstantiated attacks may pose to Mr. Biden’s own campaign.
“I’m going to let Congress do its job on impeachment,” he told supporters in Reno, Nev., last week. “And I’m going to stay focused on your lives.”
Mr. Biden has said that Mr. Trump probably violated his “constitutional responsibility” and encouraged lawmakers to investigate. He has also called Mr. Trump’s prospective impeachment “a tragedy.” A review of Mr. Biden’s history with the topic, as a senator during the Nixon and Clinton administrations, helps explain why.
Decades before he moved from ensemble figure to leading character in the nation’s impeachment theater, friends and peers from his Senate days say those episodes made plain to Mr. Biden just how damaging and unseemly the proceedings could be for all involved.
In both public remarks and private conversations with colleagues, Mr. Biden conveyed his discomfort with overturning the will of the voters, regardless of the executive transgression. He suggested that public opinion should be taken into consideration, even for senators who preferred to vote their conscience, since it was the choice of the electorate that lawmakers presumed to override.
“This. Is. Their. President,” he thundered at an event in November 1998 as President Bill Clinton’s fortunes rested with Congress, summarizing the view of Democratic voters whom Mr. Biden said he had met. “Don’t screw with him unless you have an overwhelming case that you can make that you’re being fair about it.”
And in an early signal of Mr. Biden’s deference to formal protocol, his experiences in the 1970s and 1990s seemed to crystallize the abiding faith in institutions — deep respect for the Senate, a reverence for process — that remains his hallmark, even as his current competitors suggest he is out of step with the crackling tribalism of the Trump era.
“He stuck with kind of an institutional approach to things, which he did for his whole career,” said Ted Kaufman, a longtime friend and aide who worked for Mr. Biden during Watergate and later succeeded him briefly as senator. “Let the system work.”
For a young lawmaker straining to find his way amid personal tragedy, the Nixon fracas was an early test of Mr. Biden’s defer-to-convention instincts and a jarring introduction to the capital. After his election in 1972, Mr. Biden had spoken to Mr. Nixon in an uncomfortable, minute-long courtesy phone call from the president after Mr. Biden’s wife and young daughter were killed in a car crash that December. (“I understand you were on the Hill at the time, and your wife was just driving by herself,” Mr. Nixon said, stammering for a few beats, according to a recording. “The main part is, you can remember that she was there when you won a great victory.”)
In his floor speech on impeachment, labeled in the Congressional Record under “Fairness to the President,” Mr. Biden described himself as a harsh critic of Mr. Nixon, but he added that the president was due the “utmost presumption of innocence.”
“In a day when equality is on everyone’s lips, I suggest that in practice, in extraordinary times involving our highest office of government, some people may be, in fact, more equal than others,” Mr. Biden said. “And in this case, I refer to the president. His official derelictions, if proved, and his subsequent ouster, should it occur, will have an impact on our institutions and upon ourselves as Americans, beyond that which it would have for any of us who are involved in such a proceeding.”
Moving through the Capitol, Mr. Biden seemed awed at the historical burden that greeted him. “We were walking down the hall and he said, ‘What a time for me to come into the Senate,’” recalled Rufus Edmisten, then the deputy chief counsel to the Senate Watergate committee. “‘I would come at a time like this.’”
In his 2007 memoir, “Promises to Keep,” Mr. Biden described a formative memory of a crucial meeting after Mr. Nixon asked Senator John Stennis, a conservative Democrat from Mississippi, to run interference for the White House by listening to the Watergate tapes and summarizing them for his colleagues, rather than insisting on their wide release.
“I remember what he said in the Democratic caucus that day: ‘I’ve thought long and hard on what my obligation is,’” Mr. Biden wrote, quoting Mr. Stennis, “‘and I’ve decided I am a Senate man. I am not the president’s man. Therefore, I will not listen to the tapes. I am a man of the Senate.’ I’m proud to say I am a Senate man, too.”
Mr. Kaufman said that it was not until August, days before Mr. Nixon’s resignation, that Mr. Biden became convinced that the president must go.
The senator was walking to catch a train when word arrived that Charles Wiggins, a Republican congressman who had led the Nixon defense, had changed his mind amid revelations that Mr. Nixon had worked to conceal the Watergate break-in.
“He just said, ‘O.K., this is it,’” Mr. Kaufman recalled of Mr. Biden. “And he dictated, literally, to the staff person on what was a big deal: ‘It was time for Nixon to resign.’”
Mr. Biden and his fellow senators seemed relieved that the president had saved them the spectacle of a trial. “Nobody was looking forward to the trial,” said J. Bennett Johnston, a former Democratic senator from Louisiana, remembering a petition in his home state to support Mr. Nixon, with some 40,000 names attached. “There was not as much support in the South for Nixon as there is for Trump now, but he was basically pretty popular. So nobody was looking forward to having to vote on that.”
A quarter-century later, when the Senate impeachment trial of Mr. Clinton began, Mr. Biden was not afforded the luxury of a presidential resignation. But with the leader of his own party under scrutiny, Mr. Biden often invoked his appeals for caution in the Nixon age as evidence that he was being intellectually consistent.
He said it was a “serious mistake” to overlook public sentiment on impeachment, noting that Democrats had won gains in the 1998 midterm elections. He claimed that the Republican-led House, under Speaker Newt Gingrich, had “proceeded without sufficient dignity.”
Barbara Boxer, a former California Democratic senator who joined Mr. Biden in clearing Mr. Clinton in the Senate trial, described impeachment as “a miserable experience” but one that played to Mr. Biden’s strengths as a “statesman.”
“He’s not just going to run out there in flames,” she said.
But at times, impeachment has also coaxed less subtle flourishes from Mr. Biden. In an appearance at the National Press Club in November 1998, after distinguishing between immoral and impeachable behavior, he set off on a hypothetical about Mr. Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, implying that had Ms. Lewinsky been Mr. Biden’s daughter, he would have clocked the sitting president.
“Were it my daughter — notwithstanding this particular young woman is not the epitome of what I would want a young woman to be — I would be looking for the man,” Mr. Biden said. “Those who know me know I’m not joking. I’d be looking for him to give him a straight right.”
Notwithstanding this particular senator’s fatherly dream sequence, he also reminded the crowd of his credibility on the broader question of Mr. Clinton professional fate.
“I made that plea in 1974, and I make the plea again,” Mr. Biden said. “The plea for restraint.”
Katie Glueck contributed reporting. Kitty Bennett contributed research.
Matt Flegenheimer is a reporter covering national politics. He started at The Times in 2011 on the Metro desk covering transit, City Hall and campaigns. @mattfleg
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