In 1974, John Doar, special counsel to the House committee handling impeachment proceedings against U.S. President Richard Nixon, decided that the committee’s work would benefit from expert analysis that would compare Nixon’s wrongdoing to that of past presidents. In an astonishing eight weeks, a team of 15 scholars, recruited and led by the historian C. Vann Woodward, produced a volume of brief, factual reviews of misconduct by every administration from George Washington’s through Lyndon Johnson’s, excluding purely private behavior or actions that the authors judged to be merely partisan or ideological. Their work has now been reissued with added reviews of eight more administrations (Nixon’s through Barack Obama’s). The new volume was spearheaded by Banner, a member of the original team, who describes it as an exercise of “historians’ civic office.” The result is a fascinating glimpse into a largely unstudied aspect of U.S. political history and a look at the disappointing, if not depressing, weaknesses of the political, legal, and constitutional remedies available to deter or punish presidential malfeasance. Particularly rewarding are overviews written by Woodward and Banner, which include the sort of judgments that the authors of the individual reviews were directed to avoid.
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