Rodino, Peter Wallace, Jr.

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Rodino, Peter Wallace, Jr.

(b. 7 June 1909 in Newark, New Jersey; d. 7 May 2005 in West Orange, New Jersey), accomplished civil rights and immigration legislator, widely credited for his prudence and impartiality as the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee during the 1974 Watergate impeachment hearings into the conduct of President Richard M. Nixon.

Born in Newark’s Italian north ward as “Pellegrino” (later anglicized to “Peter”), Rodino was one of three children of Peter and Margaret (Gerard) Rodino. His father, a carpenter, emigrated from Italy as a teenager. His mother died when he was young. Rodino attended the local public schools and graduated from Newark’s Barringer High School. To improve his public speaking, after a bout of childhood diphtheria weakened his voice, he practiced oratory by reciting Shakespeare with a mouth full of pebbles and marbles. As a young man he worked at a cigarette lighter factory, sold insurance, and taught public speaking and citizenship classes. Rodino graduated with a bachelor’s degree from the University of Newark (later Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey) and, after years in night school, earned an LLB at the New Jersey Law School (later Rutgers School of Law) in 1937. He opened a private law practice after being admitted to the New Jersey bar in 1938. On 27 December 1941 he married Marianna (“Ann”) Stango; the couple had a daughter and a son. Stango died of cancer in 1980, and Rodino married Joy Judelson on 13 September 1989.

On 10 March 1941 Rodino enlisted in the U.S. Army. As a member of the First Armored Division he participated in Allied campaigns in Africa and Italy. He attained the captain’s rank and received many combat decorations including the Bronze Star, Italian War Cross, and Knight Order of the Crown of Italy. After being discharged from the army in April 1946, Rodino ran for the U.S. House of Representatives in New Jersey’s Tenth Congressional District, which encompassed sections of the city of Newark, as well as Essex and Hudson counties. He won the Democratic nomination to challenge the nine-term Republican Fred Hartley, the coauthor of the famous anti-union Taft-Hartley Act. Seizing upon the economic woes of demobilization, Republicans won control of the House. Nevertheless, Rodino ran well, holding Hartley to 52 percent of the vote while garnering 46 percent. On 2 November 1948, as part of a Democratic resurgence, Rodino won Hartley’s seat after the senior Republican decided not to seek reelection. In Rodino’s nineteen subsequent campaigns, the increasingly Democratic district comfortably reelected him. His forty years of service (1949–1989) ranks twenty-first among the more than 10,500 people elected to the U.S. House since 1789.

Rodino was appointed to the Judiciary Committee in 1950. He became a congressional workhorse, legislating efficiently away from the limelight. Few bills bore his name, although he was the lead sponsor of a 1954 measure making Columbus Day a national holiday. He quietly compiled a strong record on civil rights, housing, and immigration, as his Newark-centered district over time became majority African American. He drafted the Judiciary Committee’s majority reports upon which were based the Civil Rights Acts of 1957, 1964, and 1968. Rodino also was instrumental in spurring his colleagues to pass the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which abolished the national origins quota system. He once summed up his legislative career by saying, “I tried to listen to the voice that wasn’t heard.”

In January 1973, after the longtime Judiciary Chairman Emanuel Celler lost his reelection campaign, the chairman’s gavel passed to the next in seniority: Rodino. Events soon thrust the new chairman to the center of only the second presidential impeachment proceeding in U.S. history. For more than a year, President Richard M. Nixon and White House aides covered up a June 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C. On Saturday, 20 October 1973, President Nixon ordered his attorney general to fire the special prosecutor investigating the case. The attorney general and his deputy resigned rather than carry out the command. The next-in-line fired the special prosecutor. Prior to the “Saturday Night Massacre,” talk of impeaching the Republican president had been confined to the political periphery. Suddenly it entered the pubic discourse.

Rodino’s committee began preparing a case. Skeptics groused that Rodino was “untested,” indecisive, and unsuited to the looming constitutional crisis. Rather than dispel those fears, Rodino portrayed himself as an obscure backbencher, far removed from the levers of power. His raspy voice and slight physical stature—five feet, seven inches tall and 170 pounds—complemented the caricature of a man whose influence lagged that of flashier, more loquacious colleagues. “If fate had been looking for one of the powerhouses of Congress, it wouldn’t have picked me,” he told a reporter. He set a bipartisan tone by hiring a special, nonpartisan staff headed by John Doar, a registered Republican and former Justice Department civil rights lawyer. With little precedent from which to work, the committee defined modern impeachment procedure, asserting that the Constitution vested the House with “sole power” to impeach and that it required Congress to hold the President responsible for “high crimes and misdemeanors” and other breaches of duty. Throughout the process, Rodino urged the 38 committee members (21 Democrats and 17 Republicans) to avoid rancorous partisanship. He conferred regularly with the panel’s ranking Republican. On 6 February 1974 the House voted to allow the committee to review grounds for impeachment and to subpoena witnesses. Rodino told colleagues that, regardless of the investigation’s outcome, they must move forward “with such care and decency and thoroughness and honor that the vast majority of American people, and their children after them, will say: ‘That was the right course. There was no other way.’”

Public hearings began in May 1974. On 24 July, before a national television audience, final proceedings commenced with statements by each member, including the riveting oratory of the newcomer Barbara Jordan. On 27 July the committee approved the first of three articles of impeachment as six Republicans joined Democrats to charge President Nixon with obstructing justice, on a vote of 27–11. After the article passed, Rodino retreated to his office, called his wife, and, reflecting on the gravity of the moment, wept. The Judiciary Committee approved Article II, charging the president with abuses of power by a vote of 28–10 on 29 July. The following day a third article, charging the president with impeding due process by refusing to yield secret White House audio tapes, passed along party lines. Faced with the prospect of certain impeachment before the full House, President Nixon resigned on 8 August 1974. On 20 August the House affirmed the Judiciary Committee’s findings, adopting its twenty-volume final report 412–3.

For his masterful leadership, Rodino became a national celebrity and in 1976 was short-listed as a running mate by the presidential candidate Jimmy Carter. He served another fifteen years as the Judiciary chairman, joining in federal efforts to halt the inner-city drug scourge as a member of the House Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control. He led impeachment proceedings against a pair of federal judges—two of the seventeen individuals whom the House has impeached since 1789. He also served on the House Select Committee to Investigate Covert Arms Transactions with Iran in 1987. As Rodino’s district grew steadily more African American, he was pressured in Democratic primaries by black challengers and prominent black leaders who, despite his impeccable civil rights record, insisted that an African American should have the seat. Rodino retired in 1989. His successor, Donald Payne, became New Jersey’s first African-American representative.

After leaving Congress, Rodino taught law at Seton Hall University School of Law in Newark. He died of congestive heart failure at age ninety-five in his West Orange home. His funeral, held at St. Lucy’s Catholic Church, blocks from his childhood home, drew hundreds of national and state dignitaries. Rodino is interred at the Gate of Heaven Cemetery in East Hanover, New Jersey.

Rodino’s achievements hold special importance considering the sharp partisanship in latter-day national politics. His fidelity to Congress’s constitutionally prescribed impeachment role and to a methodical investigation contributed to a calm climate and the smooth transfer of executive power. House Majority Leader, and later Speaker of the House, Tip O’Neill praised Rodino for raising “the stature of Congress when we were at a low ebb. It’s magnificent how he has risen to the challenge.” In the final analysis, Rodino placed loyalty to the Constitution ahead of both party and personal interest.

Rodino’s papers (1949–1989) are housed at the Seton Hall University School of Law in the Peter W. Rodino, Jr., Law Library. Unlike many key Watergate figures, Rodino did not write his memoirs and has not been the subject of a major biography. Several useful secondary sources chronicle his role in the Watergate impeachment proceedings: Theodore H. White, Breach of Faith: The Fall of Richard Nixon (1975); Howard Fields, High Crimes and Misdemeanors: “Wherefore Richard M. Nixon... Warrants Impeachment”: The Dramatic Story of the Rodino Committee (1978); and “Peter Rodino: A Hero of the House” in Gerald M. Pomper, Ordinary Heroes and American Democracy (2004). Lengthy obituaries appear in the Bergen County Record and Washington Post (both 8 May 2005), as well as the New York Times (9 May 2005). In addition, the Columbia University Oral History Research Office in New York City conducted an extensive oral history with Rodino in 1981.

Matthew A. Wasniewski