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Robert Griffin's moment

Former U.S. Senator Robert Griffin, a conservative Republican from Traverse City, died last week, and if you aren’t at least in your fifties, you may never have heard of him. Carl Levin beat Griffin when he tried to win a third term thirty-seven years ago.

Griffin pretty much vanished from the radar screen afterwards.

He did serve one term on the Michigan Supreme Court, but that ended twenty years ago. He wasn’t flamboyant; for a politician, he was shy. Nor did he have a compelling personality.

But he had a moment at center stage of one of the greatest dramas in American history, and that deserves to be remembered.

Even apart from that, Bob Griffin was a heavyweight politician in his day. In winning two terms in the Senate, he defeated two giants of Michigan politics, men who otherwise never lost an election – Soapy Williams and Frank Kelley.

His major congressional accomplishment was seen as controversial and partisan. He was co-sponsor of the Landrum-Griffin Act, which gave the federal government new powers to intervene in union affairs and elections, something deeply resented by organized labor.

Griffin also led a successful filibuster that prevented President Lyndon Johnson from making Abe Fortas, then on the Supreme Court, Chief Justice of the United States.  Not long afterwards, Fortas had to resign altogether because of a financial and ethics scandal.

But the moment for which Bob Griffin deserves to be remembered happened on a weekend in August forty years ago, when he wrote a letter to one of his oldest friends and mentors in politics, a man who had campaigned for him in his very first election to Congress.

He told that friend, who he learned had lied to him and everyone else, that he was going to be impeached. He pretty much told him that he needed to resign, and that if he continued to defy a subpoena from Congress, he too would vote to convict him.

That friend, of course, was Richard Nixon.

Griffin’s letter was a huge national sensation. A year before, nobody, including Bob Griffin himself, could have pictured him demanding that a President of his own party resign.

But Watergate was a scandal like no other.

Griffin’s letter was said to have shocked Nixon. Afterwards, according to Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein, one of the President’s sons-in-law called the Michigan senator, and said Nixon was drinking, irrational, incoherent, and might kill himself.

A shaken Griffin asked Billy Graham to help the family.

Within days, Nixon did in fact quit. We may never know how much Griffin’s letter speeded the end of what Gerald Ford called our “long national nightmare,” but we do know this: When things seemed to be falling apart, Robert Griffin went outside his comfort zone, did the right thing, and took a stand. His career didn’t blossom after that.

He lost a race for Senate minority leader and seemed to lose interest in his job. He first said he wasn’t going to run for reelection, but then changed his mind. But the damage had been done.

He was defeated. Today, he is pretty much forgotten. But for one brief shining moment, he was indeed a profile in courage, and that deserves to be remembered.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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