Remembering U.S. Senator Robert Griffin
April 24, 2015
DETROIT – For a moment, U.S. Sen. Robert Griffin played a key role in one of the most gripping dramas in American history. For it was he who, at the peak of the Watergate crisis, wrote to one of his oldest political friends to tell him that it was over, that he had to quit or he would be removed from office.
That friend, of course, was Richard Nixon.
And Bob Griffin, long a Nixon loyalist, a politician less assertive than most, didn’t mince words. If the President stuck with his decision to defy a subpoena and not release his tapes, “I shall regard that as an impeachable offence and vote accordingly.”
Six days later, Nixon was gone.
Yet, few took much notice when the former two-term U.S. Senator died last week at age 91 in Traverse City. In a way, that wasn’t surprising. Never flamboyant and somewhat shy for a politician, he’d been out of politics and almost out of sight since leaving the Michigan Supreme Court in 1995. But, Griffin deserves to be remembered for more than just Watergate. He was once seen as a giant killer in Michigan politics and was the co-author of one of the most important pieces of post-New Deal labor legislation. And for a moment, he had a key role in one of the biggest dramas in American political history.
Not many remember that now. What’s even more forgotten is that in his day, Griffin was seen as a political powerhouse. In winning his two terms in the Senate, he solidly beat two famous Democrats, men who otherwise never lost an election in their lives—former Governor G. Mennen “Soapy” Williams and Michigan Attorney General Frank Kelley. During his earlier years in the House, Griffin was one of the two main authors of the 1959 Landrum-Griffin Act, which gave the Federal Government broad powers to investigate corruption within unions, something that earned him the labor movement’s undying hostility.
He also won national notice in 1968 when he led a filibuster in the Senate that prevented Lyndon Johnson from naming U.S. Associate Justice Abe Fortas Chief Justice. Griffin opposed the appointment because he felt the nominee was too liberal.
Regardless, he may have saved the nation some embarrassment. Months later, Fortas had to resign from the court itself because of alleged improper financial dealings. But, Griffin is likely to be best remembered for his key role in one of the major constitutional crises in American history. He had long been one of Richard Nixon’s best friends in Congress.
Their relationship stretched back to when then-Vice President Nixon campaigned for him the first time he ran for Congress, when he beat a Democratic incumbent in 1956.
When the Watergate scandal began to build, according to Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s best-selling book, The Final Days, Nixon told Griffin, “I’m innocent. I need your help.” Griffin stoutly defended his mentor ‘til his own doubts began to build. Then, in early August, he learned that there was a “smoking gun” tape that proved Nixon had ordered an illegal cover-up less than a week after the famous break-in on June 17, 1972. That’s when the senator wrote his letter to the President.
Later, according to the Washington Post reporters, one of Mr. Nixon’s sons-in-law contacted Griffin, and told him the President was drinking heavily and that he feared he might kill himself. Alarmed, the shaken senator called The Rev. Billy Graham to ask him to try and console the President and his family. He also helped put together a congressional delegation that went to see President Nixon and told him that he was certain to be impeached by the House and convicted by the Senate.
On Aug. 9, 1974, Nixon resigned, an event Griffin said gave him no joy. The next two years, however, may have been the best of his Senate career, since he was both personally and politically close to his fellow Michigander, President Gerald Ford. But things turned sour for Griffin after Ford was defeated for reelection in 1976. The next year, Mr. Griffin made a bid to become Senate minority leader, but lost to Howard Baker.
Disillusioned, he then announced he would not run for re-election, and began missing a high number of roll call votes. Later, he changed his mind and decided to run after all. But, he had done serious damage to himself. L. Brooks Patterson took him on in a GOP primary, claiming Griffin had lost the will to represent the people. Though Griffin won renomination, he was defeated by Democrat Carl Levin in the November election.
He was involved in one more significant decision: During his term on the Michigan Supreme Court, he wrote the majority opinion that held that assisted suicide could be made a crime –a ruling that caused Geoffrey Fieger, Jack Kevorkian’s flamboyant attorney, to label the justices “squirrels and mollusks and lizards.” But, history will likely remember Bob Griffin most for having broken with Nixon and perhaps help speed his resignation, something that dramatically reshaped the public image of him.
Early in his career, Griffin was seen by Democrats as a shrill, right-wing partisan. But when he died last week, U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, (D-Dearborn) had nothing but good things to say. “He taught me the importance of integrity in the political process, keeping your word, and working with members on both sides of the aisle,” she said.
One has to wonder how Robert Griffin would have felt about serving in the Senate today.
Jack Lessenberry, the longtime head of journalism at Wayne State University, can be heard on his podcast on YouTube via the Zing Media Network. He also is a winner of a National Emmy Award for a 1994 Frontline documentary on Dr. Jack Kevorkian, has served as The Toledo Blade’s writing coach and ombudsman and is now a columnist for and a consultant to both that newspaper and Block Communications, Inc. He is also the co-author of “The People’s Lawyer,” a biography of Frank Kelley, the nation’s longest-serving attorney general, and is working on a book on a pioneering newspaper family and race.