What Joe Biden Learned at the Last Two Impeachments

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.