The Watergate hearings, 50 years ago: Truth was not up for debate

The Watergate hearings, 50 years ago: Truth was not up for debate

World News

In the grandly marbled space of the Russell Senate Office Building known as the Kennedy Caucus Room, where a bipartisan select committee held nationally televised hearings to investigate the burglary of the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate a half-century ago, alumni of that inquiry gathered Friday evening to reminisce — and issue warnings.

Their remarks, sombre and theatrical as the room itself, were pitched to a present-day investigative body: the House select committee probing the January 6 attack on the Capitol.

“Some things change, and some things remain the same,” said a host of the gathering, Rufus L. Edmisten, deputy chief counsel for the Senate select committee that investigated Watergate. “What hasn’t changed between Watergate and January 6 is how money has stolen our democracy.”

The Watergate inquiry, a more than two-year combined effort on the part of both Senate and House committees, the special prosecutor’s office, a federal grand jury and the media, has been widely hailed as an investigatory gold standard and potential model for the January 6 committee.

It is seen as a triumph of assiduous digging and partisan-free statesmanship with made-for-Hollywood heroes: There was the heavy-jowled Senate Watergate Committee chairman, Sam Ervin of North Carolina; John Dean, President Richard Nixon’s former counsel, an owlish figure whose riveting testimony thoroughly implicated the president in covering up the Watergate break-in that took place in the small hours of June 17, 1972; and Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the two Washington Post reporters who broke the story and became household names.

But the committee’s work today faces hurdles that the Watergate investigators did not.

The present-day panel is racing the clock, attempting to uncover all that it can with the recognition that Republicans may win back the House majority and pull the plug on the committee’s endeavors come January. Nixon was defiant, but not at the level of former President Donald Trump. And truth was not up for debate in 1973.

“What we investigated was understood to be substantive and real,” said Gordon Freedman, who served as a staff member on Ervin’s committee. “We now live in an era where the truth has been eroded as a standard.”

Watergate investigators also had the benefit of the secret recordings made by Nixon in the Oval Office. By contrast, Trump did not tape his private conversations, and he shredded White House documents while in office. Several of his former aides have defied subpoenas issued by the January 6 committee, some justifying their intransigence through “executive privilege,” a phrase that entered the lexicon in the Nixon era. But none of Nixon’s top advisers invoked it and instead elected to testify before Ervin’s committee — a reflection of a Republican Party far different from the one today.

“It took a lot of guts for seven Republicans on the Judiciary Committee and three conservative Southern Democrats to do the right thing and vote to impeach Nixon,” said Elizabeth Holtzman, who 50 years after being elected to Congress and serving on the House Judiciary Committee is running for Congress again. “They didn’t do it to agree with me. They did it because they followed the truth. And they did it, really, because the American public forced them to.”

Nixon, of course, did use executive privilege to avoid handing over what would prove to be some of the most damning taped conversations. Only after Leon Jaworski, the Watergate special prosecutor, prevailed in the Supreme Court did Nixon acquiesce, resulting in his resignation August 9, 1974.

Jaworski, I should note, was my grandfather. I was two weeks shy of 15 when he was appointed by Nixon on November 1, 1973, after Archibald Cox was fired on Nixon’s orders in what became known as the Saturday Night Massacre.

As my grandfather would later maintain in his Watergate memoir, Nixon’s resignation proved that “no one — absolutely no one — is above the law.” That assessment deserves some qualification, however.

President Richard Nixon (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Nixon was never indicted or much less convicted of any Watergate-related crimes. Against the wishes of the federal grand jury empanelled in the wake of the burglary, my grandfather declined to bring criminal charges against the president and later signalled to the Ford administration that he would not challenge a presidential pardon.

Nixon’s fate was an ignominious one, my grandfather insisted, saying, “A pardon isn’t just a beautiful document to frame and hand-hang on the wall.”

Still, Nixon was free to write a bestselling memoir and to remain something of a Republican grandee all the way up to his death nearly two decades after he resigned in disgrace. Trump, meanwhile, remains the most influential member of his party after two impeachments and an electoral defeat he contests to this day.

Despite the efforts of my grandfather and his investigators, and those of the media and Watergate committees, basic questions about the scandal remain unanswered. It is still unclear what, if any, advance knowledge Nixon had of the break-in. Though the president is on tape approving hush-money payments to the defendants, it remains unknown whether he personally played a role in raising the funds. For that matter, the degree to which H R Haldeman, the White House chief of staff, and Attorney General John Mitchell directed illegal activities on a day-to-day basis has not come to light.

A screen above the House Select Committee investigating the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol shows former President Donald Trump and his family, in Washington, June 16, 2022. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

Such questions, of course, are analogous to those currently faced by the January 6 committee.

Richard Ben-Veniste, one of my grandfather’s top deputies who was at the reunion, said he was asked by the January 6 committee to offer advice. “January 6 was the Saturday Night Massacre on steroids,” he said. “It was far more dangerous than what we thought was unthinkable: the appearance of a coup d’état when raw power replaced the rule of law. Nixon, for all his criminality and authoritarian sensibilities, possessed a sense of shame.”

The continuum that stretches from Watergate to the present features a few ironies. During and after the Nixon scandals, congressional checks on executive power were enacted, including the War Powers Act of 1973 and modifications to the Federal Election Campaign Act. Those legislative initiatives led to charges of overreach and a counter-movement by some Republicans who wanted to restore power to the executive branch.

One of them, a former Nixon White House aide named Dick Cheney, was elected to Congress four years after Nixon’s resignation. Cheney, of course, was vice president during the George W Bush administration, and his daughter, Liz Cheney, is the vice chair of the January 6 committee who has sharply criticised Trump as an abuser of executive power.

An additional irony following Nixon’s secretive presidency was the push for greater transparency in government: more sunlight, less smoke-filled rooms. But that effort has not necessarily translated into more efficient governance. To take a recent example, House conservatives led by Rep Marjorie Taylor Greene, the far-right Georgia freshman who was born three months before Nixon’s resignation, have used the virtue of legislative transparency as an argument for slowing the House Democrats’ agenda by insisting on roll-call votes for everything on the legislative calendar.

At the reunion, Rep Deborah Ross, D-N C, was mingling among the guests as she recalled listening to the Senate Watergate hearings at the age of 10 while driving cross-country in her family’s station wagon. Noting the coincidence of the Watergate anniversary taking place in the middle of the January 6 committee hearings, Ross said that “the obvious thing the two scandals had in common was that we’re talking about two men who wanted to hang onto power no matter what. The irony is that Nixon would have won in 1972 anyway, if he hadn’t been so paranoid about the Democrats.”

“And if not for the tapes!” chimed in Judi Dash, whose late father, Sam Dash, served as the chief counsel for the Senate Watergate Committee.

Two former members of the Watergate Special Prosecution Force, Jill Wine-Banks and George Frampton, were at the reunion discussing the work of the January 6 committee over cocktails. “I was very sceptical at first about the committee only televising six or eight hearings,” Wine-Banks said. “But I think they’ve done an excellent job, even without having the narrator we had, John Dean.”

Turning to Frampton, she said, “For all that Nixon did, I’m not sure I ever felt democracy was in danger like it is now. Did you?”

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“Oh, certainly a little bit,” Frampton said.

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