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Watergate Committee hearings may be both an inspiration and a hard act to follow

From left, Sens. Howard Baker of Tennesse and Senator Sam Ervin of North Carolina, majority counsel Sam Dash, Sens. Herman Talmadge of Georgia and Daniel Inouye of Hawaii listen to the testimony of James McCord, one of the Watergate burglqrs, during the Watergate hearings.
Gene Forte
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From left, Sens. Howard Baker of Tennesse and Senator Sam Ervin of North Carolina, majority counsel Sam Dash, Sens. Herman Talmadge of Georgia and Daniel Inouye of Hawaii listen to the testimony of James McCord, one of the Watergate burglqrs, during the Watergate hearings.

The House Committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol will begin public hearings on TV on Thursday night, eight days before we mark the 50th anniversary of the bungled burglary that gave a name to the biggest political scandal of its time — Watergate.

That single word still reverberates in Washington, in the media and in history. It still has meaning among those who remember those times and those who value the separation of powers and the idea that the law applies to everyone — even the president of the United States.

One big reason people remember Watergate is that the Senate eventually empaneled a special committee to look into the larger story behind that one burglary. And that committee's work played an enormous part in making Watergate what it became.

The panel held 51 sessions in the summer and fall of 1973. All were public and televised gavel-to-gavel. PBS rebroadcast them at night in full. The focus was on the often-shocking testimony of the witnesses, not the personalities or conflicts of the committee members.

Millions watched. Minds were changed. History took a different course.

Fifty years from now, when Americans look back on the riotous break-in at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, will it have as much impact as memories of the Watergate scandal continue to have today?

Much of the answer may depend on what the Jan. 6 investigating committee can accomplish in the weeks ahead.

Slow moving scandal and reaction

The word Watergate meant little to anyone in June of 1972. It referred only to a recently completed hotel and office complex overlooking the Potomac River in Washington, D.C., near the Kennedy Performing Arts Center and the National Mall. Lots of local folks thought it was rather ugly.

On the night of June 17, five burglars were caught inside that complex in office space rented by the Democratic National Committee. They were bugging telephones and rifling files when the police arrived. The ensuing investigation found some of them had connections to the White House or the reelection committee of President Richard Nixon.

Stories about this appeared in The Washington Post at the time, suggesting the DNC break-in was part of something much larger. Other journalistic organizations were sniffing around the story through the rest of that year. But months of official cover-up and slow-moving legal process kept most of the country from noticing. Nixon easily won a second term in office in the fall of that year.

It was not until the following spring, when members of Nixon's innermost circle began resigning, that Watergate became a common topic of conversation. Senate leaders in both parties decided a special committee ought to look into it. Members were chosen, co-chairs named. Staff was hired.

The committee scheduled hearings and the three commercial TV networks committed to at least some live coverage. Public television went still further, committing to gavel-to-gavel coverage and rebroadcasting each day's proceedings in prime time. The rebroadcasts continued for up to six hours per session from May through to the last, follow-up hearings in the fall.

[Also on board gavel to gavel was a newly created, low-budget operation that allowed people to listen in while driving or working or sitting at home. It was the first time most anyone had heard of National Public Radio.]

The Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, soon to be known simply as the "Watergate Committee," held its first session in May of 1973, 11 months to the day after the break-in.

The face of the proceedings from the outset was that of Chairman Sam Ervin, 76, a self-described "country lawyer" from rural North Carolina who was also a Harvard-trained constitutional scholar. "Senator Sam" had first been elected in 1954 as an old school Southern Democrat. He could be at once genteel and folksy, establishment and populist.

Widely viewed as a conservative, Ervin had opposed civil rights legislation and was known to have the respect of many Republicans, including Nixon himself. Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, D-Mont., said at the time: "Sam is the only man we could have selected on either side who would have the respect of the Senate as a whole."

But almost equally visible from the start was the man whose role on the committee would matter most, Howard Baker, the committee's vice chairman and top Republican. Baker was then a second-term senator from Tennessee, widely viewed as a future party leader in the Senate or presidential nominee. His parents had both been members of Congress and his father-in-law was the legendary Senate Republican leader, Everett Dirksen of Illinois.

The White House initially viewed Baker as a key ally on the committee and Baker met three times with Nixon before the hearings began. He also conferred with some of the Nixon men who would be called as witnesses. Even Baker's famous opening question — "What did the president know and when did he know it?" — was initially intended to insulate the president and potentially limit the damage of the whole affair.

In the end, however, that question would highlight the testimony that directly implicated the president and maximized the damage. Baker disappointed some Republicans by moving away from Nixon over the course of that summer, but he would later become the GOP leader in the Senate and remain so for eight years. He sought the party's presidential nomination in 1980 but lost out to Ronald Reagan, whom he would later serve as chief of staff during Reagan's final years in office.

Key turning points

The first turning point came on June 25, when the former White House counsel, John Dean, began reading his 245-page testimony. It took two days for Dean, who had been the coordinator for the cover-up, to read his testimony. His young wife, Mo, sat stoically behind him listening. Ervin and Baker and the committee's other five members listened. The nation listened.

Dean was accusing the chairman of Nixon's reelection campaign, John Mitchell, the former attorney general of the United States, of green-lighting the break-in at the Watergate and a raft of other clandestine actions meant to monitor and disrupt the Democrats' presidential nomination process in 1972.

But even more breathtaking was Dean's calm and clear testimony that Nixon himself had orchestrated the cover-up and ordered the FBI not to investigate it. Dean said he had discussed such matters with the president not once or twice but in 35 conversations.

Nixon had denied all of this. It was his word against Dean's. But then came the second turning point. Baker's own man on the committee staff, fellow Tennessean Fred Thompson, learned from a White House document that a taping system had been automatically recording Nixon's conversations in the Oval Office since early 1971. The tapes were kept under lock and key by the Secret Service.

From then on, the Watergate saga would become a struggle over those tapes. The special prosecutor appointed by Nixon's second attorney general, Elliot Richardson, requested the tapes. When Nixon said no, the prosecutor, Archibald Cox, sent him a subpoena. Richardson was ordered by Nixon to fire Cox, but he refused and resigned. So did his deputy. What was soon known as the "Saturday Night Massacre" ended when the third-ranking Justice official, Solicitor General Robert Bork, stepped up and fired Cox.

Bork also recommended a new prosecutor to replace Cox, a Democrats-for-Nixon Texas attorney named Leon Jaworksi. Thought to be a safe choice, he proved instead to be utterly tenacious in pursuing the case and bringing indictments – and naming Nixon as an unindicted co-conspirator.

On to impeachment, disgrace

Meanwhile, the House Judiciary Committee had absorbed all these proceeding and opened an impeachment inquiry that would go back over much the ground covered by the Senate panel the summer before. The House hearings led to articles of impeachment. The struggle over the tapes reached the Supreme Court in July 1974 and the justices ruled unanimously that the tapes had to be released. One in particular, called the "Smoking Gun" tape, made Nixon's role in the cover-up painfully clear. His remaining Republican support in Congress collapsed and he resigned on Aug. 8.

Nixon's approval rating in the Gallup Poll had spiked to 68% as his second term began in January of 1973. But the Watergate trickle of news had begun to erode his standing even before the hearings began and his Gallup was down to 48% when the hearings began. That measure moved generally downward through the summer and hit 31% in August of 1973. It bottomed out at 24% as he left office a year later.

The hearings clearly played a role. A remarkable 71% told Gallup they had watched some of the hearing live. Before they began, only 31% thought "Watergate" was a serious matter and not "just politics." An even lower 19% thought Nixon should be removed from office over it.

But after the hearings, 53% felt that it was a serious matter and those saying Nixon should go had nearly doubled. Even more, 71% had come to see Nixon as culpable to at least some extent.

Nixon was never prosecuted because his successor as president, Gerald Ford, issued a blanket pardon in his second month in office. But Nixon's resignation still stands out as the only voluntary exit from the presidency.

A different crime in a different time

The current goals of the Jan. 6 committee (called by some the 1-6 committee and by others the J-6) are clearly quite different. The committee is not as evenly balanced between the parties and the regions of the country as the Watergate panel was, largely because it was not established in a spirit of cooperation between the parties.

The idea of an independent investigating body like the one that followed the terrorist attacks of 2001 had strong public backing and bipartisan support in the House. But it was scuttled by a Republican filibuster in the Senate. Mitch McConnell, the GOP's Senate leader, called such a commission a "purely political exercise" that would neither learn anything new nor "promote healing" — adding: "Frankly, I do not believe it is even designed to."

The House then went forward with a special committee of its own that initially was to have Republican members appointed by GOP House leader Kevin McCarthy. But McCarthy named prospective members who were themselves expected to be among those investigated for their roles in the Jan. 6 events.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi vetoed them and appointed instead two Republican members who had voted for the second impeachment of President Trump following the riot in January 2021. They are Reps. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois.

Yet another key difference is in the refusal of many witnesses to testify, even when sent a subpoena. Two of those who refused, former Trump adviser Steven Bannon (who left the White House in 2017) and Trump trade economist Peter Navarro have been indicted for contempt of Congress by the Justice Department. Bannon has a trial date in July.

However, the Justice Department on Saturday announced that two other Trump men who have refused to comply with current subpoenas from the House committee will not be prosecuted. They are former Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and his former deputy Dan Scavino. The committee had hoped these two might provide some of the firsthand knowledge of Oval Office conversations that the Watergate committee got from Dean (and later from the tapes).

Ultimately, the current House committee's charge is also different from its predecessor's in that the president who is at the center of the controversy is no longer in office. But there should be no mistake about the ultimate target in these proceedings. There is much to know and understand about what happened in the lead-up to the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, and there were many individuals involved. But it all had to do with keeping Trump in office.

And many Trump supporters today believe the Jan. 6 committee is all about keeping Trump out of office. Navarro, emerging from his arraignment on contempt of Congress charges last week, said the investigation's "clear mission is to prevent Donald John Trump from running for president in 2024 and being elected president."

A poll published by The Washington Post and ABC News in May found 52% of Americans thought Trump should be charged with a crime for his role in what happened on Jan. 6 and 42% thought he should not. Support for charges was at 88% among Democrats, 56% among independents and 11% among Republicans.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ron Elving
Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.