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

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…

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