How We Got Here: The Ervin Hearings, Watergate and the 24 Hour News Cycle

Welcome to How We Got Here, what I hope to be a regular Avocado feature chronicling how historical events shaped our current political and cultural climates. I hope you enjoy and please leave any feedback you’d care to share. – The Author (also Spiro Agnew, etc.)

May 17th, 1973 saw Washington in tumult. The Senate Select Committee on President Campaign Activities convened its first public hearings on the Watergate scandal. After months of speculation fueled by leaks and press coverage, even normally apolitical Americans anticipated its revelations. Theodore White felt the Committee would “deliver an extraordinary exercise in American public education never matched in history – an examination of how a president conducted that office, what can happen in the White House, how far its power can extend, and how easily that power can be…abused.”

As the Senators and their counsels sauntered up to a green table and fiddled with their microphones, the committee room buzzed with excitement. Dozens of staff aides and legal assistants delivered paperwork to committee members. Television reporters for ABC, CBS and NBC breathlessly narrated the proceedings, while their print colleagues scribbled anxiously on notepads. Hundreds of spectators crowded the galleys for a view of the action while others queued outside. “We’ve all got a little sadistic streak in us,” one explained, “like stopping on the highway to watch an accident.”

At 10:02, the committee came to order. Sam Ervin, an aged, jowly North Carolina Democrat, rapped an engraved Cherokee gavel against the table. His orotund oratory, mixing down-home musings with quotes from Shakespeare and Greek tragedy, granted the hearings instant weightiness, not to say melodrama.

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Sam Ervin, thunderous chairman

“We are beginning these hearings today in an atmosphere of the utmost gravity,” he announced. “The questions that have been raised in the wake of the June 17th break-in strike at the very undergirding of our democracy. If the many allegations made to this date are true, then the burglars who broke into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate were in effect breaking into the home of every citizen of the United States.” What was at stake, Ervin proclaimed, was Constitutional democracy itself, as Nixon’s men had sought to steal Americans’ “most precious heritage – their right to vote in a free election.”

His Republican counterpart, Howard Baker of Tennessee, contrasted both in appearance and demeanor. Forty-six years old with long hair and a boyish face accented with spectacles, he presented himself as a man of reason. “This committee is not a court, nor is it a jury,” he assured viewers. “We do not sit to pass judgment on the guilt or innocence of anyone. The greatest service that this committee can perform for the Senate, the Congress, and for the people of this Nation is to achieve a full discovery of all of the facts that bear on the subject of this inquiry.”

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Howard Baker, reluctant investigator

With the stakes established, Ervin, Baker and their colleagues prepared to undercover exactly what role President Nixon’s campaign played in the break-in – and whether Watergate was merely the tip of an iceberg. With relentless hype and media coverage, it promised to be a spectacle unparalleled in recent memory.

It had been eleven months since police arrested five burglars breaking into the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters in the Watergate Hotel. Painstaking investigations by reporters and Washington prosecutors tied the men to the Committee to Reelect the President (CRP), with implications that their activities were directly funded, and perhaps ordered by President Nixon’s closest aides. These revelations had little effect on that fall’s presidential campaign, with Nixon winning reelection over George McGovern in a 49 state landslide.

Nixon Campaign

Then Wright Patman (D-TX), Chairman of the House Banking Committee, launched an investigation into CRP funding, tracing illegal use of campaign funds laundered in Mexico. Nixon’s counsel, John W. Dean, directed House Minority Leader Gerald Ford to undercut Patman’s efforts. On October 3rd, 1972, Patman’s committee voted 20-to-15 against granting themselves subpoena power. A defiant Patman told reporters that “I predict that the facts will come out, and when they do I am convinced they will reveal why the White House was so anxious to kill the committee’s investigation.”

By early 1973, Watergate expanded beyond the President’s control. Judge John Sirica indicted the Watergate burglars in late January, serving harsh sentences that persuaded at least one burglar, James W. McCord, to talk. Press coverage, heretofore limited to the efforts of investigative journalists like Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein and Bob Jackson, began to mount. And several members of the Senate Judiciary Committee agitated for investigation.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield agreed, but decided that committee wasn’t the optimal choice. After all, the Judiciary Committee included Ted Kennedy, one of Nixon’s bitterest enemies, and Edmund Muskie, whose presidential campaign in 1972 had been Nixon’s primary target. Accusations of partisanship and personal ambition needed to be avoided. So on February 7th, 1973 the Senate voted 77-0 to create the Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, to investigate these charges, with Sam Ervin as chairman.

Ervin and Co
From left to right: Sam Ervin, Samuel Dash, Lowell Weicker, Howard Baker, Rufus Edmisten (Ervin’s aide)

“Sammy was the only man we could have picked…who’d have had the respect of the Senate as a whole,” Mansfield argued. Certainly Ervin seemed too idiosyncratic to easily peg. Once a rigid opponent of civil rights and desegregation, he’d refashioned himself into a defender of civil liberties, attacking Nixon’s expanded surveillance and law enforcement programs. His folksy, pompous style and protestations that he was a mere (Harvard-educated) “country lawyer,” endeared him to some and irritated others.

Many observers felt that Ervin, for all his public posturing, did a poor job running the committee. Staffers constantly leaked to the press and friendly politicians, and Ervin met several times with Bob Woodward to discuss possible theories about the break-in. Ervin seemed to have better relationships with his fellow senators than Samuel Dash, the chief counsel, or other members of the majority staff. Nonetheless, Timothy Crouse observed, during committee sessions “Ervin sometimes displays an almost mystical knack for asking the right questions.”

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Howard Baker (right) and Fred Thompson

Howard Baker, meanwhile, walked a careful tightrope. He presented himself as an inveterate fact finder, asking witnesses tough questions that belied any partisan affiliation. The press became enamored of Baker, with Time branding him “The Man Who Keeps Asking Why,” the Baltimore Sun praising him for “probing for the moral center of the issue” and Mary McGrory calling him “a prosecutor with charm.” Millions of Americans who remembered little else about the hearings recalled his query to John Dean: “What did the president know and when did he know it?”

Yet Baker, whom Minority Leader Hugh Scott personally selected for the Committee, also met with President Nixon for advice on how to handle his questioning. After several meetings John Ehrlichman concluded that Baker is “on our side – no question about that.” After all, he’d cultivated a close relationship with Nixon, who had considered Baker for his running mate in 1968 and even thought about naming him to the Supreme Court. His minority counsel, thirty year old Fred Thompson, also showed committee documents to Ehrlichman, Fred Buzhardt and other White House aides, while publicly blasting Democratic colleagues about their own press leaks.

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Daniel Inouye

Baker understood his dilemma, telling himself that “you better not become an agent of the White House.” Initially, he pushed the President’s line in private and executive sessions, then voted along with the majority in public to avoid any appearance of partisanship. His double game fooled the public, though shrewd journalists and observers picked up on it; Mike Wallace came away from an interview frustrated with Baker, calling him “too slick” to make anything stick. Throughout the hearings, Baker continued wrestling with his dual identity as Republican and prosecutor.

Other committee members included Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, the one-armed World War II veteran; Joseph Montoya, the dapper liberal from New Mexico; and the pugnacious Eugene Talmadge of Georgia. Besides Baker, the Republicans included Lowell Weicker of Connecticut, a maverick who employed his own investigators throughout the hearings, and Florida’s Edward Gurney, an arch-conservative who emerged as Nixon’s vehement defender. Between them, they employed a small army of some 97 legal assistants and researchers, all jostling for influence and attention.

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Samuel Dash, inquisitor 

The Nixon Administration attempted to “throw the Ervin Hearings into chaos” by means fair and foul. Besides working with Baker and Thompson, Nixon had his aides leak stories of past Democratic improprieties and told his press secretary, Ron Ziegler, to “kick the committee.” Ehrlichman arranged for the FBI to investigate counsel Samuel Dash’s background while publicizing past comments critical of the Administration. Even nominal allies like Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor, and Earl Silbert, prosecutor for the original burglars, feared that Ervin’s committee would prejudice future trials.

It was Dash, the committee’s chief counsel, who shaped the strategy. A bald, middle-aged Georgetown Law Professor, he seemed an unlikely candidate for his post, yet his aggressiveness proved an asset to the committee. He fought Baker’s suggestions to begin the hearings with major aides, preferring instead that the committee use minor officials to build suspense and maintain interest. More than anyone else, he pushed for  television coverage “in order to bring all of America into the democratic process.”

Televised Congressional hearings were nothing new. In previous decades, TV had captured Estes Kefauver and John McClellan’s investigations into organized crime, Joseph McCarthy’s clashes with Army counsel Joseph Welch, and William Fulbright’s probe into Lyndon Johnson’s conduct of the Vietnam War. What was unique, however, was the near round-the-clock coverage granted by the major networks, guaranteeing that every moment of the hearings, whether banal or fascinating, would receive attention. Until the O.J. Simpson trial two decades later, America wouldn’t experience anything quite like it.

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Robert C. Odle, first witness

Too bad that following Ervin’s thunderous opening, the first day proved a snooze. The first witness was Robert C. Odle, CRP’s 29 year old office manager. who provided a dry recounting of CRP’s organizational structure. Besides a spirited defense of Nixon as “one of the greatest Presidents this country has ever known,” the young man inspired little excitement. Nor did Bruce Kehrli, an aide to Bob Haldeman, nor even DC police officers Paul W. Leeper and John Barrett in recounting their arrests of the burglars.

Television cameras caught several spectators, who had waited up for hours to see the hearings, falling asleep in the galleys. Even Ervin stifled a yawn during Odle’s testimony, hardly an endorsement of his own committee. “If you like to watch the grass grow,” Jules Witcover wrote, “you would have loved the opening yesterday of the Senate select committee’s hearings on Watergate.”

Viewers shared the sentiment, deluging networks with letters, calls and telegrams complaining about the hearings preempting their favorite shows. One Chicago station alone received 2,000 phone calls in one day; “Why are you showing that Watergate crap?” went a typical complaint. Some local affiliates temporarily reduced coverage to edited recaps in prime time. Fred Thompson expected that “after the networks received the first wave of complaints from outraged viewers…all of us would be TV has-beens almost as soon as we had begun.”

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James W. McCord, burglar

Then came James McCord. The “field commander” of the Watergate burglars, McCord was an ex-CIA man who had received instructions from Jack Caulfield to accept imprisonment so that the White House would take care of their families. This mobster quid pro quo didn’t sat well with McCord, nor did Nixon’s attempt to blame the burglary on the CIA. So in March 1973, during his indictment, he offered investigators the first crack in Watergate by passing Judge Sirica a sealed envelope confiding his predicament.

The committee had been leery about summoning McCord, but his two-day testimony was dynamite. He described his series of surreptitious phone calls with Caulfield, offers of hush money, and the bombshell revelation that John Mitchell, former Attorney General and CRP chairman, supervised Caulfield’s efforts to handle the burglars. He also captured the public’s imagination by demonstrating how to bug a telephone, showing government officials operating like gangsters.

Whenever the hearings threatened to flag, new evidence or colorful witnesses snapped viewers to attention. Especially the doubles-act of Caulfield and Tony Ulasziewicz, former New York policemen who delivered hush money from the White House to the burglars. Ulasziewicz described his misdeeds with brash humor; among other comments, he critiqued McCord’s method of burglary. Any NYPD officers, he commented, “would have walked in like any decent common-looking citizens, laid something in the right place and walked right out.”

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Tony Ulasewicz, comic relief

Ulasziewicz played well on TV but Lowell Weicker, for one, didn’t find him amusing. He listed those conspirators already imprisoned due to the break-in and commented “I think what we see here is not a joke, but a very great tragedy.” “If Mr. Ulasziewicz is funny,” Weicker reasoned later, “then politics is going to get dirtier and dirtier in this country.”

Hugh Sloan proved even more damning. The former CRP aide arranged payments for Gordon Liddy and other defendants, quickly losing his stomach for amorality. After consulting with his young wife Deborah (“very pretty and very pregnant,” in Bob Woodward’s memorable phrase), he became a reluctant source for Woodward and Bernstein while cooperating with investigators. In his turn before the committee, on June 6th and 7th, Sloan accounted for his dealings with the White House.

When Sloan asked John Mitchell for advice about the break-in, Mitchell told him that “when the going gets tough, the tough get going.” Or when he told Mitchell’s deputy, Jeb Magruder that “I have no intention of perjuring myself” to protect Nixon, Magruder advised that “you may have to.”  Or when Fred LaRue, another CRP official, instructed him to take the Fifth Amendment “to stay in the good graces of the campaign committee.”

Hugh Sloan
Hugh Sloan, man of conscience

Sloan’s testimony confirmed McCord’s comments that White House complicity went to the top. His refusal to lie for his employers, his willingness to cooperate with investigators made him stand out among this rogue’s gallery, winning even Sam Ervin’s praise. “Your testimony has renewed my faith in the old expression,” the Senate intoned, “an honest man is the noblest work of God.”

Far testier was Maurice Stans, former Commerce Secretary and CRP financier, whom one reporter commented “wore the exasperated sincerity of the substitute teacher.” Already under indictment for his ties to crooked oil tycoon Robert Vesco, Stans showed little patience for the committee’s questions. On June 13th, he read a lengthy statement outlining his innocence, sparred with counsel and criticized Hugh Sloan’s testimony as false. He seemed peculiarly incensed at attacks on McDonald’s CEO Ray Kroc, whose $255,000 contribution to Nixon’s campaign raised accusations of influence-peddling (Nixon vetoed a minimum wage bill around that time).

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Maurice Stans, financier 

“There are many people like Mr. Kroc who believe in the country,” Stans insisted, “who believe in the [Republican] Party, who believe in principles, and who may believe at a given time in a candidate.” He complained that Kroc “was insulted by these insinuations and falsehoods, they were vicious and unfair, completely conjectural without any fact whatsoever.” His defending the virtue of fast food tycoons, however, fell on deaf ears.

Stans also incited one of the most heated rows among committee members. When Ervin criticized Stans for padding donations at a dinner for Vice President Spiro Agnew with CRP money, Stans responded that “I am not sure this is the first time that has happened in American politics.” Unimpressed by this playground defense, Ervin responded that “There has been murder and larceny in every generation, but that hasn’t made murder meritorious or larceny legal!”

Angered by Ervin’s aggressiveness, Edward Gurney proclaimed that “I for one have not appreciated the harassment of this witness by the Chairman of this committee.” Ervin sarcastically defended his “method of examining the witness. I am just an old country lawyer and I don’t know the finer ways to do it.” The two continued their heated exchange until Baker, aghast at their breach of decorum, intervened and requested a recess to let tempers cool.

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Edward Gurney (left) with Howard Baker

By now, the American public was hooked: thanks to Sam Ervin, Howard Baker and saturation TV coverage, Watergate had exploded from “politics as usual” into the Greatest Show on Earth. And the next round of witnesses proved even more explosive.

The second installment will cover the testimony of Jeb Magruder and John W. Dean. Besides the linked articles, I will provide a detailed bibliography in the final installment.