How We Got Here: Aftershocks from the Season of Inquiry

At the height of the Watergate hearings, nearly 85 percent of Americans watched them on television. As we’ve seen, initial indifference turned into excitement as the Committee interrogated witnesses and uncovered truths. It cratered Nixon’s approval ratings, destroyed public trust in the Presidency, and divided Americans into sharp pro- and anti-Nixon camps. Each side had their own ready-made arguments, their own kitsch (“Impeach the *Expletive Deleted*” and ladybug pins for Nixon opponents, “Nobody Died at Watergate” bumper stickers for his supporters), their own spokespeople, their own heroes and villains. Love or hate them, people were watching.

Yet by September 1973, after four months of high drama, attention started to wane.  Among later subjects were Pat Buchanan, the pugnacious Nixon speechwriter whose unrepentant defense of the President earned him a legion of admirers (and many detractors); Howard Hunt, the CIA agent-turned-Plumber (and pulp novelist) who detailed his bizarre CRP activities; Richard Helms, ex-CIA Director, who testified about Nixon’s efforts to obstruct justice; and Donald Segretti, the jovial dirty trickster whose colorful pranks (memorably dubbed “ratfucking”) pockmarked the ’72 Democratic primaries.

Howard Hunt, an equally gifted author and spy

These witnesses were neither uninteresting nor unimportant; Hunt in particular, with his colorful tales of bugging, espionage and visiting a hospitalized ITT lobbyist in a fright wig, spun stories fascinating in their absurdity. Problem was, the public had already heard them from investigative reporters; there were no new bombshells left, only the hard, tedious work of building a case. Thus coverage faded and audiences melted away, until by October 1973 few were still watching.

This indifference was too late to save Nixon: the testimony of Dean, Jeb Magruder and especially Alexander Butterfield was too damning to walk back. Attention fixated on the court battles over the White House tapes, which culminated in the Saturday Night Massacre that October, where Nixon fired his Special Prosecutor, Archibald Cox, Attorney General Elliot Richardson and his deputy, William Ruckelshaus. After months of further battles Nixon released edited transcripts the following April, which only intensified calls for resignation.

In June 1974, the Ervin Committee issued its final report, detailing the misdeeds of the Nixon Administration and recommending stricter election laws. By then the House was preparing to impeach the President, with the Judiciary Committee holding its hearings in late July. These hearings, also televised, generated their own drama with Chairman Peter Rodino’s anguished appeals to principle, Barbara Jordan’s passionate denunciations of Nixon, Charles Sandman’s snarling defenses of the President. The Judiciary Committee voted three articles of impeachment against Nixon, setting up a titanic constitutional showdown. Then he resigned.

Ending the nightmare?

Many journalists wondered what, if anything, Ervin and friends accomplished. Elizabeth Drew called the hearings “flawed and fumbling and marked by…showboating and tensions among its members.” Theodore White criticized them for “los(ing) track of their broad mandate – to recommend to the Senate and nation how to improve its systems of Presidential election.” The only concrete suggestions implemented were campaign finance reforms, notably establishing the Federal Election Commission. However, the Supreme Court struck down many of these changes two years later.

Sam Ervin went into jovial retirement after 1975, relishing his fame as an unlikely celebrity (including an unfortunate spoken-word “music” album). His “country lawyer” act became the inspiration for a million copycats and parodies, most notably Andy Griffith’s Matlock. Ervin died in 1985, his mixed, complicated legacy as civil libertarian and segregationist overshadowed by his eleventh-hour moment of glory.  Samuel Dash remained an active attorney and law professor until his own death in 2004.

Howard Baker’s supposedly fearless truth-seeking (his covert support for Nixon ignored or forgotten) made him a major player in the Republican Party. Though his presidential bid in 1980 flopped disastrously, he served as Senate Majority Leader, Ronald Reagan’s White House Chief of Staff and George H.W. Bush’s Ambassador to Japan. Baker died in 2014. His counsel, Fred Thompson, became a Hollywood actor and later a Senator himself; he, too, launched a failed presidential campaign (in 2008), dying a year after his boss.

Baker Thompson Old
Howard Baker and Fred Thompson, late in life

Lowell Weicker grew increasingly disenchanted with the GOP’s rightward slide before his defeat by Joe Lieberman in 1988. He later served as Governor of Connecticut from 1991 to 1995 as an independent. The last living committee member, Weicker remains active as a writer and businessman. Nixon’s defender on the Committee, Edward Gurney, was indicted for accepting payoffs from a contractor in 1974; though acquitted, it ruined his political career. Gurney became an attorney until his death in 1996.

Joseph Montoya also ran afoul of ethics charges, losing reelection in 1976 to Harrison Schmitt. Montoya died in 1978. As did Herman Talmadge, censured by the Senate for improper campaign donations; he lost reelection in 1980 and became an attorney before his 2002 death. Daniel Inouye, on the other hand, remained a major player in the Senate until his death until 2012.

Whatever the committee’s shortcomings, it achieved its main goal: to focus attention on Richard Nixon’s misdeeds, to uncover incriminating evidence and to show the American public that corruption could affect the deepest reaches of our system. Perversely, Watergate also made Americans far more interested in the inner workings of politics, in ways that shaped both popular culture and political discourse. The immediate torrent of conspiracy dramas (All the President’s MenThe Conversation, Three Days of the Condor) proved less lasting than the idea of politics as spectacle.

Godfather II
The President as Mobster: Al Pacino in The Godfather, Part II (1974)

Previously the province of political procedurals like Advise and Consent, congressional hearings became a shopworn dramatic trope across genres. Within months of Nixon’s resignation, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, Part II (1974) incorporated a Senate investigation of Michael Corleone as a major subplot, with grandstanding but inept investigators struggling to prove his criminal activities. Nowadays, action movies (Clear and Present DangerSkyfall), superhero movies (Iron Man 2, Batman Vs. Superman), even science fiction (the Star Wars prequels, The X-Files) employ congressional testimony as a high stakes dramatic device.

This attitude also entered media coverage of politics. Andreas Killens writes that “the hearings had transformed into a huge media event, complete with a grand setting…a compelling cast of characters…and graphic accounts of Administration crimes.” There’s no question that most of the Senators (Sam Ervin and Lowell Weicker most blatantly, Howard Baker more subtly) learned how to shape their image and play to the gallery. Viewers came to see the Watergate hearings as a soap opera come to life. It became the standard by which they, and television networks, judged all scandals, for better or worse.

Through the Seventies, myriad investigations of government corruption and misconduct showed the perils and constraints of this mindset. Most notable was the Church Committee, whose 1975 hearings on CIA and FBI skulduggery throughout the Cold War, from domestic surveillance programs to foreign assassinations, briefly captivated the nation.

Frank Church (left), would-be Sam Ervin; John Tower (R-TX), right

Chaired by Idaho Senator Frank Church, the hearings produced moments as colorful as anything Sam Ervin and friends conjured. Church brandishing a CIA poison dart gun; Richard Helms and William Colby denying assassination plots against Fidel Castro and other Third World leaders; mobster Johnny Rosselli describing his agency connections; FBI informants against groups ranging from the Black Panthers to the Ku Klux Klan; Tom Charles Huston detailing Nixon’s domestic surveillance programs; Henry Kissinger asserting, wittily if none-too-credibly, that he played no role in overthrowing Chile’s Salvador Allende.

The Church Committee, which explored decades of government subterfuge, should have been even bigger than Watergate. Yet their impact was exceedingly modest: a formal ban on assassinations of foreign leaders, modest suggestions for increased oversight of the CIA (which were mostly ignored). One major shortcoming was that Church, who used the hearings to promote his presidential prospects, soft-pedaled material that incriminated Kennedy and Johnson’s Democratic administrations. Thus the hearings were more easily dismissed as partisan, their import negligible despite the dramatic details; compared to Watergate, it was quickly forgotten.

A decade later, Iran-Contra promised another major scandal, involving a convoluted plan to trade arms to Iran for hostages, while also funding Nicaragua’s anticommunist Contras. But the investigation bogged down in murky, labyrinthine details and congressional ineptitude; televised Senate hearings (again including Daniel Inouye among the inquisitors) registered few memorable moments aside from Oliver North’s testimony in uniform. The charges against the Reagan Administration were extremely serious, yet they didn’t play well on TV. So the public indignation which drove Nixon from office barely touched Reagan or his officials.

Ollie North
Oliver North, who took the fall

In later years, political hearings with the most sordid, soap opera details accrued attention: the confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas, Bill Clinton’s impeachment for lying about adultery, more recently James Comey’s testimony against Donald Trump. The all-scandal, all-the-time attitude seeped into more banal crimes, most obviously in O.J. Simpson’s murder trial, where celebrity glamour, race-baiting and Perry Mason plot twists devoured the facts of the case. Serious discussions of politics remain locked into CSPAN, while CNN and MSNBC promote easy-to-digest wonkery and Fox News spews unleavened propaganda.

This is reflected, even more crudely, in current television. Earnest political dramas like The West Wing are outliers; current shows like House of Cards and Scandal depict sordid, implausible conspiracies and Machiavellian gamesmanship beyond Nixon’s wildest dreams. The mixture of cynicism and scandal, the curdled residue of Watergate, certainly shapes how the public views politics.

The public can’t be blamed for this development, as it largely responds to external stimuli. Congress, now more than ever, directs their outrage along partisan lines; the media promotes sensationalism and false equivalence over serious investigation; pundits and politicians alike treat elections like a sporting event, where policies, integrity and honest government matter less than winning. Watergate seems almost quaint compared to the nightmare we’re living through in 2017; even if a new Sam Ervin appears, will anyone care?


Sources and Further Reading: 

General sources:

This series would not have been written nearly as easily without the American Archive of Public Broadcasting’s online exhibit, “Gavel to Gavel: The Watergate Scandal and Public Television,” through which all 55 days of Watergate testimony (aside from a few missing clips and reels) are available for viewing. I matched the footage with the transcripts available through the Mary Ferrell Foundation here.

I also consulted the 1983 documentary Summer of Judgment: The Watergate Hearings, which is available online here. Produced by PBS, this documentary features interviews with most members of the committee (including most of the senators, both counsels and more minor players), which I found invaluable.

I relied on four books in particular: Fred Emery, Watergate: The Corruption of American Politics and the Fall of Richard Nixon (1994); Stanley Kutler, The Wars of Watergate: The Last Crisis of Richard Nixon (1992); J. Anthony Lukas, Nightmare: The Underside of the Nixon Years (1975); and Rick Perlstein, The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan (2014). Quotes and citations for specific chapters will be named below.

Part I: Theodore White quote from Breach of Faith: The Fall of Richard Nixon (1975). Fred Thompson’s quoted statements from his memoir, At That Point in Time: The Inside Story of the Senate Watergate Committee (1975). Nixon and staff’s comments on the hearings included in Stanley Kutler, Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes (1997). Bob Woodward’s quotes on Hugh Sloan from Woodward and Carl Bernstein, All the President’s Men (1974). Maurice Stans explains his Ray Kroc fixation in The Terrors of Justice: The Untold Side of Watergate (1978).

Part II: My portrait of Dean’s involvement in the cover-up draws on his memoir Blind Ambition: The White House Years (1975). Perlstein, The Invisible Bridge is invaluable on the media coverage and public reaction to Dean’s testimony. George V. Higgins quote from The Friends of Richard Nixon (1975). Alice Roosevelt Longworth quote is cited in Thomas Mallon’s Watergate: A Novel (2012) as an authentic comment, but I had trouble locating Mallon’s source.

My critical depiction of Howard Baker’s role in the hearings draws largely from Emery and Kutler’s books. For a more positive assessment, see Christopher A. Borns, “Tightrope: Senator Howard H. Baker, Jr. During the Watergate Public Hearings” (University of Tennessee Honors Thesis, 2013).

Part III: John and Martha Mitchell’s melodramatic marriage inspires lurid treatment in many works; I used Lukas, Nightmare and Rick Perlstein, Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America (2008), along with the articles linked in-text. For the Butterfield caper, see Lukas and Bob Woodward, The Last of the President’s Men (2015). Dash quote from Chief Counsel: Inside the Ervin Commitee – The Untold Story of Watergate (1976).

Part IV: There’s little reliable biographical information on Fred LaRue; I used Lukas’s brief sketch in Nightmare and LaRue’s New York Times obituary. Ehrlichman quote about Ervin from Witness to Power: The Nixon Years (1982). Haldeman quote on Jews from The Haldeman Diaries: Inside the Nixon White House (1994).

Part V: Perlstein, The Invisible Bridge and Andreas Killen, 1973 Nervous Breakdown (2008) do the best job exploring the context and cultural impact of the Ervin hearings. Elizabeth Drew quote from Washington Journal: Reporting Watergate and Richard Nixon’s Downfall (1975; reissued in 2015); White, Breach of Faith. The definitive account of the Church Committee remains Loch K. Johnson’s A Season of Inquiry (1985; reissued in 2015); Theodore Draper’s A Very Thin Line (1991) offers the best look at Iran-Contra.

Thank you all for reading! Next week we’ll move further back in time to examine other forebears of modern American monsters.