History Is Only in the Rear View Mirror

With the impeachment hearings going on in the background, it’s hard to write today about other topics on my mind, like Medicare-for-all or whether the laugh track is a spawn of Satan. Comparisons have been made for days back to the 1973 Watergate hearings, although I don’t know if that will turn out to be the right comparison. Historical accounts depict those hearings as riveting coverage that all of America tuned into, day in and day out, when the reality was a little different. I remember because I was there.

Who watched Watergate in color? Only the people in the room. Photo from ABCGo.

One of the reports last night showed a picture from the first day of the hearings, with the green Senate table, splashing across the view like a movie green screen. This is misleading. In 1973, less than half the households in America had color TVs, and even though we had one, that was not the TV being watched in the middle of the day. It would be doctoring the past to describe the hearings with that kind of illustration, though several journalists have done so in recent weeks. The first time I saw that vision, all I could think of was, “Well, the hearings weren’t conducted in color.”

The Senate Select Committee on Watergate convened these public hearings in May 1973, and they continued until September. When it’s noted they were on during the summer, that means All Summer Long. It’s hard for me to imagine today’s Congress or public having the kind of stamina or interest to generate hearings for that long.

There had been precedent: the Army-McCarthy Hearings of 1954. Those televised hearings were on the subject of whether the fanatical anti-Communist Senator Joseph McCarthy had misused his status in helping promote an aide. McCarthy had made a name for himself by accusing the government of being infiltrated by communists, and he was a rising star in the Republican party, which had control of the Senate. For several years, McCarthy had been pointing fingers at the Army for harboring enemies of the state, and the Army in early 1954 started pointing back. The Senate decided to investigate the counterclaims and chose to publicize the hearings. The brand new TV networks were happy to have something interesting to show.

While McCarthy’s tactics, of insinuating that every witness was either communist or homosexual or both, had been effective in Senate testimony, they didn’t work to his advantage in public. He bullied a middle-aged black clerk, Annie Lee Moss, about her work in a code room until it became clear it was a case of mistaken identity, his supporters tried to then revoke the testimony. This prompted Arkansas Democrat John McClellan to argue:

You can’t strike these statements made by counsel here as to evidence that we’re having and withholding. You cannot strike that from the press nor from the public mind once it’s planted there. That’s the – that is the – evil of it. I don’t think it’s fair to a witness, to a citizen of this country, to bring them up here and cross-examine them, then when they get through, say ‘we’ve got something, the FBI’s got something on you that condemns you.’ It is not sworn testimony. It is convicting people by rumor and hearsay and innuendo.

Senator McClellan, Army McCarthy hearings , March 1954
Codeworker Annie Lee Moss at the Army-McCarthy hearings, 1954.

The public nature of those hearings is widely credited with “bringing McCarthy down,” in other words, reducing the public’s appetite for bullying people and using innuendo to substitute for truth. It was likely the reason that Congress chose a public venue in 1973, even though they didn’t know then what they might find.

In 1973, the hearings were live on all of the networks, although by fall, the three big players chose to rotate who showed them because they were losing ratings, especially for soap operas. I remember the big “scandal” at the time that some of the networks wanted to share the load of televising. At the same time, given that there were only four networks available, having all of them devoted all day long to the hearings was annoying, especially to bored kids in the summer who wanted to at least watch some of “The Price is Right” before having to be bored again, wandering outside to see if there was something to do.

What most people saw of the Watergate hearings. Photo at imdb.com.

During the mid-summer months, when John Dean, H.R. Haldeman, and John Ehrlichman were testifying, some of the discussion was fascinating, but less so as less important witnesses came on in the fall. Eventually, the networks dropped pre-empting programming, although PBS maintained a cogent recap through all 51 days of key testimony. If you’re interested, there’s an archive of some of the “gavel-to-gavel” coverage here.

At the time the hearings started, the Watergate scandal had only been reported on for a handful of months, beginning after Nixon’s election in the fall of 1972. Just after the inaugural parties ended and the Vietnam war ended with the Paris Peace Accords, the information was still unfolding. The hearings provided critical facts not well known–bombshells like the fact that the White House had tapes and testimony from John Dean about the president’s attempts to interfere with the investigation (which kept going up until the day he boarded Air Force One).

Former top aide to the president, H.R. Haldeman testifies before the Senate Watergate Committee in Washington for the second day, July 31, 1973. Behind Haldeman are his attorneys John J. Wilson, left, and Frank Strickler. (AP Photo)

Haldeman and Ehrlichman, as the twin drivers of the president’s agenda, were loyal aides to the end, although their testimony included damning details. Both were asked by Nixon to resign two weeks before the hearings started, as Nixon tried to minimize the damage by pointing fingers at his staff. Both asked for pardons as well, and Nixon refused. So much for loyalty. Haldeman testified, with reluctance, about topics including about the tapes. One tape, that had the famous 18-1/2 minute gap, was with Haldeman as was the so-called “Smoking Gun” tape, where Nixon discussed using the CIA to shift the FBI’s investigation of Watergate to other topics. Haldeman was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice and served a year and a half in jail.

But the “Smoking Gun,” the convictions, the 18-1/2 minute gap, the firing of Archibald Cox, the resignation of Spiro Agnew due to the investigation of bribery and extortion, the Nixon Impeachment hearings, and the eventual resignation of Nixon himself were all yet to come as these hearings took place. It’s easy to encapsulate all that now in five minutes but harder to see where it would turn out in May of 1973.

Nixon was re-elected in 1972 with 61% of the vote. He carried 49 states. He was reviled by Democrats and by many Republicans in his own party but had found the right time and place to take advantage of election mechanics to sweep himself into office. He didn’t leave office until a year after the hearings, and only as legal maneuvers to get to the tapes–which he knew held such damning information that even his own party couldn’t ignore–were resolved.

The devil will emerge from the details of these hearings, but there will be a lot of details, and it will be hard to spot the devil at first. Maybe they can edit him in using the Green Screen.