Lessons from Watergate

By Christopher Harper

As a young reporter, I covered part of the Watergate story, including the offices of Howard Baker, the ranking Republican on the Senate Select Committee that investigated President Nixon and his administration.

What I remember most of all was the bipartisan nature and transparency of the hearings in the Senate and the later those in the House—a stark difference to what’s happening now.

On February 7, 1973, the U.S. Senate voted 77-to-0 to approve a resolution to establish the select committee to investigate Watergate, with Democrat Sam Ervin named chairman the next day.

The hearings held by the Senate committee were broadcast from May 17 to August 7, 1973. The three major networks of the time agreed to take turns covering the hearings live. An estimated 85 percent of Americans with television sets tuned in to at least one portion of the hearings.

Baker and Ervin, both Southern lawyers, shared the spotlight, with little pretense of partisan politics. Baker became well known for his question of Nixon aides: What did he (Nixon) know, and when did he know it?

As established under the Constitution, the House needed to consider the issues for impeachment. Here, too, the representatives put aside most partisan antics.

On February 6, 1974, the House voted 410-4 to authorize the Judiciary Committee to launch an impeachment inquiry against the president. During the debate over this measure, Chairman Peter Rodino, a Democrat said, “Whatever the result, whatever we learn or conclude, let us now proceed with such care and decency and thoroughness and honor that the vast majority of the American people, and their children after them, will say: This was the right course. There was no other way.” House Republican leader John Rhodes said that Rodino’s vow was “good with me.”

Nevertheless, the House committee was not as transparent as the Senate investigation.

The House Judiciary Committee opened its formal impeachment hearings against the President on May 9, 1974. The first twenty minutes were televised on the major U.S. networks, after which the committee switched to closed sessions for the next two months. Altogether, there were only seven days of public hearings.

When the committee finally voted on articles of impeachment, the tallies included bipartisan support, with roughly one-third of the Republicans and all of the Democrats supporting the three articles that were passed.

Furthermore, a group of prominent GOP legislators convinced Nixon he should resign.

At almost every step of Watergate, Democrats and GOP may have disagreed. Ultimately, however, they sought the truth in a bipartisan and relatively transparent way.

That’s an important lesson the Democrats should consider.

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