This column was originally published in Not Shutting Up, a newsletter about the issues facing journalism and democracy. Sign up for it here.
In July of 1973, a young, preppy-looking lawyer named Gordon Strachan appeared before the Senate Watergate Committee and acknowledged his role in the cover-up of America’s most consequential burglary.
When he finished, a senator asked 29-year-old Strachan if he had any advice for young people interested in public service. “Stay away,” he said. “It may not be the type of advice you could look back and want to give, but my advice would be to stay away.”
I was among the millions of Americans glued to the television that summer, a gangly teenager with dreams of working some day in politics. The Watergate hearings changed the nation’s perception of President Richard Nixon, laying the groundwork for his impeachment.
Stephen Engelberg as a young reporter in 1988.
(Courtesy of Stephen Engelberg)
The hearings, and the role played by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in exposing the Nixon administration’s corruption, inspired a generation of young people to become investigative journalists. I was one of them.
In a cosmic twist, this month’s House hearings on the Jan. 6 attack coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Watergate break-in. (For history buffs, the precise date the hapless team was caught trying to break into the Democratic Party’s headquarters was June 17.)
Many commentators have argued that given the current fractured political and media culture, Nixon would not have left office had the crimes of 1972 and 1973 taken place today; he could have been confident that 34 senators of his own party would stand by him, regardless of the evidence.
I’m not so sure. It’s certainly true that the major television networks broadcast gavel-to-gavel coverage on what amounted to nearly all channels available in that pre-cable period of our nation’s history. It would be decades before the creation of a network that would deliver an alternate reality in which an event like the Jan. 6 hearings could go mostly uncovered.
But the view that the America of 2022 is divided as never before ignores the staggering level of popular support Nixon enjoyed. His reelection in 1972 was one of the biggest landslides in American history, nothing like the knife-edge presidential races we’ve experienced over the past two decades. George McGovern, the Democratic candidate, ended up 18 million votes behind Nixon and carried only one state — implacably liberal Massachusetts — and the District of Columbia. The map on election night was a coast-to-coast sea of red.
As the facts about Watergate came to light after the election, minds changed. Strachan, the witness whose testimony made such an impression on me, testified that he was the courier who delivered cash from a White House safe to a Nixon campaign official. Strachan acknowledged that he “became more than a little suspicious” when the official put on gloves before accepting the package.
Nixon had his defenders in Congress, some of whom stayed with him to the bitter end. I still remember my anger in watching Rep. Charles Sandman, a New Jersey Republican, aggressively deny that Nixon had played any role in the crimes traced to every one of his closest aides.
The evidence ultimately prevailed. Sandman and the other Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee abandoned the president after the release of the “smoking gun” tapes in which Nixon directed the CIA to block an FBI investigation of Watergate on national security grounds. By then, Nixon’s approval rating had fallen to 24%.
The question that hangs over the Jan. 6 hearings is whether the emergence of similarly damning facts or documents would move either the Republican base or its leaders in Congress. The prevailing wisdom says no, and there are plenty of reasons to argue that a strikingly large portion of former President Donald Trump’s base will dismiss any disclosures by the media or members of Congress as “fake news.”
After initially condemning the attacks on the Capitol, a range of prominent Republicans took roughly that tack. Some likened the mobs to tourists on a rowdy visit. The Republican National Committee declared that the attacks were “legitimate political discourse.” Those assertions stood in stark contrast to the videos we assembled from the Parler app, which showed the violence of Jan. 6 from the perspective of those who filmed and posted it. Similar video evidence played an important role in the first night of the Jan. 6 hearings.
In its hearing Monday, the committee focused on a line of inquiry that our reporters explored this year: the willingness of “Stop the Steal” advocates to push theories they knew were disproven or dubious. That story took readers inside the small group that honed such arguments as the bogus ability of Dominion Voting Systems machines to “flip” votes from one candidate to another.
On Monday, the committee released testimony from Trump aides who said the president had embraced claims about stolen votes without any regard as to whether they were accurate or even plausible. William P. Barr, the former attorney general, said in taped remarks that he feared the president had become “detached from reality if he really believes this stuff.”
“When I went into this and would tell him how crazy some of these allegations were, there was never an indication of interest in what the actual facts were,” Barr said.
Over the years, the effects of congressional inquiries have been decidedly uneven. The investigation into illicit support of the anti-Communist rebels in Nicaragua by the administration of President Ronald Reagan turned the White House ringleader of the operation, Lt. Col. Oliver L. North, into a right-wing celebrity. I covered those hearings as a young reporter, and their main value, from my perspective, was the Republicans’ dissenting report that asserted presidents have every right to defy Congress on foreign policy issues. That document, written under the direction of then-Rep. Dick Cheney, turned out to be a valuable blueprint for how Cheney, as vice president, and the administration of President George W. Bush would deal with Congress in the post-9/11 era.
On the other hand, the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings ended the demagogic power of Sen. Joe McCarthy, a Wisconsin Republican who used congressional investigations as a weapon against left-leaning government officials. In a fascinating link in the chain of history, those hearings focused on the conduct of Roy Cohn, McCarthy’s chief counsel and a lawyer who would come to school a young Trump in the scorched-earth approach to political and legal opponents. As president, Trump famously asked, “Where’s my Roy Cohn?” when he felt White House lawyers weren’t sufficiently aggressive in defending his interests.
All of this is to say one should be cautious in predicting the effect congressional investigations will have on public opinion. Learning that Trump’s advisers were divided between Team Crazy and Team Normal, and that Team Crazy clearly had the upper hand, might disturb a fair number of voters. I’ve seen congressional hearings change minds, including my own.