It was the summer of ’73. My parents announced that the kids (there were six of us) were going to paint the house. They issued each of us a paint brush, a can of paint, and a transistor radio—which we promptly tuned to the Senate Watergate hearings.
Richard Nixon had been re-elected in a landslide over George McGovern just six months before. Two cub reporters, Woodward and Bernstein, had picked up a story off a local police scanner about a botched burglary at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate building in Washington D.C. By summertime, stories about presidential abuses of power dominated the airwaves and captivated the American public. Congress convened the Senate Select Committee on Campaign Presidential Campaign Activities to investigate the White House.
As we painted and listened to the hearings, so did the rest of America. It was something of a national media phenomenon. Some 85 percent of U.S. households watched some portion of them. On painting breaks, we’d gather around the television to watch the hearings in living color—broadcast live all day long on all three commercial network stations.
My heroes that summer became people like Senator Sam Ervin, the folksy conservative Democrat from North Carolina whose knowledge of law and respect for the Constitution made the process (and all of us who were watching it) feel deeply patriotic. I loved watching Howard Baker, the handsome blow-dried Republican Senator from Tennessee, who led what turned out to be crucial opposition from the president’s own party, as he asked witness after witness,“What did the president know and when did he know it?”
I was fascinated as White House counsel John Dean delivered devastating testimony about President Nixon’s attempts to undermine the Constitution through petty burglary, dirty tricks and lying. I was outraged when it was announced that Nixon’s secretary, Rosemary Woods, had erased 18 minutes of a wiretap that many people believed would have shown President Nixon was complicit in the cover-up.
In the end, the Senate Watergate Committee gathered enough evidence to lead to the indictment of 40 administration officials and the conviction of several of Nixon's aides for obstruction of justice and other crimes, and prompted the introduction of articles of impeachment against the President in the House of Representatives.
Now, some 30 years later, I am watching another Senate Committee in action vis-à-vis the White House. Now, as then, the battle is matched over an arguably third-rate abuse of power (the firing of US attorneys for political reasons) rather than over an increasingly unpopular and unwinnable war. Once again, the White House is resisting Congressional subpoenas with claims of executive privilege, and covering its tracks by erasing the evidence (compare Karl Rove’s email to Rosemary Wood’s tapes). I even heard a faint echo of Sam Ervin when Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy dismissed White House efforts to hide their misdeeds behind claims of executive privilege, as “more stonewalling from a White House that believes it can control the other coequal branches of government.”
Of course, the Bush/Cheney/Rove White House is far more brazen even than the Nixon White House when it comes to grabbing and abusing executive branch power. Nixon wiretapped his enemies; Bush wants to wiretap the whole country. And even Nixon didn’t openly embrace a policy of torture and indefinite detention without trials.
But perhaps the Bush administration’s assumption that the American people don’t care about the White House’s disregard for the law will be proven wrong. After all, the electorate overwhelmingly re-elected Richard Nixon in November 1972, just six months before a sleepy American public finally woke up and demanded that Congress restore the rule of law.
Watching the current showdown between the White House and the Senate Judiciary Committee, I can’t help but hope that the American public will once again wake up and demand that Congress put a check on executive branch abuses of power.
Who wouldn’t want to experience again the patriotic thrill of watching our system of checks and balances assert itself in the face of presidential abuse? I want another Watergate summer.