The chair was a stocky, 70-something Democrat from the rural South — measured, wise, and well-liked by his colleagues from both sides of the aisle. But many of the headlines came from the surprising tenacity of the committee’s ranking Republican, who — despite impeccable conservative credentials — was determined to learn what a GOP president knew, and when did he know it. For months, they dominated America’s TV screens, and their work convinced an initially shrugging nation that the White House was indeed a crime scene.
If you’re reading this and you’re old enough to remember Wilt Chamberlain’s “dipper dunks” or saw The Poseidon Adventure more than once during its months-long run at your hometown’s one movie screen, then you surely know I’m talking about Sens. Sam Ervin, Howard Baker, and the Senate Watergate Committee. During the long, hot summer of 1973, the panel’s hearings not only electrified the nation but launched a 14-year-old, nascent politics geek on a journey that’s continued right up to the writing of this column.
The memories of that first Watergate Summer are so vivid I can almost smell the chlorine from my morning swim classes at the village pool when I see the pictures of John Dean — the former White House counsel who had warned Richard Nixon there was “a cancer on the presidency” and became the committee’s star witness — raising his right hand to take the oath.
The reason I mention all of this now is that I’m starting to feel all of those 1973 “feels” at the dawn of 2022, as I watch the House Select Committee on January 6 emerge from an autumn of seeming hibernation and shows off the first green shoots of its investigation. Just at the moment when some watchers were starting to doubt it, the House panel has begun to reveal, in daily, breaking-news-alert chunks, that it is painstakingly building a case to show the American public how Team Trump conspired to criminally interfere with Congress and its Jan. 6, 2021, certification of Biden’s election win.
During the tail end of 2021, the spotlight fell largely on how Trump’s inner circle was — in a word made famous during those 1973 Watergate hearings — “stonewalling” the panel by ignoring requests and subpoenas for testimony and key documents. What we’re starting to learn is how much the committee and its staffers have been able to uncover behind the scenes from the many people — including former Trump White House staffers and aides to ex-veep Mike Pence, a central figure, and organizers of the 1/6/21 rallies — who have complied with their requests for information. Their cards are starting to look like a winning hand.
Since mid-December, the House committee has brilliantly used the bombshell evidence that it has already collected in a series of new letters and public actions aimed at compelling those higher up in the Trump food chain to talk. These include the leak of texts and emails from Trump’s then-chief of staff Mark Meadows that he expected the National Guard to “support” pro-Trump demonstrators, Rep. Liz Cheney’s skillful reveal of Meadows’ texts from Fox News hosts and Donald Trump Jr., and this week’s disclosure of communications from Fox News’ Sean Hannity showing his secret concerns about what was afoot for last Jan. 6.
Indeed, only because of pressure from the House committee, we now know that Team Trump was circulating a PowerPoint presentation for what can only be described as a coup, with schemes for Trump to declare “a national security emergency” and seize ballots in service of his Big Lie about 2020 voter fraud that never occurred. And a Team Trump insider, the former NYPD Commissioner Bernie Kerik, has now admitted to the committee that a draft letter for Trump to execute this form of a coup exists. We now know the “smoking guns” are out there, still smoldering.
I’ve come to believe the House January 6 Committee — and its key members, such as soft-spoken but persistent chair Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, Cheney, and break-out star Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, who fought for democracy while mourning the death of his son — is doing stellar work in exposing the conspiracy behind Jan. 6. And I decided to bounce this thought off an authoritative source, in a way I couldn’t have dreamed of during that Watergate Summer, when I was a geeky teen mesmerized by the hearings.
I bounced it directly off John Dean, now an 83-year-old author and CNN commentator. He told me, in a Twitter DM, that he agreed.
“Most people are not aware that the Senate Watergate Committee did most of its work with the TV cameras off,” he told me. “For example, I spent months in secret meetings with chief counsel Sam Dash, sharing my knowledge. I suspect one or more persons with knowledge of the Trump White House is cooperating behind the scenes and secretly with the Jan. 6th Committee.”
Dean, of course, remembers — in a way that the majority of Americans who weren’t even born 49 years ago could not — how long it took for the Watergate scandal to actually incubate. There’s a reason that Slate’s definitive podcast about the scandal is named Slow Burn. During the 1972 presidential campaign between Nixon and Democrat George McGovern, voters were almost willfully numb to the implication that the president’s campaign had bugged its rivals. Dean’s game-changing testimony didn’t happen until one year and eight days after the June 17, 1972, break-in — a point we’ve not yet reached in the Jan. 6 affair.
Maybe it’s no accident that the House January 6 Committee weirdly feels almost like a conscious 21st-century-flavored reboot of the iconic 1973 probe. In the modern version, the plain-talking Southerner is a Black man (quite the upgrade from Watergate chair Ervin, who became a national folk hero in spite of a segregationist past) and, unlike Baker, the hardest-charging Republican is now a woman. I suspect such comparisons will grow as the committee’s work increasingly goes public during 2022.
This week, we learned the panel is weighing prime-time public hearings when that phase of the investigation begins, perhaps as soon as late March. Said Thompson: “The public needs to know, needs to hear from people under oath about what led up to Jan. 6th, and to some degree, what has continued after Jan. 6.” That, too, would be a kind of echo from the pre-internet 1973, when many office workers stayed up late into the night watching a rebroadcast of each day’s hearings on PBS.
Yes, it’s easy to dwell on the vast differences from a half-century ago. In 1973, the Senate voted unanimously for a Watergate probe, while in 2021 House Republicans strived to block the Jan. 6 investigation, leaving only the renegades Cheney and Rep. Adam Kinzinger to offer a bipartisan sheen. Nixon’s crimes were roundly condemned across the media landscape, while Trump has a right-wing bubble led by Fox News to defend him. But I believe today’s House probers understand their audience, the 72% who believe Jan. 6 was an abomination.
In the end, the House Select Committee will surely propose new laws to prevent another such insurrection, and most likely make criminal referrals to the Justice Department. But its real battleground is the biggest courtroom of all, the court of public opinion. In a way, the committee — in exposing misconduct at the highest levels of government — and Attorney General Merrick Garland’s Justice Department, building slowly with the foot soldiers lower in the Jan. 6 pyramid, seems to be moving toward a meeting of the minds. The prime-time House hearings could make an airtight case for something that has never happened in the nearly 246-year history of the United States: an indictment of a former president.
I think we’re already seeing the fruits of the House Jan. 6 Committee and the way it is changing the political narrative. Is it really a coincidence that just hours after the committee released Hannity’s texts about Trump and his state of mind, the ex-president canceled his gob-smacking plan for a Jan. 6 news conference at Mar-a-Lago? Would Biden have delivered such a fiery speech to mark the one-year anniversary, with its forceful condemnation of the Big Lie promulgated by Trump, without some confidence that the House probers will be able to make the case that a former president’s actions that day were criminal?
At roughly the same stage of the Watergate scandal, probers faced a seemingly impossible mission of showing the public that a president who had just been reelected in an epic landslide with 61% of the vote was in fact a crook. It didn’t happen overnight, but eventually that part of our Rube Goldberg democracy actually worked. That moment in time can’t truly be repeated, but I’m starting to hear some echoes from 1973 over the din of democratic decline.
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