May 17, 2023, marks the 50th anniversary of the opening of the hearings of the Senate Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities. More commonly known as the Watergate hearings, the inquiry focused the attention of the American public on the activities of President Richard Nixon and his staff during and after his 1972 campaign for re-election.
The hearings went on for weeks and were broadcast live on all the major TV networks and on PBS and NPR. 85% of Americans watched or listened to at least some of the 319 hours of proceedings, which ranged between two and seven hours daily.
The Watergate hearings were so named after the Watergate office complex located in Washington D.C.
The Democratic National Committee (DNC) had their national headquarters on the sixth floor of the building. In 1972, DNC offices were burglarized and, unbeknownst to the Democrats who worked there, bugged. On June 17, 1972, when the burglars returned to the scene of the original crime to deal with some problems with their bugs, they were caught red-handed by Frank Wills, an observant security guard. Investigative reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein from the Washington Post tied the break-ins at the DNC’s Watergate offices to Republican President Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign. But Nixon repeatedly denied any association with the break-ins.
White House press releases on the subject were terse and point-blank – “Any suggestion that the President was aware of the Watergate operation is untrue…Any suggestion that the President participated in any cover-up activity or activities is untrue…Any suggestion that the President ever authorized the offering of clemency to anyone in this case is also false.”
In the Senate the Watergate hearings were led by Democrat Sam Ervin, with Republican Howard Baker as the Vice Chairman. Senator Ervin was widely respected and considered to be the Senate’s preeminent constitutional authority. The committee was rounded out with five more senators, both Democrat and Republican. They were all lawyers. An additional two attorneys served as counsel, and the committee was supported by a staff of 39. The committee was given a half-million dollar budget after a unanimous Senate vote. Their charter was to investigate the Watergate break-in and any subsequent cover-up of criminal activity, as well as “all other illegal, improper, or unethical conduct occurring during the Presidential campaign in 1972, including political espionage and campaign finance practices.” Hearings began on May 17, 1973.
Robert Odle, a 28-year-old former administrator for President Nixon’s reelection committee, was the first witness. It was a fairly inauspicious start to what would eventually become a precedent shattering investigation. Committee Chairman Ervin kept the proceedings somber and took pains to avoid political grandstanding. Still, some fervent Nixon supporters decried the investigation as a political witch hunt. A small minority protested the hearings, which usurped daytime soap-operas and gameshows.
While Nixon continued to maintain he knew nothing, Nixon’s former legal counsel John Dean’s testimony before the committee suggested otherwise. Dean’s opening statement alone lasted more than 7 hours and was 245 pages long. When it came time to question Dean, on June 29, 1973, it was Vice Chairman Baker who framed the now famous question, “What did the president know, and when did he know it?” At the time, Baker was perceived to be a presidential ally, and he was trying to give Dean the opportunity to protect the president. But Dean turned the question around and began to elaborate on Nixon’s involvement in discussions about the break-ins and payoffs to the accused burglars. Dean’s testimony before the committee revealed that Nixon himself was a prime figure behind both the Watergate scandal and the coverup. The White House, on the other hand, blamed Dean for both the planning of the Watergate break-in and of the coverup.
For a time, it seemed that it was John Dean’s sworn testimony before the committee was against President Nixon’s public statements. Dean’s testimony was portrayed as suspect since he had asked for immunity against prosecution by the Justice Department in exchange for telling all he knew regarding the Watergate conspiracy.
Then, on July 16, 1973, there was a surprising breakthrough in the Watergate hearings. One of Nixon’s former aides, Alexander Butterfield, testified that President Nixon’s conversations from the Oval Office had secretly been recorded on tape. Butterfield himself had supervised the installation of a voice activated audio taping system in the White House at Nixon’s request. On July 23, 1973, the Senate committee voted unanimously to subpoena some of Nixon’s tapes that included conversations between Nixon and his top aides. The tapes were believed to be evidence with direct bearing on whether there were criminal conspiracies, including a conspiracy to obstruct justice, among high government officials. It was the first time a congressional committee had issued a subpoena to a president. Famously, Nixon refused to comply with the subpoena.
Senator Baker expressed concern that the Watergate committee, and indeed, the country was “on the brink of a constitutional confrontation between the Congress and the White House.” It seemed that the issue might have to be decided in the Supreme Court. There was much discussion of executive privilege and the separation of governmental powers. Nixon believed that the concept of executive privilege allowed him to withhold information from Congress under the guise of maintaining confidentiality within the executive branch. He cited executive privilege multiple times over the course of the Watergate committee’s investigations, including when the committee tried to subpoena some of the members of his secret service detail. Meanwhile, Senator Ervin remarked, “The President has stretched the doctrine of executive privilege far beyond its true boundaries and far beyond any precedent on the subject.” To him and many on the committee Nixon’s claims of executive privilege smacked of a cover-up.
The Watergate hearings damaged the American public’s confidence in President Nixon and blunted his ability to govern. There were calls for his resignation and for his impeachment. To that end, the political wheels moved slowly. On May 9, 1974, formal hearings in the impeachment inquiry of Nixon began. But it was only when the Supreme Court ruled on July 24, 1974, that Nixon must release his secret audio tapes, that impeachment began to seem probable. By then it was more than a year after the initial Senate Watergate hearings. When the transcript of what is now known as the “Smoking Gun” tape was released to the public on August 5, 1974, President Richard Nixon realized his deception had reached an end. He no longer had the support of members of Congress and was sure to be impeached. He announced his resignation on August 8, 1974, and left the White House the next day.
The Watergate scandal left the American public with a deep distrust of politicians and a new cynicism about politics and the political process. Today, the Senate Watergate committee hearings are remembered as one of the most significant congressional inquiries in U.S. history.
For more insight, you can explore newspaper and magazine articles from the Watergate era in the Harry Barnard papers at the American Heritage Center.
Post contributed by AHC Writer Kathryn Billington.