For those personally touched by Watergate, Trump drama resonates

Why We Wrote This

Past impeachment dramas had a profound effect on the nation, but especially on those who had direct connections to the events. To them, the situation with President Donald Trump feels both familiar – and different.

John Ehrlichman, a former Nixon adviser and a key figure in the Watergate scandal, was surrounded by reporters outside the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., Feb. 22, 1975. Mr. Ehrlichman was convicted of conspiracy and perjury and served 18 months in prison.

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As Washington’s current impeachment saga unfolds, it’s resonating in a unique way with a certain group of Americans: those with personal connections to past such dramas.

For some, it’s meant a revisiting of painful emotions, as well as renewed reflection on lessons learned and moments of grace. While many see the rhythms of history at work, others are rethinking old conclusions.

John Ehrlichman’s testimony before the Senate Watergate committee in the summer of 1973 changed everything, says his daughter Jan. After his trials, the former adviser to President Richard Nixon left his family and moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico. It was Jan – then a young college grad – who dropped him off at prison after his conviction on multiple counts of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and perjury for his role in the Watergate cover-up.

Today, Ms. Ehrlichman acknowledges that Watergate had a profound effect on her life. “It made me value what’s important, which is love and taking care of your family,” she says.

She sees clear differences between the Nixon era and today – believing President Donald Trump’s actions threatened national security, while Mr. Nixon’s didn’t. But if there’s any through line for her, it’s the issue of fairness.

“Everybody deserves a fair hearing,” she says.

Jan Ehrlichman remembers the summer of 1973 as if it were yesterday. 

Her dad, John Ehrlichman, was knee-deep in the Watergate scandal. He had recently been fired as a top adviser to President Richard Nixon, and was now testifying before the Senate’s special Watergate committee. 

Ms. Ehrlichman, then a college student, and her mom would drive her dad to Capitol Hill, drop him off, and go watch the Senate hearings on TV at a friend’s house to avoid the press. Afterward, they’d go pick him up and talk about how it went. 

“We didn’t really get into the muck of it all,” Ms. Ehrlichman says in an interview. “We just wanted to make sure Dad was OK.” 

President Nixon was still more than a year away from resigning, but for the Ehrlichmans, this was the end of the road for their life in Washington. As soon as her father’s five days of testimony had wrapped, Ms. Ehrlichman and her parents finished packing up their house in northern Virginia, got in the car, and headed west. 

“We drove across the country, just the three of us,” says Ms. Ehrlichman, one of five children. “It was an amazing time to be with Dad.” 

When they arrived at their Seattle home, “we had at least a thousand letters and telegrams from people, almost all positive, saying what a great job he’d done,” she says. “They were happy he had stood up to the Democrats.” 

One year and two trials later, Mr. Ehrlichman was sentenced to prison, where he ultimately served 18 months. 

As Washington’s current impeachment saga unfolds, it’s resonating in a unique way with a certain group of Americans: those with personal connections to past such dramas. For some, it’s meant a revisiting of painful emotions, as well as renewed reflection on lessons learned and moments of grace. While some see the rhythms of history at work, others are rethinking old conclusions.

Ms. Ehrlichman still doesn’t think her dad was treated fairly in either the Senate hearings or in court, though she acknowledges that he felt he had crossed a line. She also believes President Donald Trump’s actions have threatened national security, while Mr. Nixon’s didn’t. But if there’s any through line for her between then and now, it’s the issue of fairness. 

“Everybody deserves a fair hearing,” says Ms. Ehrlichman, once a young Republican who worked on Mr. Nixon’s 1972 reelection and now a Rachel Maddow-watching Democrat. 

“The Impeachment Diary”

James Reston Jr. also sees parallels between today and the Nixon era. After President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey in May 2017, spurring talk of impeachment, Mr. Reston dug up his diary from the summer of 1974. A young college professor on leave, he had come to Washington to witness what he hoped would be the final act of the Nixon drama. 

“The Impeachment Diary” by Mr. Reston has just been published, an edge-of-the-seat account from inside hearing rooms, court rooms – including Mr. Ehrlichman’s sentencing – and everyday Washington that conveys the real-time uncertainty of what would happen next.  

In the book’s preface, Mr. Reston, an author and playwright, doesn’t hide his disdain for the current president. His impeachment diary “should be read metaphorically,” he writes. “Read Nixon and imagine Trump.”

In an interview, Mr. Reston readily admits that, though he comes from a famous family of journalists – his father, James “Scotty” Reston, was a reporter and columnist for The New York Times – he was not an objective observer. He passionately opposed Mr. Nixon’s conduct of the Vietnam War, and was invested in the president’s removal from office. 

But like Ms. Ehrlichman, Mr. Reston sees fairness as essential, both then and now. “I’m very focused on the proper procedure being followed,” he says of the Trump case. “The parallel for a proper procedure is the Nixon experience.” 

The Watergate inquiry included the use of closed-door sessions, he says, to prevent grandstanding and to keep the focus on the content of the allegations. 

Mr. Reston offers a hopeful lesson from the Nixon example: “When the articles of impeachment are presented, it will become a dignified process. It will be a healing process and cathartic for the nation.”

He also isn’t worried about the potential for furthering national divisions. After all, he asks, how much more divided can we get? 

Ultimately, Mr. Reston sees the Trump impeachment process, even with a likely acquittal in the Senate, as a valuable civics lesson for the American people, as was the Nixon experience in the 1970s.

That, he says, “made the country stronger and reinforced fundamental values.”

Khue Bui/AP/File
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi met with reporters on Capitol Hill, Feb. 4, 1999, after the Clinton impeachment trial adjourned for the day. The Senate had moved to bring President Bill Clinton's trial to a prompt conclusion, rejecting a last-ditch request by House prosecutors to summon Monica Lewinsky for live testimony.

Trent Lott and the “smoking gun” 

For many Americans of a certain age, memories of the Watergate hearings and Nixon resignation are indelible. The same goes for President Bill Clinton’s impeachment, then acquittal in the Senate. 

Former Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott was deeply involved in both. As a Republican House freshman, Mr. Lott served on the Judiciary Committee during the crucial final stretch of the Nixon presidency. As Senate majority leader, he oversaw President Clinton’s impeachment trial. 

In an interview, Mr. Lott offers lessons from both experiences. Back in 1974, he had voted in committee against all the articles of impeachment – and then the “smoking gun” tape and transcript came out, revealing that Mr. Nixon had personally ordered a cover-up of the Watergate burglary. Mr. Lott reversed himself and supported one article of impeachment, obstruction of justice. 

“I was known as one of the 10 hardheads, but when I was confronted with the transcript, I said, ‘What can I do?’” he says. “This is when you need to be a statesman, if you can.”

As the top Senate Republican during the Clinton impeachment, Mr. Lott points to his ability to work with the top Senate Democrat at the time, Tom Daschle of South Dakota, as key to crafting a workable process and keeping it on track. 

Last month, he and former Senator Daschle wrote a joint op-ed offering some faint hope that even today, a fair Senate impeachment trial is possible. But he knows the political atmosphere is worse than it was in 1999. 

“It was a different time, different people, different media. And I had Tom Daschle,” Mr. Lott says, alluding to the tensions between today’s Senate leaders. “Even then, it wasn’t easy. We struggled on how to go forward at the beginning.”

Mr. Lott recommends turning to the Founding Fathers. “I just happen to have the Federalist Papers at my fingertips,” he says, quoting from Federalist No. 65 and Alexander Hamilton’s warning against putting loyalty to factions ahead of evidence during a Senate impeachment trial. 

The retired Senate leader offers his own warning to Democrats ahead of a possible trial in January: “Trump may not be able to win, but the Democrats are probably going to lose. Why they want to drive this to the edge of a hanging when an election is only 10 months away doesn’t make a lot of sense.” 

Mr. Lott also notes that in the run-up to the Clinton impeachment his party lost seats in the 1998 midterms. Indeed, some former GOP House members now regret impeaching Mr. Clinton. 

“We made a mistake,” former Rep. Bob Inglis of South Carolina recently told The Associated Press. He adds that he was “probably sort of blinded” by his dislike of Mr. Clinton, and sees similarities to today. 

Other former House Republicans disagree that impeaching Mr. Clinton was a mistake. They argue that by laying down that marker on conduct in office, the GOP energized a key part of its political base, religious conservatives, and won back the presidency in 2000. 

Veteran reporters look back

Ask any reporter who covered Watergate what it was like, and the memories flood back. After the so-called Saturday Night Massacre of Oct. 20, 1973, when Mr. Nixon fired the special prosecutor and set impeachment in motion, top reporters recall the rush of events that followed – and the growing sense that Mr. Nixon’s days as president were numbered. 

“Between December 1973 and July 1974, I did nothing but cover Vice President Ford,” says Tom DeFrank, then of Newsweek. “I had the time of my life.”  

The night Mr. Nixon announced his resignation, Mr. DeFrank was in the White House basement, where reporters work. “Even from there, I could hear the roar of the crowd in Lafayette Park across the street and cars honking their horns as they drove down Pennsylvania Avenue,” says the reporter, now at National Journal. 

Carl Leubsdorf, a columnist at The Dallas Morning News, was running the AP’s Senate coverage back then, and keeping close tabs on key senators from both parties. He recalls that the late Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, then majority whip, was drafting rules aimed at tying the hands of Chief Justice Warren Burger, who would have presided over a Senate impeachment trial.

“Byrd was afraid the chief justice would favor Nixon,” Mr. Leubsdorf says. Of course, it never got to that; the president resigned before he could be impeached. 

“I never got to cover my trial,” the columnist laments.  

Mr. Leubsdorf was so gripped by Mr. Nixon’s final days in office that he kept a diary, which The Dallas Morning News later published.

Today feels different in key ways, both men agree. Back then, the news environment was less frenetic and atomized. There was no 24/7 cable, no Twitter, no Fox News. The times were also less politically polarized. 

And today, nobody expects the president to resign. Mr. Trump himself raised the Nixon analogy in June when asked by a reporter about impeachment: “He left. I don’t leave.” 

“You have to hold your head up”

After John Ehrlichman’s televised testimony before the Senate Watergate committee, life would never be the same. “Waiters and waitresses, people would come up with napkins and want Dad’s autograph,” says his daughter Jan. 

Even years later, she says, they’d be walking down the street in New York, and people would grab each other and whisper, “Oh, that’s John Ehrlichman.” 

“The notoriety from those moments was pretty life-changing,” Ms. Ehrlichman says. “You have to hold your head up.”

She and her dad were close. After the Watergate trial, Mr. Ehrlichman left his family and moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, to start over. It was Jan who dropped him off at prison in Arizona after his conviction on multiple counts of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and perjury for his role in the Watergate cover-up.

Ms. Ehrlichman knows that her dad, who died in 1999, came across to some people as arrogant, as he defended himself both in the Senate hearings and in court. But she is also acutely aware of the human cost for everyone involved. She recalls writing a letter to Mr. Nixon after he’d fired her dad, and getting a handwritten letter back.

Today, Ms. Ehrlichman acknowledges that her connection to Watergate, as a young woman just coming into her own, had a profound effect on her life. 

“It made me value what’s important, which is love and taking care of your family,” she says. “It taught me to be strong and know who I am and know who my dad is and who my family is – that the good is what’s important, and that it doesn’t really matter what other people think.” 

She tells a story. Last year, on a visit to Taos Pueblo in New Mexico, Ms. Ehrlichman and her husband were in someone’s home buying jewelry. When she told the seller who she was, he invited them next door to show them something: a large, framed photo of President Nixon in 1970 signing the bill that returned the sacred Blue Lake to the Taos Indians. 

“I knew that Dad and Nixon had helped save the Taos Blue Lake, and given that back to them,” Ms. Ehrlichman says.

“The Taos Indians love Nixon – and they love my dad.” 

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