Watergate at 50: How were things different from today's hearings?

As a House panel grills witnesses on the Jan. 6 attack, Americans are reminded of another presidential scandal that began with a break-in June 17, 1972. What does the legacy of Watergate reveal about our present moment?

Bob Daugherty/AP/File
Richard Nixon salutes his staff outside the White House after resigning on Aug. 9, 1974. On Watergate's 50th anniversary, hearings about another president's attempt to interfere with an election prompt questions about the direction of American democracy.

The wreckage of Watergate and Jan. 6 are a half-century apart yet rooted in the same ancient thirst for power at any cost.

Two presidents, wily, and profane, tried an end run around democracy.

Mysteries from both affairs endure as the continuing House probe into the Jan. 6, 2021, uprising at the Capitol intersects with this week’s Watergate 50th anniversary.

Is there a smoking gun to be found in Donald Trump’s deceptions? Or have we already seen it in his summoning of angry supporters to a “wild” time in Washington, his call for them to “fight like hell,” his musing that perhaps his vice president – one of the few “no” men in his compliant cabal – should be hanged like the insurrectionists demanded?

From the Watergate era, a key question may be why Richard Nixon ever bothered to go rogue.

He was on a seemingly comfortable path to reelection when bumbling burglars tied to his campaign committee broke into Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate office building 50 years ago Friday and got caught.

The exposure of his cover-up and efforts to obstruct justice drove him from office nearly two years later when he quit rather than face likely conviction in an impeachment trial. Three Republican leaders from Congress helped to convince him he was doomed.

In contrast, Mr. Trump was desperate, having clearly lost the 2020 election when he sent his own bumblers – lawyers, aides, hangers-on – as well as the violent mob at the Capitol on a quest to upend the results and keep him in office. Few in his party publicly urged him to accept defeat.

Watergate is the American presidential scandal by which all others are measured. It brought down a president. Yet Jan. 6 was the one that spilled blood.

Watergate had a powerful afterburn, as Republicans were tossed out of Congress by the dozens in 1974. This time, the party is expected to make gains in November.

Michael Dobbs, author of “King Richard: Nixon and Watergate – An American Tragedy,” said the system worked in Watergate because Congress, the courts, and the press did their job in establishing a chain of criminal activity that led Nixon to resign.

“The system was under stress then,” he said, “but is under much greater stress today.”

When the Senate Watergate committee conducted its landmark hearings starting in May 1973, the public had plenty of distractions, high inflation, and a stock market crash among them.

But Americans were riveted by the spectacle of a president sinking slowly but inexorably into disgrace.

The Jan. 6 hearings, to date, are less about investigators discovering new facts than about showing and telling what they’ve already found out in months of methodical work.

To Mr. Dobbs, evidence of Mr. Trump’s direct involvement in planning or inciting the Jan. 6 riot with the intention of overturning the election would constitute a Nixonian smoking gun.

The challenge for the Jan. 6 inquiry and any prosecution is “the ambiguous nature of Trump’s statements from a legal point of view,” he said. “‘Fight like hell’ can be interpreted in different ways.”

In releasing previously recorded testimony from close associates of Mr. Trump, the panel has exposed the extent to which some or many in Mr. Trump’s circle knew his case about a stolen election was a sham. Even his daughter Ivanka Trump wasn’t buying it.

Yet Mr. Trump’s election denialism courses through the campaigns of far-right Republicans in the 2022 midterm election season, some prevailing in their primaries, some not. The hearings will in no way be the last word on Mr. Trump’s lies.

“Trump is constitutionally unable to let criticism pass,” said Southern Methodist University political scholar Cal Jillson. “So expect a rising tide of recriminations, a lengthening enemies list, and a program of retribution stretching out into the future.

“Other Republican leaders will ponder the damage this might do to the party,” he added, “but, as yet, there are no Howard Bakers on the horizon.”

Baker personified Congress at the time, partisan but not poisonous. The Tennessee senator was the Rep. Liz Cheney of the day, but on his way up in the Republican Party, not an outcast from it like the endangered Wyoming congresswoman, who is fierce in her disdain for Mr. Trump.

Baker expressed instinctive loyalty to Nixon at first. But as the top Republican on the Watergate panel, he listened, questioned, dug in over the hundreds of hours of hearings, and saw the corruption.

“I believed that it was a political ploy of the Democrats, that it would come to nothing,” Baker told The Associated Press in 1992. “But a few weeks into that, it began to dawn on me that there was more to it than I thought, and more to it than I liked.”

The Watergate committee of four Democrats and three Republicans was formed by a unanimous vote in the Senate. The House Jan. 6 committee, in contrast, was formed on a 222-190 vote. Only two Republicans voted for it.

Where Mr. Trump loudly proclaimed his provocations, Nixon sounded off in private, or what he thought was private. It was the White House taping system that Nixon had installed for posterity that damned him, when the Supreme Court forced him to turn over the tapes.

In a June 23, 1972, conversation six days after the burglary, Nixon’s chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, is heard recommending to Nixon that the FBI be told to drop its investigation of the break-in before the bureau could trace the crime to the White House.

“Alright, fine,” Nixon said. “Play it tough.”

That was the smoking gun, undermining Nixon’s remaining GOP support.

All these years later, it remains unknown who ordered the break-in. There is no evidence Nixon did so directly, though also no ambiguity over the fact he mounted a cover-up and otherwise played dirty.

Nixon created the “paranoid culture” that spawned Watergate, Mr. Dobbs said. “The conspiracy took on a life of its own, driven forward by crazy operators like Gordon Liddy anticipating the president’s wishes.”

These operators were under pressure from the White House to gather dirt on the Democrats, he said, “and Watergate was how they responded.”

Fifty years from now, what will Americans say about Jan. 6?

Historian Michael Beschloss, in Twitter commentary about the hearings, said the answer depends on whether America by then is a democracy or autocracy. “If the latter, the nation’s authoritarian leaders might celebrate January 6 as one of great days in U.S. history,” as Mr. Trump has described it now.

He also asked a question that can never be definitively answered.

“What would have happened to our country if the January 6 coup had succeeded?”

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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