Giants of Old

Along with a big group of fellow students, I watched the Watergate hearings on a black and white television in the lower commons, which was the recreation room below the cafeteria at Reed, normally devoted to poker, pin ball and pool.

There were no leaks, no press releases ahead of time. The revelation of the taping system in the oval office came out in the course of a testimony, during the questioning of Nixon aide Alexander Butterfield.

The details of it are so seared into my mind that I remember the chair handing off the questioning of Butterfield to the staff lawyer who discovered the existence of the tapes.

Equally as clear in my memory was the precise, detailed memory and testimony of Nixon’s White House Counsel John Dean who had been fired by Nixon, and who described the cover-up as a “cancer on the presidency.”

Come around to last week’s televised testimony by Jim Comey before the Senate Intelligence Committee. The folks here at work wondered why I wasn’t watching the hearing live.

It forced me to consider what, other than my then lack of jadedness, made the Watergate hearings so compelling and the current spectacle so washed out by comparison.

Partly it is because the major revelations in the current investigations have been coming out through leaks and press releases, rather than through the hearings. And it is because the lines of questioning during the hearings themselves seem predictable, with the majority members largely attempting to downplay or undermine any testimony damaging to the President.

But it also has a lot to do, I realized, with the fact that a central character is missing.

At the heart of the Watergate hearings was its master of ceremonies, Sen. Sam Ervin, with a strong North Carolina accent and a folksiness that veiled the deep intelligence of a master of the language and a surefooted, probing interrogator.

He described himself as an “old country lawyer.” And all the abilities he acquired in that role were operating at full capacity during Watergate.

He ran the hearings with diplomacy, full control, even as the unpredictable unfurled, and all with remarkable endurance.

There is no such figure in the current hearings.

While the stage of Watergate supported a great number of colorful characters, like a sprawling historical play, there was a second figure who stood out: the ranking minority member of the investigating committee, Howard Baker.

The first Republican ever to be elected to the Senate from Tennessee – something that boggles the mind a little, to think of those red states as once deep blue – Baker was a moderate Republican in the Senate who held stature and authority and worked well with, and had great respect from, his Democratic colleagues.

Baker, also trained as a lawyer, was just as interested as the majority chairman in getting to the bottom of the Watergate scandal.

There is no such figure in these hearings.

Certainly not Committee Chair Sen. Richard Burr, who spent the night after the Comey hearing on TV explaining why the president’s expression of “hope” that Comey would sink the Russia investigation was really just that, a hope, the kind that springs eternal.

Despite the contrast in stature between the political giants of old and the dwarfish lot today, the relative positions of the underlying events are reversed.

The ham-handed burglary of a political opponent’s office is somewhere far down the political Richter scale from a broad and systematic attempt to interfere in an American presidential election by our nation’s powerful and longstanding geopolitical foe.

The muddle of the investigation means that those emerging as leaders and men of principal are not politicians but members of the intelligence services. Like former NSA boss James Clapper, looking every bit the spy chief, who said, “You compare the two, Watergate pales really compared to what we are confronting now.”

He added that the assault on our nation is two-pronged, coming from without and from within. The threat from within, he said, is from the Oval Office. Kind of like a cancer.

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