Public impeachment hearings began in the House this week in Washington. They weren’t just seen on the cable news networks this time. Daytime game shows and soap operas gave way to the first public testimony on the major broadcast networks as well.
Some of us of a certain age recall another set of Washington hearings, the Watergate hearings. By some estimates, 85 percent of the country watched at least some of the hearings on television, seeing the Nixon presidency unravel daily in the spring and summer of 1973. Ginny remembers her mother sitting for hours, not in a chair or on a couch, but on the floor, glued as close as possible to the television screen.
So it would follow that many of those who took part in the hearings would become famous. Really famous. Watergate famous. Those who testified and those who asked questions like, “What did the president know, and when did he know it?”
Flash forward a few years and my job in television would afforded me the opportunity to meet and talk with several Watergate “figures.” Each was taking advantage of his Watergate fame, criss-crossing the country and being paid, handsomely, I assume, for speaking to audiences.
G. Gordon Liddy was considered the mastermind of the Watergate break-in that kicked off the scandal. He would serve several years in the slammer as one of seven White House “plumbers” who broke into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee at Washington’s Watergate Hotel, getting the whole thing rolling.
Years later, he continued to present himself as something of a tough guy at a news conference, for some reason, in a tiny room at the Grand Forks airport. Then, as now, there was considerable talk about whether criminals should be able to profit from their crimes. For reasons of his own, Mike Jacobs, then a Grand Forks Herald reporter, took notes at the news conference but wouldn’t talk to him.
Still later, Liddy became an early voice in conservative talk radio.
Sen. Sam Ervin of North Carolina, who had chaired some of the hearings, liked to call himself a simple “country lawyer.” Many suspect he was anything but. His bushy eyebrows would famously rise and fall with the hearing testimony.
After Watergate, he appeared at a news conference in Grafton, N.D., at which he was every bit the folksy, charming and funny Southern gentleman he always presented himself to be. But now he was a little too flip when asked about the hearings, his memory a little foggy. He had no intention of making any more Watergate news. Not in Grafton, for sure. Clearly, for him Watergate was over.
Not exactly a Watergate figure, but one whose name will be forever connected to it, Ben Bradlee was executive editor of the Washington Post at the time. Two of his reporters, Robert Woodward and Carl Bernstein, would become famous for breaking story after Watergate story, many of them attributed to an anonymous source known only as Deep Throat. Deep Throat was also the name of a widely popular 1970s era porn movie, but that’s another story.
Many of us who were at a news conference and speech he gave at the University of North Dakota years later were interested in a series of interviews Richard Nixon was about to give (for a fee) to British television “presenter” David Frost in a few days. Bradlee told us he thought it wouldn’t be possible for an “entertainer” like Frost to get much out of Nixon. Later, he acknowledged he was wrong about Frost, whose series would become the definitive post-Watergate Nixon interview, most memorable perhaps for one Nixon’s line. “I gave them a sword.”
Jason Robards and Tom Hanks would play Bradlee in the movies.
Eventually, the Watergate hearings ended, Richard Nixon resigned before the impeachment hammer could come down on him, and he flew back home to California. When the current hearings beginning this week are over, almost no one expects a similar outcome. It’s unlikely Donald Trump will call it quits and fly back home to New York. I mean Florida.
Will Trump hearing “figures” emerge on television like they did during Watergate? Count on it.