A Daughter of Watergate Junkies Remembers Lessons For Today

Its déjà vu all over again.

Gas prices are through the roof. Roe v Wade is a hot-button topic. White male entitlement is in decline dividing a country. Out-of-control inflation and outsourced jobs strain the economy. The loss of faith in the American Dream is spreading like a virus.

All while a calamitous country is riveted to televised congressional hearings as a constitutional crisis looms. Democracy is being challenged.

This was America in 1973.

Now, nearly half a century later, against the same set of challenges our TVs are tuned into another hearing, as we once again wrestle with the big question -whether or not an American president is a criminal.

Killing Me Softly With His Words  1973

While I rarely imbibed in the Congressional inquiries as a senior in High School, my parents were true Watergate junkies

The hottest TV show that spring and summer was not All in the Family but All the President’s Men- the Watergate Senate hearings.

In May of 1973, the country may have been fixated on the Watergate proceedings but as an 18-year-old I had other priorities.

Along with getting my senior high school yearbook signed by all my classmates, I was more focused on getting the perfect prom dress ( and the perfect prom date) than on whether  American democracy would prevail.

Crook Shmook, all I cared about was if my Herbal Essence hair was shiny, bouncy and “smelled newborn like dawn in a garden of earthly delights.” History swirled around me but like most teenagers, I was totally tuned into myself.

Most of the committee were selected for relative obscurity. It was a cast made for television. Chairman Sam Ervin, a conservative Democrat and self-described “country lawyer” with homespun phrases became a folk hero with his aggressive questioning full of righteous anger. Howard Baker the handsome Republican from Tenn. gave the famous line: “What did the President know and when did he know it?”

My parents on the other hand were true Watergate junkies

I would acquire my history second-hand from them, more often than not consumed during breakfast. Over a bowl of Heartland cereal, I’d get the unsweetened version of the Watergate caper the next morning from my bleary-eyed father who had stayed up way past midnight watching the entire unedited proceedings on public television. Like so many thousands of Americans, Dad showed up to work with a “Watergate hangover.”

John Dean testifies Watergate

White House Counsel John Dean’s testimony took down Nixon marking the beginning of the end of the Nixon presidency. He described the criminal activity beyond the Watergate break-in and other abuses of presidential power.

For most of the spring and summer, my parents were glued to our new Panasonic Quatrecolor Television set every weekday evening at 8pm as they tuned in to the rebroadcast of the day’s hearings on PBS. Anchored by Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer it was low-key compared to today.

There were no flashing opening graphics, no countdown clocks, and no partisan talking heads. Just testimony in a hushed hearing room and two soft-spoken anchors at hum drum desks, who kept their editorializing to themselves, allowing the viewer to come to their own conclusions.

The hearing was an endless parade of White House aides, burglars, agents, and politicians testifying before the committee discussing what increasingly became a constitutional crisis.

Sam Ervin, Howard Baker, John Dean, and Alexander Butterfield were like cast members of popular TV shows and became important parts of our daily lives, dissecting and picking out personal favorites, and villains.

Spy vs Spy

As though sharing the plot from the latest John le Carre novel, Dad would enthrall me with capers from the day’s proceedings. They were nothing short of the stuff of spy novels. It was pure catnip to my bookish father who devoured spy thrillers and political fiction with gusto.

James McCord Jr bugging device

James McCord Jr. shows how to rig the transmitter of a bugging device in a telephone at a hearing on May 23, 1973

Like something straight out of James Bond- sans the good looks of a Sean Connery – former CIA operative James McCord Jr. demonstrated how to bug a phone while E. Howard Hunt showed Americans how to photographically steal documents. Dad kept track of an ever-expanding list of code names including Gemstone, Ruby, and Fat Jack.

They heard tales of secret midnight phone calls from mysterious men, cash payments in laundry bags, and any number of dirty tricks and “White House Horrors.” These stories just continued and multiplied as the committee uncovered the depth and diversity of the Administration’s crimes.

My parents, like the entire country, were thoroughly transfixed.

History Repeats Itself

A man at home watching the Kefauver Hearings 1951

But this was not the first time Mom and Dad had been riveted to a senate hearing in their own living room.

That honor went to the Kefauver Hearings in March 1951. My father relished pointing out that decades before Watergate, real-life mobsters turned Congressional hearings into must-see TV.

It was the first great daytime hit for the new medium of television.

Kefauver’s use of TV to affect public opinion is still regarded as a breakthrough for the medium. The senator even won an Emmy in 1952 for “outstanding public service on television.” This set the template for hearings to follow including The Army McCarthy hearings of 1954 and Watergate.

“The Senates Special Committee to Investigate Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce” better known as the Kefauver hearings attracted an even larger audience than Watergate, no small feat at a time when fewer homes had television sets.

An estimated 30 million Americans tuned in to watch live as Senator Estes Kefauver and his colleagues interrogated some of the most famous crime leaders in the nation. It turned the relatively obscure coon skin, cap-wearing Senator, from Tennessee into a bone-fide folk hero.

Frank Costello

When mob boss Frank Costello’s s lawyer objected to the TV cameras the camera directed their devices on Costello’s hands. His hands were often twisted and clenched during questioning revealing his fears and tensions.

While Watergate resembled a great spy thriller, the Kefauver investigative hearing was a Mario Puzo novel come to life.

Viewers were mesmerized by the cast of underworld characters called to testify. These were gangsters straight out of central casting. It was a veritable who’s who of the mob from Meyer Lansky to Mickey Cohen. Even the shapely girlfriend of Bugsy Siegal testified.

The dramatic testimony by Frank Costello a real-life godfather who inspired Don Corleone kept everyone on the edge of their seats.  Adding to the drama the cameramen only showed his nervous, twisting hands keeping his identity as secret as possible.

Kefauver Hearins at Movies

Women and young girls entering movie theater to see free TV of Kefauver Senate Crime Hearings 1951 Photograph Michael Rougier

The broadcast was so popular, Dad explained,  that schools dismissed students to watch the hearings, and some businesses even closed down. Mom recalled that blood banks in the city ran low on donations during the time of airing,  prompting one Brooklyn Center to install a TV  and tune into the hearings. Not surprisingly blood donations shot up 100 percent.

An article in Life magazine described the eager public “Never before had the attention of the nation been riveted so completely on a single matter.”

“The Senate investigation into interstate crime,” it concluded “was almost the sole subject of the national  conversation.”

A collective nation was riveted by the spectacle.

January 6 Attack -CapitolGate

Today I am tuned in to the January 6th Capitol Attack Hearings.

I can’t tune it out.

Unlike the summer of 1973, I can’t ignore the televised hearings.

I won’t turn away.

Tucker Carlson

Fox News refused to air the hearings the first night. Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity ran without commercials, clearly terrified that viewers might stray to other channels and actually see the hearings.

I am fixated by the House Select Committee proceedings, but I know it will not be a collective experience.

The hearings will be instantly spun, taken in by separate audiences as if they were watching entirely different programs. Unlike newscasters during the earlier hearings who felt an obligation to speak to the entire country, today they speak to their own loyalist camp.

Only some of the country is captivated. Some are not even watching.

We can’t turn away.

The level of criminality we are seeing in these hearings is shocking. It is haunting.

It would likely shock Richard Nixon.

We Can’t Avert Our Eyes

The attack on the Capitol Jan 6th

The footage of the violent assault on the U.S. Capitol, a vice president, and his staff worried for their safety at the hands of a mob that the president invited and incited. An outgoing president seemed to support the idea of his vice president being lynched.

This plot seems more like a season of American Crime Story, the FX true crime anthology.

Crime and Punishment

On November 17, 1973, during a televised press conference in Florida, Nixon declared “I’m not a crook,” and continues to profess his innocence.

Less like the scandal of Watergate, it more closely resembles the mobster underworld cast of the Kefauver hearings. There is no question we are witness to a president who acted like a mob boss ordering a hit.

This is an American crime that far surpasses those of Watergate.

More than two decades after the Kefauver hearings the Watergate hearings forced a president to resign and for a brief moment, it felt like a victory. But Gerald Ford pardoned Nixon sending a message that powerful people will rarely face consequences.

Today there can be no pardon. Nixon may have been a crook, but Trump is a cold-blooded criminal.

We can’t turn away.  It must not be déjà vu all over again.

 

Copyright (©) 2022 Sally Edelstein All Rights Reserved

 

 

6 comments

  1. Sally, very well done to show the similarities. What is interesting is the idea of Fox News was spawned following Watergate by a young staffer named Roger Ailes. It would take twenty years for it to come to fruition. As for Sam Ervin, he was ideal for the hearings. But, he had a history of disarming people. This old “country lawyer” failed to tell people he also was third in his class at Harvard. Those who underestimated him did so at their own peril. Keith

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    • You are right about Sam Ervin, he was crafty as a fox and was indeed disarming with his folksy idioms. The members of the committee were chosen specifically for being relatively unknown at the time and not being politically ambitious.

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  2. Simply brilliant comparisons. And certainly worrisome as far as what results we can expect in today’s fractured America. Thanks for the artful time traveling, Sally. You bring history to life.

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  3. This is basically the roosters coming home to roost. Trump practically tired to get Vice-President Pence killed on January 6th. Trump was probably going to use Pence’s death as a dead albatross to stay in power. Trump is like Hitler in that regard. The ultra-conservatives who stormed Capito Hill were like rabid dogs foaming at the mouth doing Trump’s bidding. I know that’s harsh but it fits.

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