Dave Simpson: A Far Cry From The Watergate Hearings

Columnist Dave Simpson writes: "Some of us are old enough to remember the Watergate hearings back in the summer of 1973. Trust me on this: The January 6th 'hearings' ain't no Watergate hearings. "

Dave Simpson

July 06, 20224 min read

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(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

Some of us are old enough to remember the Watergate hearings back in the summer of 1973. 

Trust me on this: The January 6th “hearings” ain’t no Watergate hearings. 

I was finishing up some college courses back then, and if I wasn’t in class, the television was on constantly to the Senate Watergate Committee hearings, chaired by Sen. Sam Ervin, a wily old Democrat from North Carolina. There was no controversy over what senators served on the committee. No members were rejected by the other party. 

The Republican co-chair of the Senate committee was Sen. Howard Baker, who made the question, “What did the president know, and when did he know it?” the query most of us remember of the hearings.

There was an urgent need to keep watching, because new information was being uncovered every day, and there was the growing sense that despite his denials, our president was indeed “a crook.” An example was the revelation from White House staffer Alexander Butterfield that there was a taping system in the Oval Office, and suddenly getting those tapes became a huge issue that would go all the way to the Supreme Court. When Nixon had to hand over those tapes, the jig was pretty much up. 

We knew we were watching history take place, and an estimated 70 percent of us were watching on TV. The hearings were not packaged. The questioners were not reading from Teleprompters. There was no television producer punching up the action to get more viewers. The senators looked like people trying to find out what went on, not like prosecutors presenting a case. 

As a result, the Watergate hearings had credibility. When Nixon resigned, few could say the process of uncovering the issues was incomplete. Republicans, led by Sen. Barry Goldwater, ultimately went to the White House to tell Nixon it was time to go. 

Fast forward to today. I was listening to the “hearing” last week when Rep. Adam Kinzinger’s questioning of a witness sounded more like responsive reading in church. His foregone conclusion – that President Trump is an ongoing menace – could not have been more clear. Videos slickly interspersed throughout Kinzinger’s scripted performance belied the fact that we’re seeing a predetermined case being made, with the assistance of a top television producer.

The words “dog and pony show” kept coming to mind. 

Same with the performance of our Rep. Liz Cheney, co-chair of the committee that has no other Republicans other than Kinzinger. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, rejected two other Republican members to serve on the committee. Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy then opted – perhaps unwisely – to not propose any other Republicans. So, everyone on the committee is against Trump. There are no skeptics asking tough questions, no Trump defenders.

On NPR two weeks ago, congressional reporter Ron Elving said Cheney is thought by some to be the new Howard Baker. But Baker didn’t say before the Watergate hearings even began that he wanted to keep Nixon from ever getting near the Oval Office again, as Cheney vowed to do to Trump. Her mind was made up from the very start.

And that’s why the January 6th Committee hearings are a far cry from the Watergate hearings. We’re watching the prosecution make its case – with all the flash and slickness of modern television production – but there’s no defense on the other side. Imagine a court case in which only the prosecution got to make its case.

Making things worse, the committee last week violated the old journalism warning about “a story too good to check out” when it was claimed that Trump tussled with Secret Service agents. But nobody checked it out with the Secret Service. And agents have denied it. Bad mistake by the committee. 

Looks to me like Trump is a guy who had trouble accepting defeat, and he made some bad decisions in his final days in office. But after four long years of determined, relentless, hysterical opposition – proven unfounded in almost every instance – did we really expect him to accept the results of a pandemic-jostled election without question? 

The January 6th Hearings are no Watergate Hearings. 

Not by a long shot. 

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Dave Simpson

Political, Wyoming Life Columnist

Dave has written a weekly column about a wide variety of topics for 39 years, winning top columnist awards in Wyoming, Colorado, Illinois and Nebraska.