former journalists discuss a profession in crisis

Remembering Watergate: Decency Ultimately Prevailed; Would it Today?

In Blog on October 20, 2013 at 10:16 pm

In journalism and politics in Washington, some things never change.  When the government wants to manage the news, the best way to do it is to release a big story late on a Friday, particularly the Friday before a three-day weekend.  Reporters on deadline don’t have time to find anybody to challenge the story, and it’s framed as  the government prefers.

That’s still true in the nation’s capital, although harder to pull off with everyone online 24/7 and available on their cellphones.  It was far easier 40 years ago, when the Nixon White House announced to reporters that it had reached a compromise on access to the Watergate tapes.

The tapes would provide crucial corroboration to the testimony of former White House counsel John Dean, who had testified that Nixon had approved a series of illegal actions, motivated either by his desire for political victory or his need to cover up the break-in by White House operatives into Democratic party headquarters.

The so-called compromise, and the events that followed, were the subject of an extraordinary gathering at the National Press Club last week.  Key figures in events that would become known as the Saturday Night Massacre gathered to recall those events.  They were introduced by someone who, as a young lawyer, had served on the staff of Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox – Stephen Breyer, who, of course went on to become a Justice of the Supreme Court

The compromise story came as a surprise to Cox, who had subpoenaed the tapes.  He hadn’t agreed to the offer by the White House to give up his demand for the tapes, and to permit 73-year-old Democratic Senator John Stennis of Mississippi who was hard of hearing and on heavy-duty painkillers after having been seriously wounded in a robbery, to listen to the tapes and assess the veracity of written summaries.  Cox would have to accept the summaries , and could not ask for any additional materials.

Cox’s staff scrambled.  “We called the Los Angeles Times’ Washington bureau and asked them what was going on,” recalled Jim Doyle, Cox’s press secretary.  “We had to make clear to the press that Cox had major reservations” about the proposed deal, Doyle said.

Doyle said that his team was successful in getting a Cox statement into the next day’s news.  Cox also announced that on the next day, a Saturday, he would hold a press conference at the National Press Club.  “They managed the news cycle,” Doyle said of the White House effort, but had been “thwarted” in their attempt to silence Cox.

The following day, a pensive and worried Cox walked from his office to the Press Club.  When he faced the television cameras and the Washington press corps, Cox made it plain that he wasn’t looking for a confrontation, or to “get the President’ but that his investigation required access to the tapes. What the cameras showed and the reporters described was a man of honor trying to fulfill the charge he had been given by our elected representatives.

I am old enough to remember what happened next.   The President fired Cox, who had been chosen by Attorney General Elliot Richardson to investigate the Watergate scandal.  I also had the privilege, as a young staffer at the good-government group, Common Cause, to have known Cox, who served for a time as Common Cause board chairman. I was in awe of the thoughtful, temperate, high-minded man everyone called “Archie.”

Why the press called the Cox firing a “massacre” speaks to the honor of the two civil servants who refused to follow the president’s order, despite great pressure from the White House.  Richardson, and his deputy, William Ruckelshaus, both believed that there was no legal justification for firing Cox.  “We watched the press conference in the Attorney General’s office,” Ruckelshaus recalled.  They both concluded they had to refuse the president’s order, realizing they would lose their jobs as a consequence. They had pledged to the Senate that they would dismiss Cox only for “extreme impropriety,” so there were no grounds for dismissal, Ruckelshaus said.

“Richardson was a career politician” who gave up his career, when he defied Nixon,  observed Breyer, in his opening remarks. “He made a promise to the U.S. Senate that he would not fire Cox.”

This was not the era of tweets or even blogs or emails, but the American public got their message across.  Thousands of telegrams flooded Capitol Hill.  And in a few days, Nixon presented the tapes to a new special prosecutor.

Why were citizens outraged?  “The public thought the law was being obstructed.  The public saw an honorable person in a world of phonies and people playing games,” said Harvard law professor Philip Heymann, who had been part of the Cox team.  There was a “feeling they were watching decency confront Washington.”

I have to wonder whether in this era, when we have blue media and red media, and a blogosphere that conflates fact and fiction, whether Cox’s straightforward sense of duty and honor would have shone through.  Or whether the media would have nibbled away at his character and challenged his motives, sifting through every past relationship to test for bias, looking into his bank account, as partisan commentators raised preposterous questions and charges that sowed doubt.  After all, Cox had been an advisor to President John F. Kennedy and had served as his Solicitor General.

I wonder, too, whether Watergate would not have been reduced to the question: “What did the President know and when did he know it” but would have focused instead on an endless analysis of the scandal’s impact on the political parties.  Covered less like a trial, and more like a football game.

Last week’s anniversary, coming at the end of two weeks of a government shutdown that almost destroyed the nation’s credit rating, also left some of the participants less than upbeat about the state of politics in the post-Watergate era. At the conclusion of Watergate, Heymann said, “We saw the political power of integrity.”  That kind of remark, he joked, could get him “committed” in today’s cynical Washington.

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