WASHINGTON (PAI)-Bill Cohen was there. Elizabeth Holtzman was there.
Even, for heaven’s sake, Daniel Ellsberg was there.
Common Cause, the noted good-government group, gathered those three and almost everyone else it could find from the Watergate era, some 40 years ago. Its 2-day retrospective March 13-14 reviewed the constitutional crimes, all collectively now known as “Watergate,” that brought down the administration of Richard Nixon. He had to quit in 1974 before Congress could impeach and remove him.
The timing was apt. As Common Cause President Bob Edgar noted, March 21, 2013 marks 40 years to the day when Nixon counsel John Dean marched into the Oval Office and declared, “We have a cancer, within, close to the presidency, and it’s growing.” The cancer was Nixon’s Watergate burglars’ demands for cover-up hush money, $1 million. “We could get that,” Nixon replied.
Those were real and, as it turned out, historic events. But for most Americans now, Watergate is something you read about in books. The suffix “-gate” is applied to virtually any D.C. scandal, however small.
“The Lessons of Watergate” brought that era back, with a modern angle – abuse of presidential power, then and now.
Watergate’s catalogue of crimes stretches before and beyond the June 17, 1972 break-in at the Democratic national headquarters by burglar/operatives for Nixon’s Committee to Re-Elect The President (CREEP) and the following obstruction of justice and cover-up that Nixon engineered and that brought him down.
It stretches, in particular, to the abuse issue – an issue, speakers said, as immediate and relevant as today’s headlines.
Noted names from that past came to talk: Cohen and Holtzman, two members of the House Judiciary Committee that impeached Nixon. Ellsberg, who revealed the Pentagon Papers about the history of U.S. involvement in the Indochina War – and whose trial in Los Angeles turned into “Watergate West,” thanks to Nixon’s burglars.
Jill Wine-Banks – then Jill Wine-Vollner – and Richard Ben-Veniste, leading prosecutors of Nixon’s top aides. Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., the only member of the Judiciary Committee still in Congress. Cohen said Rep. Jerome Waldie, D-Calif., (a former FBI agent) and Conyers were ready to impeach Nixon even before committee staffers spent weeks presenting evidence of Nixon’s constitutional crimes.
And, in the audience and among Watergate’s “unsung heroes,” Alexander Butterfield, the former Nixon aide who disclosed the existence of the secret White House taping system. Its recordings, Vollner said, ultimately brought Nixon down.
(Among the few absent invitees: Retired Senate Watergate investigating committee member Lowell Weicker, R-Conn., who was out of the country, and Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, then the Washington Post reporters whose stories exposed Nixon’s crimes, constitutional and otherwise. They had schedule conflicts.)
Nixon’s criminality encompassed a wide range of offenses against individuals and, more importantly, against the checks and balances of our constitutional system itself. Even unionists got targeted.
In one infamous taped statement, Nixon told his aides he wanted to use the Internal Revenue Service and other government agencies to “screw our political enemies.” Aides drew up enemies lists of top targets for audits and other attacks – and the late Leonard Woodcock, president of the Auto Workers, was in the first list of 20.
Watergate, participating panelists said, was driven by Nixon’s paranoia, his plans, which Ellsberg disclosed, to intensify the Indochina War after the 1972 election, and the availability of enormous amounts of secret campaign cash. The corrupting influence of that corporate cash was the topic for one of the few non-Watergate speakers, former Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis.
Though Feingold was far too young to serve in Congress when Watergate occurred, his campaign finance law, co-authored with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., tried to limit such cascades of campaign cash and with it corporate ability to tilt government its way and against the rest of us.
But the U.S. Supreme Court tossed the McCain-Feingold law in its Citizens United ruling in 2010, opening the way to that cash from corporations and the rich, which labor must combat. The corrupting impact is back, worse than ever, panelists agreed. “Citizens United is a dangerous decision,” Vollner said.
That’s very unlike the court’s role in Watergate, panelists said. The justices ruled 8-0 that Nixon had to turn over his tapes – not just edited transcripts full of “(expletive deleted)” – to the Judiciary Committee. The tapes included the famous “smoking gun” tape showing Nixon approving the Watergate cover-up a few days after 1972’s break-in.
Common Cause panelists said congressional investigation and unraveling of Watergate could not occur today, as Congress is too distrusting and partisan. By contrast, the Judiciary Committee approached the evidence of Nixon’s actions without preconceptions, as if it were in a courtroom trial, Holtzman said.
Indeed, she added, lawmakers were reluctant to act, due to Nixon’s 1972 land-slide and general veneration of the presidency. Committee Chairman Peter Rodino, D-N.J., cried in private after the lawmakers adopted the first article of impeachment, said Holtzman. Cohen said most Judiciary Committee Republicans – he was one of the handful of dissenters – were dead set on defending Nixon. But they, like the others, had to listen to the evidence, too.
And when the “smoking gun” tape was made public after the High Court’s ruling, even the Nixon defenders abandoned him and planned to vote to impeach the president for abuse of power. On Aug. 9, 1974, days after the “smoking gun,” Nixon resigned.
Ellsberg led the way in saying such presidential abuses of power continue, especially in war-making. He brought the issue into the present by asserting that it is unconstitutional for the U.S. to use drones to kill U.S. citizens whom the president unilaterally targets as “enemy combatants” or aiders of terrorists.
And, Ellsberg added, the whole foundation for continuing U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan rests on the shaky ground of a vague congressional resolution, not a declaration of war, passed after the Sept. 11, 2001 al-Qaeda attacks. He said it’s just like the Gulf of Tonkin resolution that let Lyndon Johnson send troops to Vietnam.
Cohen said two subsequent administrations after Nixon’s also abused war-making power. One was Ronald Reagan’s, where White House officials directly defied congressional bans and traded with Iranian ayatollahs to get arms for the “contra” rebels fighting to overthrow the Marxist government of Nicaragua.
But there were two differences between Nixon and Reagan, Cohen admitted. One was that Reagan took responsibility for Iran-contra, even if he didn’t know what his underlings were doing. And the other was that Congress, that time, shied away from probing presidential abuse of power.
And it has done so ever since, Ellsberg declared.
Photo: The original Nixon White House tape recorder is shown in an undated handout photo. AP Photo/National Archives