There are striking parallels between Watergate and Russia’s intrusion in our election. In 1972, President Nixon’s reelection campaign broke into the DNC offices at the Watergate Hotel and wiretapped its phones, hoping to facilitate Nixon’s victory. In 2016, Russia hacked e-mails from the DNC and the Clinton campaign to help elect President Trump. Now, as then, at issue is whether a president and those closest to him colluded to attack our institutions.
For many, Watergate evokes nostalgia, proof our system works. But in the trenches it was brutal. So I asked William Cohen to assess the current inquiry in light of his central role in Nixon’s impeachment.
Cohen became a three-term senator from Maine, then secretary of defense. But in 1973 he was 32, a freshman GOP congressman. While he laughingly casts himself as a rookie in hardball politics, his rookie mistake was having principles.
A lawyer, Cohen revered the rule of law. To his peers’ astonishment, he requested a spot on the Judiciary Committee, a political briar patch bristling with thorny issues like abortion and prayer in school. This proved a fateful choice — the House Judiciary Committee is where impeachment begins.
As Cohen settled into office, dogged investigative reporting surfaced increasing evidence of a White House cover-up — forcing Nixon to allow Attorney General Richardson to appoint a special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, to conduct an independent investigation. Then the Senate Judiciary Committee uncovered the existence of White House tapes that might demonstrate Nixon’s complicity in the Watergate burglary and wiretaps.
Cox subpoenaed the tapes. In the notorious “Saturday Night Massacre,” Nixon, to Cohen’s astonishment, ordered Richardson, whom Cohen knew and admired, to fire Cox. After Richardson and his deputy resigned in protest, Cox was removed.
Democrats argued that Nixon had no right to replace him. But Cohen perceived that a political stalemate could stymie the investigation. Eschewing party loyalty, he argued in The Washington Post that the inquiry would continue only were Leon Jaworski, Nixon’s new appointee, allowed to succeed Cox. Reversing its prior position, the Post adopted Cohen’s argument, and Jaworski took office.
Lawyer-like, Cohen began absorbing the evidence against Nixon. In closed hearings, several committee Democrats started yielding time for Cohen to interrogate witnesses, further antagonizing Republicans. Pressure mounted. Nixon visited his district to rally support; at a meeting with GOP members of the Judiciary Committee, including Cohen, Nixon admonished: “I may be a sonofabitch, but I’m your sonofabitch.” Still, when Nixon provided redacted transcripts instead of producing the tapes, Cohen inquired, “How in the world did we go from the Federalist papers to edited transcripts?”
In themselves, the transcripts indicated illegal maneuvering by Nixon. Jaworski sought to enforce Cox’s subpoena, and the House authorized the Judiciary Committee to investigate the grounds for impeachment.
The committee’s Democratic chair, Peter Rodino, resolved to demand the tapes. Committee Republicans opposed him; two Democrats wanted to pursue impeachment forthwith. Once again Cohen broke ranks, providing Rodino with a one-vote majority.
His recompense was death threats — some explicit, one involving a bomb. Constituents sent thousands of hostile letters. A fatalist by nature, Cohen wrote off his political future. Then the Supreme Court compelled Nixon to produce the tapes.
Cohen began comparing them with the transcripts — a damning exercise. A small bipartisan group of committee members formed, centered on moderate Republicans like Cohen, struggling to draft articles of impeachment on which they could agree. His bipartisan colleagues asked Cohen to publicly defend two key articles, obstruction of justice and abuse of power, by laying out the specifics against Nixon.
Throughout this difficult work, the group kept faith with each other. After a televised debate which riveted millions of Americans, the committee — including six of 17 Republicans — voted out three articles.
A bitter impeachment loomed. Then another tape emerged, confirming Nixon’s involvement in the cover-up. Nixon resigned; the country escaped further trauma — and Cohen’s career survived.
So how, 43 years later, does this experience illuminate the inquiry into possible collusion between Russia and Trump’s campaign?
Watergate featured two strokes of luck — the tapes themselves, and Nixon’s decision not to destroy them. But Cohen cites deeper and more sobering differences.
In his view, Russia’s intrusion in our election “is more of an existential threat to our democracy than Nixon was.” The power to impeach Nixon existed within our system; we cannot keep a foreign power from distorting our democracy. Thus it is all the more imperative to know whether they colluded with our president.
But while the stakes are greater, our will is not.
Rodino strove to run a scrupulous and bipartisan investigation, free from leaks that would undermine its credibility. By contrast, the Republican chair of the House Intelligence Committee, Devin Nunes, became embroiled in a web of leaks and lies orchestrated by Trump’s White House.
During Watergate, Cohen was joined by moderate Republicans who placed country over partisan politics. Today’s politics are viciously polarized, moderate Republicans virtually extinct.
Then, as now, the president’s supporters cast any inquiry as an effort to reverse an election. Striking today is the indifference of most Republican officeholders and voters to Russia’s attack on our election — in particular, the House Republicans and their leaders. Protected by partisan cover, Trump’s Justice Department is unlikely to appoint an independent special prosecutor free from political influence.
Finally, there is America’s burgeoning indifference to an objective search for facts. As Cohen puts it, “There are no accepted truths any longer.” It will be a long time, he fears, until we restore our common values with respect to truth and honesty.
Like William Cohen during Watergate, we can but try.
Richard North Patterson’s column appears regularly in the Boston Globe. His latest book is “Fever Swamp.” Follow him on Twitter @RicPatterson.