In honor of the 40th anniversary of Richard Nixon's resignation, I have been wallowing in Watergate with the help of Rick Perlstein's addictive new book, "The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan."
I am old enough to have gleefully read aloud key passages from the "smoking gun" tape with my colleagues at The Washington Monthly. But Perlstein, the author of two prior acclaimed books on the rise of the modern conservative movement, was just beginning school during the 1973-1976 period covered by "The Invisible Bridge."
Looking back at Watergate through the prism of documents and video archives rather than with that fallible mechanism called memory, Perlstein retells much of the standard narrative with verve. Nixon's high crimes still carry shock value — and Perlstein does not play revisionist games by trying to excuse or minimize them. But what shines through his narrative is the story of the Senate Watergate committee, the most important congressional investigation since Teapot Dome or the Army-McCarthy hearings.
Perlstein captures the contradictions and ironies embedded in the personality and record of committee chairman Sam Ervin (born: 1896), who probably was the last child of the 19th century to play a major role in American history. As Perlstein puts it, "White-haired and jiggly-jowled, his long bushy eyebrows as tangled as line of Arabic script...he was almost a caricature of Dixie courthouse pol." But in contrast to the ferocity of the North Carolina senator's support for segregation and his virulent opposition to women's rights, Perlstein unearths oddball nuggets to illustrate Ervin's idiosyncratic beliefs. I certainly had never imagined that Ervin's first crusade as a state legislator in 1925 was to ridicule a ban on the teaching of evolution in the wake of the Scopes trial.
In a way that seems impossible to replicate in this era filled with handheld distractions, the Watergate hearings became what Perlstein calls "a national conversation — water-cooler fodder for people who didn't know Haldeman from Ehrlichman from Adam." If you turned on the television in 1973, the hearings were inescapable as every network carried them live during the day and PBS also rebroadcast them every night. Perlstein also conveys, with perfect pitch, the gap-jawed amazement that swept the country the day that a minor Nixon functionary named Alexander Butterfield testified — without a leak of what was coming -- that the president had been taping every conversation in the Oval Office.
Reliving the Watergate committee in "The Invisible Bridge" prompted me to wonder why Congress has lost its ability to conduct an investigative hearing that has gravity and credibility. Part of it is simply size -- with about 15 preening senators or 30 ego-mad House members, the standard congressional committee is simply too large for any sustained coherent questioning. The Watergate select committee, in contrast, had just seven members. And most of them knew the difference between asking a question and making a speech.
The other difference from today, and it is a big one, is that partisanship was more complicated during the Watergate era. It wasn't that Nixon lacked uncritical defenders: Perlstein reminds us that on the eve of resignation, an Indiana Republican named Earl Landgrebe declared, "I'm sticking with my president even if he and I have to be carried out of this building and shot." Asked by an NBC reporter about the evidence against Nixon, Landgrebe replied, "Don't confuse me with the facts."
But the seven members of Watergate committee represented, in effect, four separate political parties. There were two Southern Democrats (Ervin and Herman Talmadge from Georgia) whose Senate voting records were more conservative than many Republicans. There were two mainstream Democrats (Daniel Inouye from Hawaii and New Mexico's Joseph Montoya, the committee's dim bulb). Lowell Weicker from Connecticut was an independent liberal Republican. The two remaining Republicans were Tennessee's Howard Baker (too ambitious to be trapped in a bunker with Nixon) and Edward Gurney from Florida, who became the president's chief defender.
What this meant, in effect, is that six of the seven Watergate committee members were committed to a fair hearing. Contrast that with any congressional inquiry into Benghazi or the IRS scandal. Even in 1997, when the Senate established a select committee on the Watergate model to probe Bill Clinton's campaign fund-raising abuses, the investigation fell apart because of partisan discord. Joe Lieberman was the only Democrat who did not defend Clinton on every issue. And most Republicans on the committee, chaired by Fred Thompson, balked at investigating quasi-legal GOP soft-money practices.
I was disappointed that "The Invisible Bridge" does not mention, except in passing, the far-reaching campaign reform legislation that Congress passed in 1974 after Nixon's resignation. The 1974 bill — which created a matching-fund program for presidential primaries and public funding for the fall elections -- gave America clean White House elections for two decades until Bill Clinton stumbled on the honey pot of soft money. In many ways, the post-Watergate campaign reforms were the best thing that emerged from the worst presidential scandal of the 20th century.
Part of the problem is that the saga of reform does not fit Perlstein's thesis. His provocative argument is that these three years of turmoil from 1973 to 1976 (a time of impeachment, oil boycotts, defeat in Vietnam, rising crime rates and sexual excess) laid the groundwork for America to embrace the fake optimism of Ronald Reagan in 1980. Perlstein also highlights the obliviousness of "Brahmin do-gooders" to the grievances embedded in blue-collar protest movements over school busing in Boston and left-wing school textbooks in West Virginia.
Common Cause becomes Perlstein's model of an elite out-of-touch institution. He mocks them for opposing the Supersonic Transport plane that, if had it been approved by Congress, would have created high-paying union jobs. But instead of worrying about the future of blue-collar employment, Perlstein sniffs that Common Cause played to the self-interest of "well-educated, often suburban professionals" and their parochial interest in bloodless issues like "reform of congressional processes, public financing of elections and strict disclosure laws."
Reading Perlstein on Watergate — for all the pleasure of his strong narrative and bracing prose — I recalled the line that has been attributed to Louis Armstrong: "If you have to ask what jazz is, you'll never know." Sometimes I got the sense that Perlstein read all the notes about Watergate, but somehow never heard the music.
The day after Nixon's resignation, as Perlstein reckoned, The New York Times ran 81 separate articles on the transfer of power. Perlstein notes, with just a tinge of mockery, "They all resounded with the very same theme: the resignation proved that no American was above the law, that the system worked, that the nation was united and at peace with itself."
Forgive me for sounding like a refugee from the 1970s — but dammit the system did work 40 years ago. And we should continue to be proud that the most lawless president in our history was forced to resign his office on August 8, 1974.
Walter Shapiro is an award-winning political columnist who has covered the last nine presidential campaigns. Along the way, he has worked for The Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, Esquire, USA Today and, most recently, Yahoo News. He is also a lecturer in political science at Yale University. He can be reached by email at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.