Saturday, March 23, 2013

A Simple Twist of Fate

This day in 1973 was a pivotal one in the story of the Watergate scandal.

By March 23, 1973, the scandal had mostly stalled. The Washington Post, TIME magazine and The New York Times continued to publish stories, but the public's general interest in the investigation was way down. Supporters of President Nixon protested that there was a media bias against the president, and many people in the political center were beginning to agree.

(One of the things that the Watergate scandal made clear to me was the fact that, no matter how much Americans may dislike their president, they will give him more than the benefit of the doubt. Nixon was about as loathsome as they come, but, although many of his supporters had misgivings about him, they always wanted to think well of whoever was president, and they refused to convict him in their minds until the constantly mounting evidence of his complicity left them no choice.)

To be sure, there have been times in America's history when the press acted not so much as a watchdog but as a lapdog. But the Watergate scandal was not one of them. Forty years later, I take pride, as a journalist, in noting that the reporting of that scandal was mostly accurate — astonishingly so, considering how many attempts were made by the administration to throw the reporters off the scent.

But in the early spring of 1973, the story really hadn't gained a lot of traction.

That changed 40 years ago today. James McCord and E. Howard Hunt, the last of the Watergate burglars, had been convicted in January, and John Sirica, the judge who presided over their trial, was slated to hand down the burglars' sentences in March. Prior to doing so, he received a letter from McCord, alleging that the burglars had entered guilty pleas under duress, the defendants had perjured themselves, and other, unnamed individuals had been involved in the conspiracy and its coverup.

McCord asked Sirica — who was known as "Maximum John" for his tendency to hand down the most severe penalties allowed by law — for leniency. Sirica handed down some stiff penalties — Hunt, for example, was sentenced to 35 years — but Sirica made it clear the sentences were "provisionary," depending on their cooperation with investigators.

McCord's sentence, however, was postponed, and Sirica revealed in court the existence of the letter. McCord also asked to meet privately with Sirica after sentencing. When the request was granted, he told the judge that he and the other defendants had lied at the bidding of former Attorney General John Mitchell and then–White House counsel John Dean.

It was a game changer.

As McCord had anticipated in his letter to Sirica, he was called to testify before the Senate committee that was investigating the Watergate break–in and coverup.

He probably didn't foresee the public's reaction — with the exception of Dean's testimony about a month later, McCord's testimony on the first full day of witness questioning may have been the most heavily anticipated.

But it seems likely that, if not for the letter McCord wrote to Sirica, his testimony could have been quite different — if it had happened at all.

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