"We are beginning these hearings today in an atmosphere of the utmost gravity. The questions that have been raised in the wake of the June 17 break–in strike at the very undergirding of our democracy. If the many allegations made to this date are true, then the burglars who broke into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee ... were in effect breaking into the home of every citizen of the United States. And if these allegations prove to be true, what they were seeking to steal was not the jewels, money or other property of American citizens but something much more valuable — their most precious heritage, the right to vote in a free election."
Sen. Sam Ervin
May 17, 1973
Forty years ago today, the Senate Watergate Committee held its first session.
(I'm going to resist the temptation to compare what began four decades ago today to the scandals that have been erupting in Washington recently — even though there are many initial similarities. The scandals will only prove to be truly comparable if they play out like Watergate did.)
I doubt that very many Americans realized at the time where the road on which the committee had taken the nation would lead. Initially, President Nixon appeared to be insulated from the unsavory activities that had led to the Watergate break–in — just as Barack Obama today claims to have beeen unaware of what was done in his name. All the highest–ranking officials insisted that, even if they acknowledged their own culpability, the president was guiltless.
It would be more than a month before John Dean's testimony would directly challenge Nixon's stated version of events. It would be about two months before the existence of a taping system in the Oval Office — and, therefore, the existence of evidence that could confirm whether Dean's version or Nixon's was correct — became public knowledge.
Those things happened during the Watergate Committee's work in the summer of 1973.
The hearings that summer were a genuine sensation. Years before cable TV, decades before the internet, people were bringing portable TVs to their workplaces to follow the testimony. Drivers were listening to the hearings on their car radios.
On a retrospective on Watergate I watched once, I heard Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee say that, at the height of the hearings, he could walk from his newsroom to the street, where he could get a taxi and take it anywhere in the city, and he could get out and walk along any street and never miss a beat in the coverage, so pervasive was the coverage by the media of the day.
But that was later.
On this day in 1973, I couldn't say how many Americans were watching. In my hometown, school had not yet dismissed for the summer — as I recall, the dismissal of school came in late May — so I would have been in school on the day the hearings began. My mother was at home in those days, but I have no memory of coming in from school that afternoon and finding her watching the TV. Perhaps she was, but I was a child and the weather was probably nice, and I probably did what I usually did after school on nice days at that time in my life.
I probably played baseball with the neighborhood kids until our parents called us in for dinner or until the sun went down.
Which means I probably made a beeline for my room, put on my rattiest clothes and went back outside to take advantage of what remained of daylight.
I have no memory of the opening statement by the chairman of the committee, Sen. Sam Ervin of North Carolina.
But, as I read it now, four decades after the fact, I am struck by the timelessness of the message — Ervin's assertion that "the right to vote in a free election" is more valuable than jewels or money or property.
Over time, fame and fortune have become part of the American dream, but the original American dream was to have a land where power resides with the people. Individual affluence has nothing to do with that.
It just doesn't get any more basic than that. It has always been at the heart of America, from the earliest days when America was little more than an idea right up to modern times, that the people rule here — and they wield their power through the ballot box.
That isn't always good news for incumbent officeholders — but America isn't about them.