Mueller hearings pale compared to Watergate probe

Former special counsel Robert Mueller’s appearance before a pair of congressional committees on Wednesday were the most hyped, and watched, committee meetings in decades.

The intent was, in theory anyway, to learn more about the conduct of the Trump campaign during the 2016 presidential campaign and if President Donald Trump and his team conspired with Russia and others to steal the election, break the law and defy the Constitution. That was the idea, anyway.

It was difficult to watch, at least for me, because it was more of the same ultra-partisan battle that defines American politics and life today. As Mueller, a registered Republican, Marine veteran and former FBI director, attempted to answer questions, the congressmen took turns making speeches, interrupting him and making it plain that they were not there to seek the truth, but to play to their side and display their support or disdain for Trump.

None of them distinguished themselves, and Mueller seemed unhappy to be pulled into this political swamp.

There have been other congressional hearings that drew this much attention — the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954, the Anita Hill hearing in 1991 and, most remarkably, the Senate Select Committee to Investigate Campaign Practices in 1973-74.

The surprise star of the Watergate hearings, as they were known, was a portly North Carolina senator with unruly gray hair and a syrupy southern accent. Sen. Sam Ervin’s cornpone style and courtly manner disguised a cunning mind with a vast knowledge of politics and the Constitution.

He was an ideal chairman for the committee, both because of his legal skills and desire to get to the truth, and since he had no political ambitions. Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, D-Mont., named Ervin to lead the investigation in part because he knew the longtime senator planned to retire and would not run for re-election in 1974.

Senator Sam — as he was known — said from the opening day why the committee was investigating Nixon’s 1972 campaign.

“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,” he said. “Since that day, a mood of incredulity has prevailed among our populace, and it is the constitutional duty of this committee to allay the fears being expressed by the citizenry, and to establish the factual bases upon which these fears have been founded.”

Sen. Howard Baker, R-Tenn., also emerged as a national figure. Baker was the ranking Republican on the committee, but he still wanted to get to the truth, even if it meant harming Nixon.

”What did the president know, and when did he know it?” he asked, a quote that lives on nearly half a century later. That question has been asked of numerous presidents since.

Republicans joined Democrats — what a concept! — in concern over the lawless nature of the Nixon White House. They put country over party. Imagine that.

Ervin referred to himself as “an old country lawyer,” but he was a widely respected legislator and constitutional authority. He was a conservative Democrat who had supported segregation in the past, and Nixon at first hoped his appointment might benefit him, since he thought Ervin might take it easy on him compared to liberal senators who detested the president.

Be careful what you wish for, Nixon learned. Ervin, the committee and its staff slowly, carefully and expertly built a case revealing the extent of Nixon’s crimes. It all played out live on TV for days and days, as the networks aired the hearings gavel-to-gavel and more than 80 percent of the country watched at least part of them.

I used to wrap up milking and head to the house before 9 a.m., when the hearings started. Mom and I watched the hearings closely, and she delighted in Ervin’s folksy charm. He was like a beloved grandfather, his eyebrows leaping about as he heard more than more stunning details of what became known as the “White House horrors.”

It was a time when we still believed our leaders were wise, decent, good people who wanted only to serve the nation. Instead, we were given a close-up look at the gutter politics, the payouts, threats and schemes that were a major part of our campaigns and government.

Ervin represented the American people, shocked and deeply disappointed by what we were learning.

“The president seems to extend executive privilege way out past the atmosphere,” Ervin said. “What he says is executive privilege is nothing but executive poppycock.”

The hearings began on May 17, 1973, and the committee issued its final report on June 27, 1974. By the time it concluded its work, along with a House committee led by Rep. Peter Rodino of New Jersey, extensive media coverage and reporting led by Washington Post sleuths Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, several Nixon aides were in prison and his presidency was nearing its end, less than two years after his landslide re-election win.

Nixon resigned in disgrace in August, Ervin left the Senate in January 1975 as a national folk hero and Woodward and Bernstein wrote books and were rich, famous and the idol of a generation of young reporters, including me. Watergate was the most notorious political scandal in American history.

The Trump campaign’s involvement with Russia and the foreign government’s efforts to alter an election may have been far worse, but as long as Republicans stand resolutely behind him, he can do no wrong in their eyes. He has the support of more than 90 percent of Republicans, and as he said in Sioux Center, Iowa, on Jan. 23, 2016 — and I covered the event — he could shoot someone and his supporters would not abandon him.

So don’t expect him to be ensnared in a legal and political net over a hearing. Mueller said Trump might face legal problems after he leaves office, but he said Department of Justice policy protects a sitting president from being indicted.

Democrats may have hoped for a groundswell of support for impeachment, but I think the outcome of Mueller’s appearance will be that Democrats and Republicans draw completely different conclusions from it. That’s just how politics operate in America today.

Senator Sam died in 1985. His style of legislative leadership has been gone a long time, too.

 South Dakota native Tom Lawrence, a former Pioneer executive editor, has written about the state, its politics and people since 1978. Read his blog Prairie Perspective at http://sdprairie.blogspot.com/ and follow him on Twitter at @TLCF26.

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