I’m old enough to remember watching the Senate Watergate Committee hearings, as a teenage Nixon-hater, raised that way by my liberal, devout Catholic, Nixon-loathing father. I can still be obsessive about Watergate trivia. But too much of our media is using the outcome of that inspiring process—Nixon’s resignation—to impeach, so to speak, the Democrats’ handling of Donald Trump’s many high crimes and misdemeanors, after day one of the House Intelligence Committee’s impeachment inquiry.
The New York Times’ Peter Baker harks back to that triumph of democracy almost a half century ago to find the first hearing a little disappointing: “While major television networks broke into regular programming to carry it live, there was little sense of a riveted country putting everything aside to watch à la Watergate.” It’s worth remembering that the Times’ first-day, front-page coverage of the Senate hearings in May 1973 carried the headline “A Low-Key Beginning Before A Rapt Audience.”
Is all the looking backward because it’s too scary to look forward? My objection isn’t to parallels between the abuses involved in Watergate and the Ukraine scandal, because they exist, but to the expectations of what Democrats ought to do, and how, and jumping to the conclusion that they’re botching it. They may be, but fetishizing the Watergate investigations ignores how much media, politics, and the GOP have changed in the intervening 45 years.
Just to quickly dispense with Baker: C’mon, dude. We are no longer a country that is “riveted” by anything, or gathers around the TV for much beyond the Super Bowl, and even that spectacle’s ratings are in sharp decline. In 1974, we had three dominant networks; now, even beyond the 24-hour cable networks, we have an infinite media universe competing for our attention, as well as ideological media silos that “rivet” us with different stories, and sometimes different facts.
Midday Wednesday, “Walter Cronkite” began trending on Twitter, because people heard the voice of the late, sainted CBS anchor, once “the most trusted man in America,” in Ukraine Special Envoy Bill Taylor’s soothing, authoritative tone. That’s nice. And sad. Walter Cronkite is still dead. And if he wasn’t, today’s media might kill him.
Cronkite’s two short Watergate special reports in October 1972, totaling 20-plus minutes, are widely credited with forcing the nation to pay attention to the shadowy, complex, and still-unspooling scandal. In an admiring NPR Cronkite obit in 2009, Alicia Shepard confessed to watching both broadcasts and concluding: “I can safely say that CBS would never run that story today. Frankly, it was far too complicated—and even boring. It was difficult to figure out what Cronkite was talking about.” She’s no doubt right. And despite all the Cronkite nostalgia on Twitter, the media found his vocal doppelgänger Taylor unconvincing. In a headline that should go down in history, an NBC News analysis complained that Taylor’s testimony, and the entire day, lacked “pizzazz.”
Analysis: The first two witnesses called Wednesday testified to President Trump’s scheme, but lacked the pizzazz necessary to capture public attention. https://t.co/1UfkaeZ3I4
—NBC News (@NBCNews) November 14, 2019
(One more nod to Twitter: By Thursday morning “pizzazz” was trending, and not in a good way.)
Some Watergate parallels can be illuminating. MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell found plenty of pizzazz in the hearing (despite some of his network colleagues’ disappointment), and featured much of North Carolina Senator Sam Ervin Jr.’s opening statement from the first Senate Watergate hearing. The respected Democratic chair of the committee, Ervin was chosen partly because of his pull across the partisan aisle, and also because he wasn’t expected to run for reelection, and he didn’t. Ervin’s statement is worth reading; it was morally and politically compelling. The introduction alone shows the real parallels between Watergate and our current mess:
We are beginning these hearings today in an atmosphere of utmost gravity. The questions that have been raised in the wake of the June 17th 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 at the Watergate were in effect breaking into the home of every citizen of the United States. 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.
But Democrats have no Sam Ervin, for some very good reasons. Ervin had moral and political pull across the aisle because he was, or at least had been, an ardent segregationist. The author of the 1956 “Southern Manifesto,” signed by almost all Southern members of Congress, that challenged the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, Ervin mellowed a bit over the years. He would eventually say Brown wasn’t a bad decision—it was just that all the measures used to implement it were terrible. Despite his moving evocation of our “most precious heritage, the right to vote in a free election,” he called the 1965 Voting Rights Act “cockeyed and unconstitutional” and voted against it. Ervin was one of the guys former vice president Joe Biden remembered as a segregationist he could work with when he arrived in the Senate.
I was also struck by Ervin’s obvious lack of concern for “optics,” let alone “pizzazz.” He was rumpled and hunched over, wearing reading glasses and droning into the microphone; both the nattily dressed House Intelligence Committee chair Adam Schiff and Shirtsleeves Jim Jordan are clearly playing for the cameras. Ervin, mainly, was not; he could imagine Republican colleagues whose minds he might change. Schiff doesn’t have that social capital with Steve Scalise, for instance. Looking back at Ervin only serves to underscore how much the Democratic Party has changed, for the better, while the GOP of Ervin’s day, whose party leaders could ultimately have their minds changed by evidence and turn on a corrupt president, is nearly extinct.
I think we fetishize Watergate partly because very few people alive today remember how slow and confusing and sometimes even “boring” it all was. It’s also because we know how Watergate ended: Nixon resigned. It is understandable that many people, even many progressives, would imagine we could start from that happy outcome, and work back from it to engineer the same success. But Watergate tells us almost nothing about today. Many of us are craving some kind of playbook and some obvious source of moral authority, and we don’t have either. We have to create it.