Slow Burn

The Defeat of Wright Patman

Read a transcript of Slow Burn: Season 1, Episode 2.

What follows is a lightly edited transcript of Episode 2.

Wright Patman was a congressman from Texas. He was a populist who hated Wall Street banks and the politicians who coddled them—he was sort of the Elizabeth Warren of his time. Strictly speaking, the Watergate affair wasn’t really any of Patman’s business. But he had a couple of questions anyway.

— Why were the burglars who broke into Democratic Party Headquarters at the Watergate carrying thousands of dollars in hundred-dollar bills?

— And why were the serial numbers on those hundred-dollar bills in sequential order?

— And why had one of those burglars received a deposit of $89,000 in checks from a Mexican bank?

Reporter: That bank account belongs to one of the men arrested June 17 at 2:30 in the morning at the national headquarters of the Democratic Party.

For Patman, all that money was a huge red flag—it suggested that this was not a “third rate burglary,” as the White House was insisting, but rather a well-funded, high-level operation.

Reporter: The case is still being investigated, and the mystery remains.

Patman was a Democrat who had been in Congress since 1929. At the time of the break-in, in June of 1972, he was just shy of 80 years old and in the twilight of his career. As chair of the House Banking Committee, Patman’s mission had always been to represent the interests of common people—small business owners, farmers, veterans—and to limit the power of greedy executives and predatory lenders.

Wright Patman: The first 10 or 15 years I was in Congress, times were very hard, and people were in distress. Millions of people unemployed.

Patman really didn’t trust the big banks. He believed they should be run like public utilities, not profit-generating businesses. The fact that the Watergate burglars had so many sequential bills on them made Patman suspect there had to be some kind of banking connection to explore.

Young: When Patman learned about the Watergate burglary immediately after it happened, he smelled a rat.

That’s Nancy Beck Young, a historian at the University of Houston who wrote a book about Wright Patman.

Young: He thought that something was off and a congressional investigation was necessary, and he thought that his committee was the proper place for that.

Patman had the power to open a congressional investigation into pretty much anything, as long as it had a banking angle. In the past, he had used that authority to look into drug trafficking, stock manipulation, and tax evasion. So, when he got curious about Watergate, he assigned a couple of his best people to look into it, and they did—aggressively.

Now, I should tell you right off the bat that Patman’s investigation did not end well. He and his team got pretty much dismantled by the Nixon machine, and their efforts were mostly lost to history. Remember, this all took place nearly two years before Nixon’s eventual resignation—at this point, the White House cover-up was holding together quite well.

Nixon and his people took the Patman threat very seriously: They could see that his team was doing real detective work, flying around the country, meeting with Republican fundraisers. Even more concerning was that Patman was demanding that White House aides come before the banking committee and answer his questions in public.

Richard Nixon did not want his administration subjected to high-profile hearings on Watergate before the 1972 election. Such a spectacle could prove disastrous to the campaign. And so, Nixon and his cronies neutralized Patman’s investigation with both surgical interference and brute force.

This is a story about being thwarted. It’s about what it feels like when you realize there’s a swindle going on, and the swindlers are just going to get away with it, and there’s nothing you can do to stop them.

During the summer and fall of 1972, Wright Patman was one of a handful of people who tried to stop Richard Nixon from getting away with it. As the old congressman from Texas and his team of investigators scrambled to find out the truth about Watergate, Election Day hung over them—a point of no return.

Young: Patman thought the investigation before his committee needed to happen before the American people voted. He thought that for the investigation to not happen, the election would be a travesty.

What happens when the president uses the machinery of the government to protect himself against an outside threat? What does it feel like when you are that threat, and the most powerful person in the country shuts you down?

This is Slow Burn: a podcast about Watergate. I’m your host, Leon Neyfakh.

Reporter: A lot of hard words were traded in Washington today, as Wright Patman issued subpoenas …

Curtis Prins: He told me, “I want you to start investigating the Watergate break-in.”

Wright Patman: How far has this administration gone to put down and harass its enemies?

Episode 2: The Defeat of Wright Patman

Patman became a congressman just a few months before the stock market crash that preceded the Great Depression. He didn’t waste any time. In 1932, he did something unthinkable for a young congressman: He moved to impeach the treasury secretary, Andrew Mellon. The charge—and see if this reminds you of anyone—was profiting from private investments while in office.

The impeachment inquiry ended when President Herbert Hoover forced Mellon out of office and made him the ambassador to England. For young Wright Patman, it counted as a victory.

Patman didn’t get any mellower over the next 40 years. And he didn’t like Richard Nixon any more than he had liked Mellon. They were on opposite sides politically, of course. But it was personal, too. Back in 1946, when Nixon first ran for Congress, he beat Patman’s friend, Jerry Voorhis, in an election, and he did it by accusing Voorhis of being a secret communist.

Young: From the beginning, Patman didn’t like Nixon’s tactics. Nixon had taken down someone he respected, and so he had not been keen on Nixon for decades.

When Patman decided it was his duty to look into Watergate, he called on an investigator named Curtis Prins. Before he came to work for Patman, Prins had been a reporter for a financial news service, where he covered Patman and the Banking Committee. Prins’ bosses at the publication were bank people, and they hated Patman, and they pushed Prins to write stories slamming the congressman. But Prins refused, and he got fired for it. When Prins told Patman he was out of work, Patman gave him a job.

It was eight years later that Prins got the assignment to investigate the Watergate burglary. He still remembers Patman putting him on the case.

Prins: He told me, “I want you to start investigating the Watergate break-in.” That was it. He didn’t announce it to anybody on the committee. He didn’t announce it to the ranking Republican. He didn’t put out a press release or anything. He was a one-man committee.

The investigation formally began on Aug. 17. This was a few weeks after the Washington Post had reported that one of the burglars had received an $89,000 bundle of Mexican bank checks deposited in his account.

Patman wanted to know where this money had come from. So, Curtis Prins started trying to retrace its steps—he went to Florida, he went to Texas, he met with people in D.C.

And he hit some dead ends. At one point, he got fixated on the burglars’ latex gloves.

Prins: Back then, you couldn’t just walk into Costco and get 300 pairs of latex gloves. You had to go to a doctor or someone like that to get them.

So, Prins obtained phone records for one of the burglars. And he saw that there had been tons of calls between the burglar’s house and a veterinary clinic in Virginia.

Prins: So, the light bulbs went off and we figured, aha, that’s where they were getting the latex gloves. Maybe that will help with a further trail.

It turned out that the burglar’s daughter had a sick poodle, and she had been calling the vet nonstop to check on it. Prins never did figure out where the burglars got their gloves.

It wasn’t all sick poodles though. Pretty quickly, Prins and the others confirmed that those “Mexican checks” worth $89,000 were political donations, and they had passed through the Committee to Re-Elect the President.

In other words, a Watergate burglar had been paid a whole lot of money by the Nixon campaign. Prins and his fellow investigators wanted to find out who approved the payment and exactly what services it was buying.

On Aug. 30, 1972, Patman’s staff got a chance to ask Nixon’s campaign finance chief about it. His name was Maurice Stans, and Prins and his colleagues met with him at the headquarters of the Committee to Re-Elect the President.

When they walked into the office, Prins noticed a door leading to another room. At first, he thought it was just a closet. But then he realized it was full of people.

Prins: As soon as we asked the question, he and his lawyers would go to this room and open the door, and it was like a clown car in there. There must have been 20 people in this little tiny room. … They were all in suits and ties, and you could tell that they were people who were connected to something bigger than just the Committee to Re-Elect the President.

Prins and the other two staffers, Jake Lewis and Paul Nelson, talked to Stans for two hours. He stonewalled them the entire time.

Prins: Every time we’d ask a question, Stans would run to this room, and then he would come back and say, “Well, I can’t answer that question.” It was clear he was trying to find out what we knew.

Prins was furious, and he couldn’t help but show it.

Prins: At the end of the interview, Jake Lewis and Paul Nelson shook hands with Maurice Stans, and he came to me to shake my hand, and I said, “I’m not shaking your fuckin’ hand.” And that kind of threw him back a little, and it got him very upset.

After the meeting, Maurice Stans publicly denounced Patman’s staff.

Maurice Stans: The manner in which certain staff members of the Patman committee have behaved in this entire matter is the most shocking example of partisan misbehavior and discourtesy that I have encountered in all of my years in public life. They were rude and insulting, to the point of using foul obscenities.

Stans said it was clear to him that the Patman investigation was purely political.

But Patman was not cowed. As he told reporters, it was actually Maurice Stans who was out of line.

Reporter 1: What about his attacks on the committee’s staff, that they’re acting in bad faith?

Patman: Well, that’s terrible. He’s the one acting in bad faith.

Reporter 2: A lot of hard words were traded in Washington today, as Congressman Wright Patman, chairman of the House Banking Committee, said he would ask his committee to issue subpoenas for John Mitchell and Maurice Stans. …

Not long after the Stans meeting, Patman released a list of people that he wanted the banking committee to subpoena. Prins called it a “phonebook subpoena”—a list of everyone who might conceivably have something relevant to say. So, they cast a wide net. Even so, it’s an impressively prescient list. Patman included not only John Mitchell from Nixon’s re-election campaign, who might have been an obvious choice, but also John Dean, the White House lawyer, and Fred LaRue, who turned out to have been in charge of paying hush money to the burglars.

There was an obstacle, though: Patman couldn’t subpoena these guys on his own. He needed a majority of the Banking Committee to go along with it. Given that the committee was made up of 21 Democrats and only 14 Republicans, it might seem like it should have been easy for Patman to get the votes he needed.

It wasn’t.

Nixon and his cleanup crew did everything they could to prevent the Patman investigation from getting anywhere. If they could stop the committee from voting for the subpoenas, Patman wouldn’t be able to compel anyone to appear at his little hearing. It was a test of whether the U.S. government could hold itself accountable, and Nixon’s people were resolved to make sure their colleagues in the legislative branch would fail.

Around this time, Nixon gave a press conference in which he assured reporters that his administration was cooperating fully with the Patman inquiry. His remarks now seem astoundingly brazen.

Nixon: I think that under these circumstances that we are doing everything that we can to take this incident and to investigate it and not to cover it up. Now, what really hurts in matters of this sort is not the fact that they occur, because overzealous people in campaigns do things that are wrong. What really hurts is if you try to cover it up.

What really hurts is if you try to cover it up.

John Dean, who would later turn on Nixon in dramatic fashion, watched Nixon’s press conference on TV, and he was stunned that the president would lie so baldly instead of just dodging the issue. A couple of weeks later, Dean would find himself in the Oval Office having a detailed discussion with the president about how to stop Wright Patman—or as Nixon put it, how to “screw this thing up.”

As Dean describes the scene in his memoir Blind Ambition, the meeting began with the president reclining in a swivel chair, with his feet propped up on his desk, as he looked at Dean through the V formed by his shoes. Initially the conversation bounced around from topic to topic, but when the Patman problem came up, Dean threw out some ideas for how to deal with it. The challenge was to convince the Democratic congressmen on the committee that it would be in their best interest to vote against Patman’s subpoenas. Dean’s suggestion, basically, was to threaten them—to look up fundraising records for every member of Patman’s committee with the goal of finding some who had violated campaign finance laws.

Dean: If they want to get into it, if they want to play rough, someday we better say, “Well, gentlemen … ”

The audio you’re hearing was picked up by Richard Nixon’s secret White House taping system—we’ll hear more about that in a future episode. It’s hard to make out the words, but what Dean is saying is that these congressmen needed to be put on notice.

At that point, Nixon jumped in to ask Dean a question:

Nixon: What about Ford?

Did you catch that? He said, “What about Ford?”

He was talking about Gerald Ford, who in two years’ time would replace Nixon as president and then pardon him of all for his crimes. But in 1972, Ford wasn’t even vice president yet—he was just the House minority leader. Still, he was about to make himself very useful to Nixon.

Nixon needed all 14 Republicans to vote against the subpoenas—because the Democrats had a majority, the president needed his own party to stand fully behind him if he was going to have any chance of shutting Patman down. This was not as much of a gimme in 1972 as it would be now: The Republicans on the committee couldn’t always be counted on to vote as a bloc, which is why Nixon wanted Ford to make sure they fell in line.

When Nixon talked to Dean during that meeting in the Oval Office, he suggested that he would speak to Ford about the assignment personally. “This is the big play,” he said. “I’m getting into this thing … he’s got to know that it comes from the top.” That’s exactly what reporters and investigators would end up debating for the next two years. How high up did this thing go? Here was the president himself saying it plainly: It came from the top.

The following year, Ford would admit to using his position as House minority leader to help thwart Patman. He denied acting under pressure from the White House.

Whatever else was happening behind closed doors during this time, in public, Nixon’s loyalists took an extremely shrewd stance against Patman’s investigation. The argument they made was based on, of all things, a high-minded plea for fairness.

Here’s how it worked: While Patman was preparing his subpoenas, the five Watergate burglars—plus Gordon Liddy and Howard Hunt, the two Nixon staffers who had organized the bugging—were being prosecuted in criminal court.

Reporter: Federal indictments were returned in Washington today in the Watergate bugging affair. …

Lawyers for Nixon’s aides argued that if Patman held congressional hearings about Watergate while those criminal proceedings were taking place, the jurors in those cases would be influenced by the publicity—which would make it impossible for the so-called Watergate Seven to get a fair trial.

To help bolster this argument, John Dean reached out to Henry Petersen, head of the criminal division at the Department of Justice. Dean asked Petersen to write an official letter objecting to the Patman hearings out of a concern for the Watergate defendants’ civil liberties.

Essentially, the Nixon administration was asking its doctor to write a note saying it didn’t have to participate in gym class. And Petersen was only too happy to accommodate the request.

Soon Republicans in Congress had a newfound passion for championing the rights of criminal defendants. One Republican member of the banking committee talked about how you can’t be “for civil liberties one moment… and then” throw them to the side “when the situation suits you.” A skeptical commentator for the Washington Monthly described this line of reasoning as “ill-fitting legal camouflage.”

On Oct. 3, 1972, Patman’s committee was set to vote on whether to issue subpoenas and hold public hearings in connection with the Watergate affair. The 14 Republican members of the committee gathered outside the hearing room. And then, as Nancy Beck Young writes in her book, they marched in “as if they were infantry headed for battle.”

To start things off, Patman gave a speech, listing some of the valuable investigations the Banking Committee had undertaken up to that point. “It would now seem strange,” he said, “if this committee were to ignore the international transfer and concealment of massive campaign contributions which may have been used to finance the greatest political espionage case in the history of the United States.”

Then came the vote. The optimists on Patman’s staff hoped and expected that the chairman’s Democratic colleagues would want to stick it to Nixon ahead of the election and therefore would vote “yes” on the subpoenas. If they did, Patman would carry the day comfortably.

Peggie Rayhawk-Lewis, a committee staffer who worked on Patman’s Watergate probe, was in the room at the time. She still remembers how she felt when she heard one of the committee’s most reliably liberal Democrats give a speech about why he would be voting “no.”

Rayhawk-Lewis: When he started, and it was clear, this is a Democrat voting against the subpoenas. And, you know, being vocal about it. All those senior Democrats just turned to the right to just stare at him like, what in the hell is going on.

She sat in disbelief as more and more Democrats came out against the subpoenas. Maybe the most surprising “no” vote came from Brooklyn’s Rep. Frank Brasco, a liberal whose constituents hated Nixon. Faced with a chance to help defeat the president in the upcoming election, Brasco turned it down. And in explaining his vote, he basically parroted the talking points that had been cooked up by John Dean and other Nixon aides: He said he was concerned about the rights of the Watergate defendants. “Politics should stay out of justice,” he said.

Rayhawk-Lewis: It’s when Brasco voted that I felt like I had been kicked in the stomach. That was awful. I mean, we just—we had worked so hard to get, you know, good evidence in front of them for the vote and everything. That, that was when it was a kick in the stomach, and I knew we’d lost.

Reporter: It looks now as though the Democrats will not get something they wanted badly before Election Day: a full-scale public congressional hearing on the financial aspects of the Watergate bugging case.

The final vote was 20 to 15 against ordering the subpoenas.

Reporter: With six Democrats voting “no,” along with all 14 of the committee’s Republicans.

Now, there are lots of theories about why the various Democrats voted “no.” One of the committee members, Rep. Richard Hanna from California, later went to prison for taking bribes from the Korean Central Intelligence Agency. And Frank Brasco was indicted for taking payoffs from a Mafia-run trucking company. So it’s possible the Nixon administration knew what they were up to and threatened to reveal it. Or maybe they were just very, very concerned about the burglars’ right to a fair trial.

After the vote, Patman had to acknowledge that he had lost the battle, but he said he was sure that Nixon would eventually lose the war. Before adjourning, he said, “I predict that the facts will come out, and when they do, I am convinced they will reveal why the White House was so anxious to kill the committee’s investigation.”

But Wright Patman wasn’t done. Subpoenas or no subpoenas, the congressman from Texas was going to hold a hearing on Watergate. And he would invite four witnesses, among them John Mitchell and Maurice Stans, to testify before the Banking Committee on Oct. 12. This was less than a month before Election Day. Of course, without subpoenas, no one could force them to come, but—

Well, but nothing. None of them came.

Reporter: Congressman Wright Patman made another attempt today to investigate the Watergate affair. He got nowhere.

Here’s Curtis Prins again:

Prins: The witnesses all told—through their lawyers—told Patman they weren’t coming. So Patman still went on with the hearing, and he set up four empty chairs at the witness table. Patman asked the empty chairs questions for an hour.

A photograph of Patman lecturing the empty chairs appeared in multiple newspapers the day after—the Washington Post even ran it above the fold. It’s a really fantastic photograph: You can see the nameplates, for Stans, for Mitchell, right there in the foreground, and up above, you see Wright Patman in the middle of saying something.

As he spoke, Patman was full of theatrical indignation. He called the absence of the four witnesses a “sad spectacle—a massive cover-up.”

Patman: President Nixon is responsible for those four empty chairs. He is responsible for this secrecy, for the elimination of the people’s right to know.

Their decision not to appear, Patman said, was “an insult to every single American who believes in free, open elections. It is an arrogant act, an amazing act for those who are supposed to be seeking the votes of the American people.”

Patman: How far has this administration gone to put down and harass its enemies and the two-party system on which this government rests? We better find out before it’s too late.

On Halloween 1972, just over a week before the election, Patman released a report prepared by his staffers, stating that, “We cannot allow wiretapping, burglary, espionage, and sabotage to become ingrained as an accepted way of politics.”

Nixon’s campaign responded with a statement accusing Patman of being a tool of Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern. This “latest dishonest collection of innuendo and fourth-hand hearsay,” the statement said, “is nothing more than an eleventh-hour attempt to save Mr. Patman’s candidate for President from what may be one of the worst defeats in American political history.”

When you talk to Curtis Prins and Peggie Rayhawk-Lewis about the end of the Patman inquiry, you can hear that they’re still offended by what happened—on Patman’s behalf, but also their own.

Rayhawk-Lewis: Everybody on that team believed in what we were doing. Not always the case with congressional committee staff, but we really did, we really did. … It’s safe to say I felt a real sense of betrayal, and for myself it was the beginning of a political cynicism.

Prins remembers having to pack up his boxes of investigative work, all the notes he had taken during his interviews with possible witnesses, all the phone records he’d obtained, and the report he’d helped write.

Prins: I was really burned up. And quite honestly, I’m still burned up. I’m still mad that, you know, we couldn’t go further with this thing.

Patman’s work on Watergate was vindicated in 1974, when the White House’s effort to obstruct his investigation earned a mention in the Articles of Impeachment against Nixon.

But then, six months later, Patman was ousted as chairman of the House Banking Committee. Ironically enough, it happened thanks to the wave of Democratic reformers who swept into Congress after Nixon’s resignation: the so-called Watergate babies. To those newly elected lawmakers, Patman seemed like a relic of a bygone age—a Democrat who had supported the Vietnam War and whose Depression-era populism didn’t really resonate with ’70s liberals.

According to Nancy Beck Young, Patman was hurt by the loss of his chairmanship, and he never really recovered. In early 1976 he got pneumonia, and he died a month later at the age of 82. For the funeral in Texas, President Gerald Ford, the man who had helped orchestrate the squelching of Patman’s Watergate inquiry, sent $50 worth of carnations.

This podcast is a production of Slate Plus, Slate’s membership program. Slate Plus members get a complete bonus episode of Slow Burn every week, going deeper into the wild world of Watergate. I’m sharing some of the amazing stuff I’ve found in researching the series, and playing extended versions of my interviews with people who watched it all go down.

This week, an interview with a Banking Committee staffer who was certain that Patman’s offices were being wiretapped during his investigation, as well as a closer look at the millions of dollars in “hot money” that was pouring into Nixon’s re-election campaign during the spring of ’72.

Slate Plus members help support this show and the rest of our work. You can find out more, and sign up for Slate Plus, at slate.com/watergate.

Slow Burn is produced by me and Andrew Parsons. Our script editor is Josh Levin. Gabriel Roth is the editorial director of Slate Plus. The artwork for Slow Burn is by Teddy Blanks from Chips. Thanks as well to the NBC News archive and the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum for the archival audio you heard in this episode. Special thanks to Slate’s Chau Tu, June Thomas, and Steve Lickteig. You can find a full list of books, articles, and documentaries used to research this episode on our show page.

Next: The story of how a handful of political journalists tried to make America pay attention to Watergate in the months leading up to Nixon’s reelection. And why they utterly failed.

Lesley Stahl: We were taking Watergate seriously. But it was really hard to develop a story. There would be a burst of information. And then it would die. It would die.

I’m Leon Neyfakh. Tune in next week.