I tuned in to the Jan. 6 hearings Thursday night doubtful that they would be nearly as compelling as the Watergate hearings—the gold standard of high-drama congressional investigations from nearly a half-century ago. I was wrong: The first night of these hearings was in fact more riveting than the first month of the hearings that eventually drove Richard Nixon out of office. The case that the committee made against Donald Trump as the ringleader of the Capitol insurrection was slam-dunk convincing.
I don’t make this comparison as a mere browser of ancient archives. I vividly remember watching the Watergate hearings on TV every day back in 1973. I was 19, home from my freshman year in college, working a nighttime summer job (keeping score of semipro baseball games), and doing nothing all day but reading books and watching the hearings.
They were thrilling. There hadn’t been anything like this since Sen. Estes Kefauver’s investigation of the Mafia in 1950, but those hearings hadn’t been televised, not in their entirety anyway. For the Watergate hearings, the three major networks rotated daily gavel-to-gavel coverage. PBS, which had just started broadcasting in 1970, aired them every day, then reran them every night. They were watched by millions as avidly as the soap operas that the hearings preempted, to almost no complaint.
However, the managers of the hearings—especially the chief counsel, Samuel Dash—had to be careful. As the sessions began, no solid evidence linked the Watergate burglars to Nixon or anyone in the White House, and, though Dash and other staffers knew of some evidence, it would have backfired to push the connection prematurely.
On the first day, May 17, Sen. Sam Ervin, the folksy Democrat from North Carolina with burly eyebrows and homespun homilies, emphasized in his opening statement that the justice system had convicted “only the seven persons accused of burglarizing and wiretapping the Democratic National Committee headquarters.” These hearings, he said, “are not designed to intensify or reiterate unfounded accusations” about higher officeholders “or to poison further the political climate of our nation.” The purpose “is not prosecutorial or judicial, but rather investigative and informative.”
The witnesses that day were low-level campaign aides who explained the structure of Nixon’s reelection committee and Sgt. Paul Leeper, the police officer who caught the Watergate burglars.
Things got a bit more interesting on Day 2, when James McCord, one of the burglars, testified that he thought Attorney General John Mitchell had approved the operation and that Howard Hunt, a CIA veteran who worked for Nixon, had advised him to plead guilty and wait for a pardon. Over the next two days, other White House aides, most of them midlevel, were drawn into the plot and the cover-up. Not until May 24, Day 5, did Ervin take a vote to extend the hearings into June and possibly longer.
It took until June 14, Day 11, for Robert MacNeil, the PBS commentator, to note that the idea of White House involvement in Watergate was “no longer a conspiracy theory” but rather a fact.*
And it was only the next session—on June 25, after an 11-day break—that John Dean testified, and that’s when all hell broke loose. Dean was White House counsel. He had taken part in crimes, led the cover-up, and eventually served a short jail sentence. But on Day 12 of the Watergate hearings, he spilled everything he knew about, as he put it, the “terrible cloud over this government that must be removed”—the payoffs to the burglars and other co-conspirators, his warning Nixon of a “cancer on the presidency,” and Nixon’s own direct involvement. He faced three days of questioning, some of it from Republicans repeating the White House talking points that Dean—not Nixon—ordered the cover-up, but he emerged from the assault completely credible.
Not till July 16, Day 21 of the hearings, did Alexander Butterfield, the Secret Service agent, testify that Nixon had secretly tape-recorded hours and hours of White House meetings. The committee subpoenaed the tapes—the first time Congress had ever subpoenaed a president. Nixon refused to hand them over. The Supreme Court unanimously ruled that he had to. He did. And that was prelude to his finish. He announced his resignation on Aug. 8, 1974—more than a year after the hearings began.
The managers of the current hearings on the 2021 insurrection had no time to dawdle. They couldn’t assume a TV audience with the patience to let the story slowly unfold—especially since the story had occurred well over a year ago, had been publicly scrutinized many times, and Trump was long out of office. By contrast, the Watergate hearings took place while Nixon was still president, and a grand jury was probing the same crimes separately and in secret. Dean told me in an email on Thursday that he started cooperating with the Ervin committee in late April, a few weeks before the hearings began—while he was still White House counsel.
On Thursday night, the vice chair of the Jan. 6 committee, Liz Cheney—the Republican renegade, one of just two to join the panel—had to lay out the highlights of the case against Trump in short order, and she did so in a half-hour summary that any federal prosecutor would envy: well-ordered, calmly principled, and backed up by video clips of witnesses testifying before the committee (this is television), bolstering the case—some unwittingly.
And she did it in a way that might compel viewers to tune in for future episodes. In the next hearing on Monday morning, she previewed, as if addressing a jury, “you will see evidence of each element” of a seven-point plan that Trump and his aides laid out to reverse the 2020 election. “You will hear witnesses” who watched what Trump did and did not do. Meanwhile, she showed excerpts of some of these witnesses’ testimony—former Attorney General William Barr saying he told Trump that claims of false ballots were “bullshit”; Ivanka Trump saying she believed Barr; Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, saying that Trump did nothing on Jan. 6 to stem the violence, that only Vice President Mike Pence called him and called the National Guard (even though Pence was not in the chain of command to do so); that several aides testified Trump and everyone around him knew the claims of a stolen election were nonsense and that those who pushed the myth were, along with Trump, responsible for the violence that day.
This was great television, but it wasn’t just television. Many years after the Watergate hearings, we learned that Samuel Dash, the committee counsel, had shared information with the Justice Department, which was holding grand jury hearings on Watergate—and vice versa. Reportedly, the Jan. 6 committee and today’s Justice Department are doing the same. We don’t know how far along the justice investigators are in their probe, but the committee’s Thursday night airing of some of the evidence should push them to move a bit faster. Unlike Nixon, Trump left office at the end of his term, impeached but not convicted. (Nixon resigned to avoid the inevitable impeachment. Gerald Ford’s subsequent pardon prevented him from going through what would have been a grueling criminal trial.) However, Trump could run again in 2024—unless he’s convicted of a felony in the meantime or enough people in the Republican Party, and the population generally, turn against him.
Cheney clearly hopes this will happen—along with her own subsequent vindication. She ended her statement with a knife cut: “I say this to my Republican colleagues. … There will come a day when Donald Trump is gone, but your dishonor will remain.” She added, more gently, to viewers at home who might be swayed against voting for Trump again: “Please remember what’s at stake.”
Correction, June 10, 2022: This article originally misspelled Robert MacNeil’s first and last name.