“Without the Watergate hearings, surely Nixon would have escaped judgment.”
Were the Watergate hearings–those of the Senate Select Committee on Watergate–indeed pivotal, as Stein suggests? What were the other factors?
I note in Getting It Wrong, my new book about prominent media-driven myths, that the dominant popular narrative of Watergate has long been the notion that dogged investigative reporting of two Washington Post journalists, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, was what exposed the crimes of Watergate and brought down Nixon.
“How the Post and its reporters uncovered Watergate is deeply ingrained in American journalism as one of the field’s most important and self-reverential stories,” I write in Getting It Wrong, adding:
“But to explain Watergate through the lens of the heroic-journalist is to abridge and misunderstand the scandal and to indulge in a particularly beguiling media-driven myth. The heroic-journalist interpretation minimizes the far more decisive forces that unraveled the scandal and forced Nixon from office.”
Among the more decisive forces and factors were hearings of the Senate Select Committee in the summer 1973–the “Watergate hearings,” to which Stein refers.
The hearings were most memorable for the stunning disclosure that Nixon had secretly and routinely tape-recorded conversations in the Oval Office.
The disclosure was to prove decisive to Watergate’s outcome. It set off intensive efforts by the special federal prosecutor on Watergate, as well as other subpoena-wielding authorities, to gain access to tapes relevant to their inquiries.
Citing “executive privilege,” Nixon resisted releasing them until ordered to do so by the U.S. Supreme Court–in an 8-0 decision handed down 36 years ago yesterday, July 24, 1974. He complied.
One of the recordings revealed Nixon’s active role in attempting to cover up the signal crime of Watergate, the break-in in June 1972 at the Democratic National Headquarters in Washington, D.C. That recording–the so-called “smoking gun” tape–made resignation inevitable.
The “smoking gun” tape showed that Nixon “had instituted a cover-up and thus had participated in an obstruction of justice almost from the outset” of the scandal, Stanley I. Kutler, Watergate’s foremost historian, wrote in his fine book, The Wars of Watergate.
If not for the Supreme Court’s order, it is my view that Nixon never would have released the tapes revealing his guilt in Watergate and likely would have served out his term, albeit as a badly wounded chief executive.
Interestingly, as I note in Getting It Wrong, Woodward and Bernstein wrote in All the President’s Men, the book about their Watergate reporting, that they received a lead about the Oval Office tapes shortly before their existence was revealed.
Woodward said he called Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee about the tip; Bradlee suggested not expending energy in pursuing it.
Had they pursued the tip, Woodward and Bernstein might have broken the pivotal story about Watergate. Had they done so, the heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate–the media-centric view that they uncovered the scandal–would be somewhat more plausible.
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