A lesson from Watergate on the importance of seeking the truth

A lesson from Watergate on the importance of seeking the truth
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“What did the president know and when did he know it?” That was the breakout question asked by Republican Senator Howard Baker in the Senate Watergate Committee hearings 47 years ago. But there is an important twist behind it and a lesson for Senate Republicans today whose political bond with President TrumpDonald John TrumpWinners and losers from the South Carolina debate Five takeaways from the Democratic debate Democrats duke it out in most negative debate so far MORE is the stuff of Krazy Glue.

The truth may not always hurt, but it can certainly haunt. It turns out that the question from Baker was not asked in a principled search for the truth, but to help exonerate President Nixon. It was not a fastball aimed at the quick discovery of facts, but a curveball intended to knock a damaging witness, White House counsel John Dean, off his stride. The question backfired, but it ultimately helped Baker redeem his place in history.

In early 1973, the Senate Watergate Committee was formed to investigate the break in at the Democratic National Committee. Democratic Senator Sam Ervin was the chairman, and Baker was the ranking member. In his early desire to protect Nixon, Baker was the Mitch McConnell of the time, actively coordinating with the White House. He met secretly with Nixon in the Oval Office. “I am your friend,” Baker said. “I am going to see that your interests are protected.” According to the Christian Science Monitor, he also revealed to Nixon the strategy of the Democrats “to build political pressure slowly, taking testimony from smaller figures first and then moving to try to get appearances from higher ranking officials.”

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Sound familiar? There is more. Nixon suggested to Baker that if testimony by major witnesses could not be avoided, their hearings should be held secretly. Fast forward to the Washington Post report this week that if the Senate does compel testimony from John Bolton, the fallback position is to force it into a classified setting. The coordination during Watergate continued. Nixon aides suggested that Baker call the hearings a “witch hunt” and suggested to Baker that Nixon could prove that the Democrats bugged his offices, just like the laughable assertion today that it was the Ukrainians rather than the Russians who meddled in our election.

Dean testified to the committee by summer. His lengthy statement was a devastating indictment of the president. It was up to Baker to explicate Nixon by proving the assertions made by Dean were circumstantial and unfounded. So Baker asked, “My primary thesis is still, what did the president know, and when did he know it?” Dean responded with a credible and persuasive argument. Nonetheless, it did not matter.

It was Nixon against Dean, just as it is Trump against Gordon Sondland, Kurt Volker, William Taylor, Marie Yovanovitch, Alexander Vindman, Fiona Hill, George Kent, Lev Parnas, and, well, you get the point. Following the hearings, the Senate Watergate Committee took a two week recess. After it returned, the other shoe had dropped, as Nixon lawyer Fred Buzhardt inadvertently revealed that the president secretly taped meetings. Those recordings could prove whether Nixon or Dean was telling the truth.

It is always those other shoes, the ones you did not see coming, that will kick you in the butt and force you to rethink everything. Baker came to realize that Nixon was acting unscrupulously, later telling the Associated Press that he “believed it that it was a political ploy of the Democrats, that it would come to nothing,” but after a few weeks it began to dawn on him that “there was more to it than I thought, and more to it than I liked.”

Less than a month after Baker posed the question to Dean, the Senate Watergate Committee voted unanimously to subpoena the tapes. The members understood the truth and nothing but the truth required more information and evidence. Just over two weeks later, Nixon resigned. The lessons seem clear enough. At some point, short term partisan motivation must yield to the inevitable revelation of truth. The knowing protection of lies is a lie itself, and will ultimately bring remorse or shame or both.

But maybe we are already beyond quaint lessons from history. Maybe Simon Blackburn was correct in his excellent book “On Truth” that the chronic and unpunished lying of this administration has not put us in a “post truth” environment but a “point shame” one as well. The truth is that the truth does not matter. But I hope not. A democratic society depends on the truth meaning something even when it is politically inconvenient. It rests on people like Baker, partisans who come to realize the danger of governing in a nation where the truth is whatever you want it to be.

Steve Israel represented New York in Congress for 16 years and served as the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is now the director of the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University. You can find him on Twitter @RepSteveIsrael.