Guest Essays, Opinion

Guest essay: Watergate Summer: When truth trumped politics

by Randy Vealey

No, I don’t remember it like it was yesterday, but I never forgot the most compelling television programming in my life.

In May 1973, I was a freshly minted 19-year-old, who already knew it all as I basked in a lazy year off from schooling while readying to pursue a political science degree at a nearby college that fall.

My circle of friends, family and I would later refer to that time as Watergate Summer. That is, the 51 days of televised hearings on the Watergate scandal that got underway May 17 and did not end until Aug. 7.

Of course, this scandal began nearly a year prior to that programming, and the U.S. Senate did not agree to establish the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities — unanimously — until that February.

The three major television networks back then agreed to take turns broadcasting the hearings live, allowing each network to air coverage every third day in morning and afternoon hours. The then still relatively fledgling PBS would air recordings of the hearings in the evening.

Obviously, the soap operas of the day, game shows, some news broadcasts and local programming were pre-empted every third day, causing some to squawk. But it’s estimated that the vast majority — 85% by some counts — of Americans with television sets tuned into portions of these seemingly endless hearings.

Though, some probably did not find some of the testimony riveting. For instance, White House Legal Counsel John Dean’s 245-page statement, which took six hours to read and which many still did read, including this then-impressionable teenager.

But undoubtedly, everyone’s ear perked up when one minor White House assistant, Alexander Butterfield, testified nearly a month after Dean.

He would describe a voice-activated recording system that was installed in the Oval Office, the Cabinet Room and others, as well as President Nixon’s private office in the nearby Executive Office Building, which proved to be the smoking gun in the eventual resignation of the president.

These hearings and other investigations would also result in nearly 70 people being indicted — many of them top Nixon administration officials and members of the Committee to Re-Elect the President (CREEP) — and 48 of them being convicted.

Late last month, the House Select Committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection announced it would hold a series of at least eight public hearings in June, starting June 9. For now, the hearings are set to be spread out in televised daytime and primetime hours, by numerous networks. And much like the Watergate hearings, as one member of this House panel said, these ones “… will tell a story that will really blow the roof off the House.”

This panel previously held a public hearing in July 2021, featuring testimony from police officers who helped defend the Capitol from a mob on Jan. 6, 2021, but has largely worked behind closed doors, conducting more than 935 depositions and interviews while amassing more than 100,000 documents. It is continuing to depose witnesses in May.

It is scheduled to release its report in early fall and intends to present its narrative not only in text form, but via mixed-media initiatives that will certainly light up the internet.

No, this is not Watergate Summer all over again. For as many similarities to that crisis and those hearings and today’s, there are many more differences. One of which today should be disconcerting to every American.

The Senate investigation in 1973 is something everyone, especially members of Congress, can point to as congressional oversight at its best, despite how long it took to achieve that reckoning.

That seven-member bipartisan Senate committee of four Democrats and three Republicans — touting conservatives and liberals of both parties — came together at a time of grave crisis and division in the best interests of our nation. It would go on to demonstrate to every American citizen and to the world that principle and truth should always trump politics or corruption.

I only hope and pray it still does nearly 50 years later.

Randy Vealey is a retired journalist who lives in Morgantown.