Before he brought “Law and Order” into our living rooms by playing a district attorney on TV, actor Fred Thompson was a real-life Republican senator from Tennessee. And before that, when Fred and I first got to know each other in 1973, he was just a 30-year-old attorney, freshly hired by Sen. Howard Baker as the Republican’s chief counsel on the Senate Watergate Committee investigating the scandal that would end Republican Richard Nixon’s presidency.
Today, we need to bring the late Fred Thompson back for a posthumous encore — to remind us how things really were, back before Americans discovered the proof that would cause the House Judiciary Committee to open its impeachment inquiry.
Fred Thompson can indeed help patriotic Americans who genuinely want to make his Grand Old Party great again. But he’s got to start by showing his successor generation of Republicans that the way to succeed is not to con and deceive the millions who truly want to trust and support Washington’s most patriotic Republicans.
Frankly, in the summer of ‘73, most Senate and House Republicans were thinking just as today’s Republicans think. They assumed their role was to prove there wasn’t any proof that Nixon was involved in the scandal that began when burglars with White House ties were caught bugging the Democratic headquarters in the Watergate building.
The Watergate Committee began by doing things the right way. They hired staff counsels who questioned witnesses in closed sessions prior to their public hearings — the best way to discover evidence. In one private session, Nixon aide Alexander Butterfield reluctantly acknowledged that Nixon had a secret taping system. All Nixon’s meetings and phone calls were recorded and on file. Committee Democrats decided in their public hearing that the young Republican counsel would ask the bombshell question.
And with the whole world watching, Thompson asked: “Mr. Butterfield, are you aware of the installation of any listening devices in the Oval Office of the president?” Butterfield answered: “I was aware of listening devices, yes sir.”
A year later, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered Nixon to surrender the tapes to the House Judiciary Committee’s impeachment probe. The “Smoking Gun” tape, dated June 23, 1972, just six days after the botched burglary, was discovered. Nixon’s words, ordering the coverup, stunned us all. He wanted the CIA to tell the FBI to stop investigating the Watergate burglary — falsely claiming national security reasons. Republican minds changed overnight. Nixon had to resign.
Fast-Forward: In 2015, Tea Party firebrand Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., used the same closed pre-hearing interview procedure to get info for his controversial Benghazi public hearings. Yep, the same practice that House Republicans are now blasting Democrats for using in their preliminary impeachment probe of President Donald Trump.
“Our private hearing was much more constructive than the public hearing. Public hearings are a circus,” Gowdy told CBS “Face the Nation’s” Margaret Brennan last year. “It’s a freak show.”
All that is why, just a week ago, it was contemptable to see House Republican leaders convert the Capitol Dome into their own circus big top — and con TV viewers by staging a made-for-TV protest that created message imagery that was unforgettable, just untrue. We saw GOP chiefs leading dozens of House Republicans down a winding staircase into highly classified subterranean hearing chamber. We heard Republicans complaining Democrats denied them access to “Soviet-style…secret” hearings. But 48 Republicans on the House committees holding those hearings were allowed to attend. And this week, the full House approved the next phase: public hearings.
But House Democrats must also be faulted. In a stunning misjudgment, House Intelligence Chair Adam Schiff, D-Calif., opened a public hearing with a shameful comic parody, depicting Trump’s phone call with the Ukraine president as a gangster shakedown.
Schiff and all members of Congress need to rethink, recalibrate — and deep-six their partisan mindsets as they enter this somber impeachment process. We can help them now by recalling how the quest that began dramatically with Fred Thompson’s Senate Watergate Committee question climaxed a year later, on the House side of the Capitol.
On July 27, 1974 (when Adam Schiff was just 14), the House Judiciary Committee approved the first article of presidential impeachment in 151 years — the beginning of the end of Nixon’s presidency. Chairman Peter Rodino, D-N.J., a blue collar guy, quietly gaveled an adjournment, left the chamber, ignored reporters, even his staff (which included a bespectacled young aide named Hillary Rodham), walked into his office and phoned home. When his wife answered, the proud Italian-American patriot broke into tears and cried.
“I was keenly aware that we, Democrats and Republicans alike, had taken a momentous step in the political life (of) our nation,” Rodino later wrote. “…To impeach a President is an awesome responsibility.”
Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. Readers may send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.