Politics

Trey Gowdy and the Real Lesson of Watergate

1973 Democrats blocked investigation of LBJ.

By 5.8.14

Wikimedia Commons/Sen. Mike Mansfield (left).
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It is the real lesson of Watergate.

As South Carolina’s Congressman Trey Gowdy, the new chairman of the House Select Committee on Benghazi, begins his task, it is worth recalling a lesson from Watergate. Specifically a lesson about the creation of what became known as the Senate Watergate Committee — and how the Senate Republicans of 1973 lost a fight that literally changed the course of American history.

The date is November 17, 1972. The Democrats in the United States Senate are not happy with the results of the just concluded presidential election in which their nominee and Senate colleague, South Dakota’s Senator George McGovern, had lost 49 states — all but Massachusetts and the District of Columbia — to President Richard Nixon.

In the middle of the campaign — back in June — the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee had been burglarized. Among other things, the objective was to bug the phones to monitor the DNC Chairman, ex-JFK and LBJ White House aide Lawrence O’Brien. The story had been a detail of the campaign, but a small one. Not until October had the story gained any kind of traction, moving in a bigger way from print media and the hands of the Washington Post’s young reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein to television. Walter Cronkite at CBS had spent two nights in a row on the scandal, a big deal in a day where the three TV networks only had a single half-hour news show at the dinner hour. There were strands of a story — a connection between Nixon’s re-election committee, the story of an intelligence fund at the committee. And not much else. The news reports had no effect whatsoever on Nixon’s impending landslide victory.

During that campaign there had been a Senate election in Montana, a re-election campaign for the state’s junior senator Lee Metcalf, a Democrat. His senior colleague and fellow Democrat Mike Mansfield, out campaigning hard for Metcalf, had seen the news reports on the burglary. Understanding that McGovern was about to go under in a tidal wave, Mansfield told Montana voters that when the election was over he would go back to Washington and “pave the way” (his words) for an investigation not just of the Watergate break-in but the whole business of campaign financing.

The importance? Mike Mansfield was not just a run-of-the-mill U.S. Senator. He was the Majority Leader of the U.S. Senate. The Harry Reid of his day.

Mansfield kept his vow. On November 17 he wrote two letters. One to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Eastland of Mississippi. The other to another Judiciary member and Democrat, North Carolina Senator Sam Ervin. Mansfield’s flat assertion? That Republicans had manipulated the presidential election of 1972 with a “cynical and dangerous intrusion into the integrity of the electoral processes by which the people of the nation choose the trustees of federal office…”

On February 5, 1973 Mansfield went out with his resolution to create what was formally titled the Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities. It would soon become known to history as the Senate Watergate Committee.

The Republican response?

If in fact the Democrats really believed that it was critical to investigate what Mansfield had called a “cynical and dangerous intrusion into the integrity of the electoral processes by which the people of the nation choose the trustees of federal office” then that was fine by them. Game on. Immediately they offered an amendment to include in the new Select Committee’s purview not just the 1972 election — but the 1968 and 1964 presidential elections as well.

Why? Specifically.

1964 and the Johnson-Goldwater campaign: Under the orders from President Lyndon B. Johnson, the White House was used as the headquarters of a dirty tricks “Anti-Campaign” operation — with the FBI used to wiretap the Goldwater campaign.

As Lee Edwards would later describe in his biography Goldwater: The Man Who Made a Revolution:

Essential to the White House’s dirty tricks was the Anti-Campaign, a political operation conceived by and watched over by Johnson himself. Run by about a dozen experienced Washington-based Democrats, the Anti-Campaign churned out clandestine “black propaganda.” No minutes or notes were kept of the meetings, held in a small conference room on the second floor of the West Wing of the White House, almost directly above the Oval Office. Its members included Myer Feldman, the president’s special counsel; Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then an assistant secretary of labor; Leonard Marks, an old friend of Johnson who later became director of the U.S. Information Agency; James Sundquist, an assistant secretary of agriculture and former speechwriter for Truman; and Hyman Bookbinder, a former labor lobbyist and future Washington representative of the American Jewish Committee.…

But the Anti-Campaign was only one part of the massive anti-Goldwater operation. The Democrats had many tricks up their sleeves. By the middle of September, Goldwater’s regional directors were convinced that the telephones at the Republican national headquarters were bugged. All the important offices were periodically swept for listening devices, but important information, often important, still leaked to the Democrats. Once, at a private meeting in John Grenier’s office, several directors were discussing the possibility of a campaign stop by the senator in the Chicago area. Sam Hay suggested that East St. Louis, Illinois, be added to the itinerary and called the Republican chairman of Cook County who agreed. Within the hour, a Chicago Tribune reporter called Hay to say that he had heard Goldwater would be coming to town, and he wanted the details.

To protect themselves, many of the regional directors began to make their confidential calls from a pay telephone outside the building.….

In the fall of 1964, Johnson directed J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI to bug the Goldwater campaign plane and to conduct security checks of Goldwater’s staff.… Hoover revealed that in 1964, the bureau, on orders from the Oval Office, had bugged the Goldwater campaign.”

1968 and the Nixon-Humphrey campaign: Again under orders from LBJ, the FBI bugged the Nixon campaign.

In RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon, published in 1978, Nixon wrote:

Because of [Watergate burglar James] McCord’s connection to the CRP [Nixon’s Committee to Re-elect the President], his arrest had turned the Watergate break-in [in June 1972] into a hot news story. Larry O’Brien [the chairman of the Democratic National Committee whose offices were the target of the Watergate burglar’s bugging operation] in hyperbolic terms claimed that “the bugging incident… raised the ugliest questions about the integrity of the political process that I have encountered in a quarter century of political activity.”…

My reaction to the Watergate break-in was completely pragmatic. If it was also cynical, it was a cynicism born of experience. I had been in politics too long, and seen everything from dirty tricks to vote fraud. I could not muster much moral outrage over a political bugging.

Larry O’Brien might affect astonishment and horror, but he knew as well as I did that political bugging had been around nearly since the invention of the wiretap. As recently as 1970 a former member of [Democratic 1952 and 1956 presidential nominee and 1960 candidate] Adlai Stevenson’s campaign staff had publicly stated that he had tapped the Kennedy organization’s phone lines at the 1960 Democratic convention. Lyndon Johnson felt that the Kennedys had had him tapped; Barry Goldwater said that his 1964 campaign had been bugged; and [FBI Director] J. Edgar Hoover told me that in 1968 Johnson had ordered my campaign plane bugged.

Stop.

So the FBI, per the Director of the FBI, was directly ordered by President Lyndon Johnson to bug both the Goldwater campaign plane in 1964 and the Nixon campaign plane in 1968. And there was a regular “Anti-Campaign” dirty tricks operation operating out of the Johnson White House during the 1964 campaign. By the personal direction of LBJ — and meeting in a West Wing conference room right over the Oval Office itself.

If there was to be a Senate Select Committee investigating what Mike Mansfield, called the “cynical and dangerous intrusion into the integrity of the electoral processes by which the people of the nation choose the trustees of federal office…” then let’s do just that, said Senate Republicans. So GOP Senators proposed investigating not just the presidential campaign of 1972, but 1964 and 1968 as well.

Answer from Democrats? Democrats had the votes in the Senate — so when the GOP proposed investigating LBJ and not just Nixon — the answer was: Hell, no. The GOP proposal was voted down.

To this day Americans know about the Senate Watergate Committee and the results it eventually produced — the resignation of Richard Nixon. For months in 1973 the Senate Watergate Committee patiently, day by day, exposed the activities of the Nixon White House — while deliberately covering up for the Johnson White House and the Democrats. What is not generally known is that LBJ and the Democrats were let off the off hook by Senate Democrats. The fix was in and it was simple. This was an attempt — a successful attempt — to nail Nixon for something his immediate predecessor had in fact done not in one presidential campaign but two. To paint Republicans of the day as corrupt. Period. It worked.

In a very real sense, perhaps the worst thing that happened to Senate and House Democrats was the long stretch of almost unbroken power they enjoyed beginning in 1932’s FDR landslide. From 1932 until 1980 — 48 years — the Democrats had the run of the U.S. Senate for 44 of the 48. Losing control only twice in two brief two-year stretches, 1946-1948 and again from 1952-1954. For those 48 years — that’s literally almost half a century — they dominated all the committees, the staff structure and they set the agenda. For House Democrats the run was even longer — losing control only in the same two cycles as their Senate counterparts, but ruling the House with an iron fist for an even longer reign in 58 of the 62 years between 1932-1994. Well over half-a-century. Such complete control inevitably bred a bold arrogance, an arrogance that in turn encouraged an even bolder hypocrisy which predictably bred corruption. Sauce for the goose was never sauce for the gander. It was OK to get Nixon — verboten to touch LBJ, the President who was, no coincidence, a former Senate Majority Leader himself from 1955 until his election as JFK’s vice president in 1960. By February of 1973 LBJ had died. So the double-standard from Senate Democrats, the bold “F-you” style hypocrisy in protecting even a dead LBJ was staggering.

The hangover from this period of total control has carried into the actions of today’s House and Senate Democrats.

Now comes the Benghazi investigation. The House GOP and Benghazi Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy of South Carolina are in a very different place than the GOP Senators in 1973. In 1973 those GOP Senators lived in an environment where they had already been in the minority almost continuously since 1932, with a rabidly partisan left-leaning all-dominant media ruling the television air waves and the print media, the latter led by the pro-Johnson Washington Post and New York Times. In 1973 there was no Fox or talk radio or Internet. Hence GOP Senators were essentially forced to participate in an exercise that they knew ahead of time was fixed from the get-go. From the subject they were allowed to investigate — or not investigate — not to mention the media coverage they would receive, the Senate GOP of 1973 was in a very different situation than the GOP House of today.

The Pelosi threat not to participate in the Benghazi hearings or the demand to depart from the rules and suddenly have an even split of committee members — something Pelosi never did when she herself was Speaker — is a remnant of that “we’re the boss” attitude House Democrats learned in their 58 years of total control of the House. A period refreshed with their four-year return to power from 2006-2010. They still think like the Senate Democrats of 1973, who ordered an investigation of Nixon — an investigation that eventually drove Nixon from office. Forcing Nixon out for doing exactly what LBJ had done.

There’s a lesson here for Congressman Gowdy. And while he may not know this history of Watergate, he most assuredly has well demonstrated a prosecutor’s drive to demand — and get — the facts. Not part of the facts. Or selected facts. All of the facts.

Every single e-mail involved in this episode must be placed in the hands of Gowdy’s committee. Every relevant person involved — from high to low — should find themselves sitting at that witness table. America can spend the summer getting to know not only what Hillary Clinton did and where the President was and what he was doing exactly. The country can learn just who is Tom Donilon, anyway? Who is Ben Rhodes? Probe the Dude’s memory and go over the scribblings of Tommy Vietor. Find every secretary, every night watchman. Be as thorough in investigating Obama as those Senate Democrats — and, yes, the Republicans — were in investigating Richard Nixon. Just… follow the facts.

But understand — and one suspects Congressman Gowdy already gets this — that House Democrats, not to mention the Obama White House — are going to do everything they possibly can to disrupt, block, circumvent, or thwart Gowdy’s effort at every turn. Just as in 1973 — when Senate Democrats blocked an investigation into LBJ that they knew could only lead to certain disaster for Democrats.

“Follow the money” was the command given to Woodward and Bernstein by their famous source “Deep Throat” — decades later revealed to be the FBI’s Associate Director Mark Felt. In fact, the money involved in Watergate was, of course, not just money. It was a fact.

Trey Gowdy is about following the facts.

The last thing America needs is another bunch of legislators — not to mention a president and his staff — deliberately playing fast and loose with the truth.

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.