Televised hearings of the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities—better known as the Watergate hearings—began on May 17, 1973. What followed were details of how the plans to break into the Democratic headquarters were discussed and arranged in the White House. Those involved in the planning—John Dean, G. Gordon Liddy, John Mitchell, John Ehrlichman, H.R. Haldeman—became household names. Moments from the testimony led to the revelation that Nixon had tapes of all the relevant conversations, and the fight over those tapes generated events like Nixon firing prosecutor Archibald Cox in the middle of the hearings.
It was dramatic. It captured the attention of the nation. And it directly led to Nixon’s resignation.
Considering the events involved in the assault on the Capitol, and the massive effort to pave the road to that day, it would seem public hearings on this event would be far more compelling than talking about a group of middle-aged men, sitting around an office fuming about their political opponents.
It’s not at all clear that Jan. 6 hearings will generate the lightning-in-a-bottle moment provided by the Watergate hearings. For one thing, there seems to be no John Dean in this equation; no member of the inner circle ready to come forward and speak with even a middling degree of honesty.
Secondly, it’s completely unclear that there are any revelations here that might be shocking. Donald Trump openly announced months in advance that he was going to dispute any outcome to the election that didn’t end in his victory. He pushed claims of election fraud in 2016, he did the same in 2020, and he did it well before there was an election. After the election, Trump encouraged his supporters to get violent in order to interfere with the counting of votes at every stage, he put out a call to white supremacist militias to support his cause, he cheered on acts of violence. That was all out in the open. In addition, Trump directly contacted governors, state legislators, secretaries of state, and even members of county boards in an effort to get them to falsify the outcome. In the process, he made promises to some, and threats to others. We already know this.
Short of calling out the military to impose martial law, Trump used every lever available to overturn the lawful outcome of the election. And he considered calling out the military. So what revelations are left to find?
However, the biggest difference between 1973 and today may be the media. During the Watergate hearings, the broadcast networks didn’t just show those hearings live, they prepared a digest form for the evening and that version dominated the news most people saw when they got home from work. In an age when most large cities had both a morning and an evening paper, headlines ran the latest updates from the hearings out quickly to a nation that was getting a very different view of the man sitting in the White House than what they saw during the period’s carefully orchestrated events.
This isn’t 1973 … but still, it certainly can’t hurt to have “multiple weeks of public hearings” in what Cheney describes as providing all the details leading to the insurgency “in vivid color.”
Considering that in 2022 Republicans have committed to running on a platform that explicitly supports the goals of the Jan. 6 insurgents, maybe the committee can provide one last reminder that if they win this time around, there may not be another.