Many Americans of a certain age– who watched the unfolding of the Watergate scandal after the 1972 election, recall it, rightly, as a heroic and spellbinding drama.
In it, unexpected & unlikely champions stepped forth in Washington to snatch truth and the Constitution from the hands of a crooked president and his minions. Two southern Senators, Tennessee Republican Howard Baker and North Carolina Democrat Sam Ervin, aided by dogged special prosecutors, led this successful rescue mission.
In a fitting and unforgettable climax, the villains were sent packing: Nixon into ignominy and oblivion, many of his henchmen into prison, and the heroes to a secure place in history.
Senators Howard Baker (left) & Sam Ervin (right).
Today, after the Comey firing & many other shocks, some of us are hoping to see this story re-enacted in and around today’s Senate. (I even thought I saw Robert Redford & Dustin Hoffman skulking in the background, scribbling notes.)
Unfortunately, one of our wiser peers, retired editor & columnist Edwin Yoder, just threw a big bucket of ice water on these nostalgic fantasies. In the Raleigh NC News & Observer, he lays out the more realistic, gloomy scenarios:
“Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has been touted by some admirers as a potential reincarnation of the late Sen. Sam Ervin. Ervin’s Senate select committee on campaign abuses began the unwinding of the Watergate scandal.
Its most consequential discovery was that Nixon had taped his Oval Office conversations, some of which proved to be incriminating.
Burr is no Ervin, to say the least. He is a Republican rubber stamp with a record of partisan concealment – as, for instance, keeping secret his committee’s full report on the CIA’s torture practices.
Ervin was a protector of civil liberties and a distinguished defender of public integrity: As a young legislator in the 1920s, he fought off the potential disgrace of a state “monkey law”; he served with distinction on the state Supreme Court; and as a freshman U.S. senator, he helped rid the country of McCarthyism. Before Watergate, he single-handedly defeated Nixon’s design for so-called “preventive detention” – or, in plainer words, imprisonment without trial.
A standing committee chaired by Burr and under the thumb of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would – and could – do nothing useful. Burr is not only no Ervin; he isn’t even a Howard Baker.
A more plausible idea is that of a special counsel or special prosecutor. Unfortunately, such an appointment would require the wholesale erasure of historical memory. Special prosecutors tend to spend gobs of public money – $60 million by Kenneth Starr in his priggish pursuit of President Bill Clinton, to no avail but a failed impeachment. They often come up with flimsy charges and insinuations that hang in the air and are never adjudicated . . . and they typically drag out their costly inquiries for years, without salient result.
The failure to renew the special prosecutor law was universally regarded in Washington and elsewhere as good riddance. Maybe a special prosecutor (of whom?) in the Comey matter would improve on the dismal record. The historical odds are against it.
So far, then, we must cope with a president unlike any before him, in act and attitude – certainly the most unschooled, impulsive and secretive in our history. If he is to be regulated, we need to forget precedents and think anew.”
“Forget precedents and think anew.” Yoder is right. Binge-watching “All the President’s Men” and Oliver Stone’s “Nixon” may be a comforting diversion. But if there are real heroes in today’s tawdry melodrama, they have yet to arrive.
Maybe, good grief, this time it’s up to us.