The Senate Watergate Committee began its nationally televised hearings on May 17, 1973, 40 years ago today. The hearings contributed to the downfall of President Richard Nixon's administration and helped inspire a generation mistrust in government leaders.
"The founding fathers, having participated in the struggle against arbitrary power, comprehended some eternal truths respecting men and government," said committee chairman Sen. Sam Ervin, D-N.C., during his opening statement. "They knew that those who are entrusted with power are susceptible to disease, which George Washington rightly described as love of power and proneness to abuse it."
The three major TV networks took turns broadcasting the hearings, which ended August 7, exposing the vast majority of Americans to the scandal. "That was before there were things like C-SPAN. Going gavel-to-gavel, the way we were going, in the daytime - and in particular repeating it at night. This had never happened before," reflected PBS anchor Jim Lehrer.
The hearings heard evidence regarding the June 1972 break-in at the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C., where cronies working for Nixon's supporters were attempting to place bugs in an office of the Democratic National Committee. Nixon resigned August 9, 1974, when it became apparent that he would be impeached for the subsequent cover-up.
Amid a recent wave of scandals affecting President Barack Obama's administration, the Washington Post's editorial board on Thursday condemned the IRS targeting of conservative groups as "horrifying and inexcusable" and the seizure of phone logs from The Associated Press as "sadly consistent with his administration's record of damaging the First Amendment in its ill-advised pursuit of leakers." The phone logs were allegedly taken without following procedures outlined by the Justice Department.
But the Post argued that it was wrong to make comparisons between Obama and Nixon, because there's no evidence yet that Obama knew or approved of the actions before they were publicly revealed. Omitted from the Post's editorial was the famous question asked by Sen. Howard Baker, R-Tenn., at the Senate Watergate Committee hearings: "What did the president know and when did he know it?"
Obama forcefully condemned the IRS pursuit of conservative groups this week and said he knew nothing of the AP record seizure, which was authorized by the Justice Department in an apparent effort to determine the source of a leak to reporters about an ongoing anti-terrorist operation.
In some significant ways the Obama and Nixon administrations are similar, according to critics, such as their mutual abhorrence of leaks and escalating of wars to bring peace - Obama in Afghanistan, Nixon in Vietnam. The IRS scandal, too, in some ways mirrors Nixon's famous "enemies list," which was compiled so that the IRS would target for audits the president's perceived enemies and unfriendly journalists. The current IRS scandal "reminds me of the so-called 'enemies list' from the 1970s," Rep. Gene Green, D-Texas, said this week.
The Obama administration has reportedly prosecuted more whistleblowers than all previous administrations combined. As with the Nixon administration's pursuit of Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg, who exposed a trove of information on the Vietnam War, the Obama administration has forcefully gone after alleged WikiLeaks source Bradley Manning, who allegedly downloaded and distributed thousands of documents on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The Nixon administration took The New York Times to court over the Ellsberg leak and lost, while the Obama administration worked to cut off funding for foreign-based WikiLeaks.
On Wednesday Attorney General Eric Holder pleaded ignorance about the Justice Department's seizure of AP phone records and declined to share information with House Judiciary Committee members. It's unclear how exactly the records seizure was approved. ABC News revealed Thursday that the woman in charge of the IRS division that targeted conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status, Sarah Hall Ingram, had been awarded a promotion to oversee the IRS's enforcement of Obama's 2010 health care reform law. The Washington Examiner reports that Ingram was given $103,390 in bonuses over four years.
Bob Woodward, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of Watergate at the Post along with colleague Carl Bernstein, said Friday it was "not yet" time to make comparisons between the ongoing scandals and Watergate.
"The government and the media cry 'wolf' so often now, people are burned out. They're desensitized," Dan Smith, curator of the Senator Sam J. Ervin Jr. Library and Museum, told The News & Observer. "But back then, they were transfixed."