Progressive Republican’s key role in Watergate probe

NOTE: Today, June 17, 2010, is the thirty-eighth anniversary of the Watergate break-in.

We have to give Richard Nixon some credit; his disregard for the Constitution and outrageous behavior during the Watergate era opened the door to fame for some rather remarkable Americans.  The list runs the gamut from a key source of information with an intense penchant for secrecy and anonymity (Mark Felt – aka Deep Throat) to a 6’6″ Republican senator who loved the limelight and showed that he was no lackey for the leaders of his party.  Lowell Weicker of Connecticut had little patience for dishonesty and duplicity; he did not let the ‘R’ to the right of his name inhibit him from turning  up the heat on the leader of his own party.

Lowell Weicker (right)

How atypical of a Republican was Weicker?  Enough to cause him to bolt the party in 1990 and become one of the few independents to be elected governor of his state in modern times.  Enough to support Democratic New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley for president in 2000.  Enough to support fellow New Englander Howard Dean for president in 2004.  Enough to endorse Barack Obama for president in 2008.

But Weicker is most often associated with Watergate.  Perhaps the ranking minority member on the committee, Republican Senator Howard Baker of Tennessee, uttered the most lasting question of the hearings, “What did the president know and when did he know it?”  This phrase almost became a mantra for all senators with all witnesses.  But Weicker was the steam that turned the turbine of Republican intensity to get to the bottom of the story, even if the culprits were members of his own party.

Richard J. McGowan reported in an article entitled “Watergate Revisited” in The Barnes the following about Weicker and the committee:

“Miraculously, the Senate Watergate Committee did play a pivotal role and ironically, the select committee would have collapsed from inertia and internal bloodletting had not the least likely junior senator from Connecticut, Lowell P. Weicker Jr., personally taken charge. This is the untold story of how the leftist oaf Weicker became the White Knight of Watergate, however briefly. It was his shining moment in a checkered career in politics. Here is an insider’s account of his and the committee’s performance in that political soap opera about national betrayal.

If one had searched for the most incompetent group of politicians—politically biased in every way—you might have come up with the cast for the Senate Watergate Committee, more formally known as the Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities.

And then there was Weicker—all 6’ 6” of him—the bull in the china shop, the Jolly Green Maverick who had no love for Nixon and Chuck Colson in particular. Weicker’s father, who was then with the tariff-concerned Textile Conference, had been contacted at some point by Colson. The White House underling told the senior Weicker that the administration would appreciate junior’s pro-vote on the controversial anti-ballistic missile system. It was not exactly a bribe offer, but when Weicker heard about it from his father he rushed down to the White House and blasted the ears off Colson.

Colson never seemed to learn. He approached Weicker in his office during the hearings to plead his case. Before he opened his mouth, Weicker went ballistic, and a shaken Colson fled the office. The run-in made headlines.

Like no other member of the committee, Weicker was prepared. Before the panel was even formally announced, Weicker had formed his own investigative unit that interviewed scores of former and current White House employees and campaign officials. Weicker was astutely aware that there were bigger culprits out there than G. Gordon Liddy and James McCord. He zeroed in on Nixon’s chief-of-staff Bob Haldeman.

Bernstein (l) and Woodward (r)

So make your list of “stars of Watergate.”  Besides Deep Throat, you naturally have Woodward and Bernstein, who tenaciously followed the story in spite of repeated and largely hollow challenges to their work.  Ben Bradlee and other editors from the Post provided backing to the reporters that would seem impossible today (e.g., CBS and Dan Rather).  White House Counsel John Dean may have demonstrated the most remarkable memory of any witness to testify before Congress in recent years.  Judge John Sirica of the U.S. District court for the District of Columbia would not be bullied.  Rather, along with Leslie Stahl and Daniel Schorr, carried on the best tradition of Edward R. Murrow at CBS

Security Guard Frank Wills

news.  Nixon aide Alexander Butterfield told of the presence of a White House taping system, perhaps the most important revelation of the Watergate hearings.  But don’t forget the “little guys” like minority counsel Donald Sanders who asked Butterfield the question about the taping system.  And then there’s the man without whose vigilance the break-in might have succeeded, Frank Wills the security guard at the Watergate on the fateful evening of June 17, 1973.

But Weicker’s role was crucial.  The Senate hearings were the only part of the process of unraveling the Watergate mysteries that were public and in “real time.”  While there were other Republicans on the committee who tried to defend Nixon at all costs, Weicker brought credibility to himself, his party, and the committee by being relentless in his pursuit of the truth.  He didn’t shy away from attacking other members of his own party.  Contrast this with the way in which Arlen Specter, when a Republican senator, interrogated an innocent Anita Hill without mercy during the Clarence Thomas hearings.

Weicker is from Connecticut, and few states match it in producing household names for political junkies.  Just look at those who preceded and succeeded Weicker in office as well at those against whom he ran.  Prior to Weicker’s election to the Senate in 1970, the seat was held by one Thomas Dodd.  If that doesn’t ring a bell, then perhaps his son, Chris Dodd – a current Senator from Connecticut, will.  And when Weicker lost his bid for a fourth term in 1988, who ousted him?  None other than Joe Lieberman, the other current senator.  And if we’re looking for parallels, Lieberman now considers himself an Independent (an act of expediency after he lost the 2006 Democratic primary to Ned LaMont).   This race would have been even more interesting had Weicker done more than flirt with the possibility of running against Lieberman again.  Wicker strongly opposed Lieberman’s support of the war in Iraq.

Jesse Ventura

And if you’re looking for another connection between Weicker and another political independent, travel west to Minnesota.  What does former Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura have in common with Weicker?  Wrestling.  Ventura did it and Weicker keeps it going as a member of the Board of directors for World Wrestling Entertainment since 1999.

With the Republican party being so lock-step in nature, it is indeed refreshing to remind ourselves that there have been and even are Republicans who have let conviction supersede loyalty.  If it has meant bolting the party, so be it; we owe them a tremendous debt of gratitude.