Public Nuisance

Random commentary and senseless acts of blogging.

The first Republican president once said, "While the people retain their virtue and their vigilance, no administration by any extreme of wickedness or folly can seriously injure the government in the short space of four years." If Mr. Lincoln could see what's happened in these last three-and-a-half years, he might hedge a little on that statement.
-Ronald Reagan

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Friday, June 10, 2005
Deep Threat

The revelation of the identity of Deep Throat last week brought on some very interesting reactions from rightist commentators. One was the open identification with Richard Nixon. It used to be that rightists didn't really want to have anything to do with Nixon. After all, not only was he disgraced, but he was far from even being a proper Republican in modern terms. He helped create the EPA and OSHA, and put forward unsuccessful proposals for universal health coverage and a national minimum income. But that no longer stops righties from claiming him as a martyr, destroyed by the evil Liberal Media (which, in his time, really existed) and vile Democrats. The overwhelming evidence that he was actually guilty of numerous crimes doesn't either, but that shouldn't surprise anybody familiar with the modern right.

Ben Stein is perhaps the nuttiest Nixon defender, managing to make Mark Felt and Bob Woodward personally responsible for the genocide in Cambodia. It's a theory that makes a sort of sense, as long as you ignore the fact that Nixon had a great deal to do with destabilizing Cambodia in the first place, along with the fact that there was nothing any President could have done in 1975 to prevent the victory of the Khmer Rouge.

Another columnist writing from Bizarro World is Gary Aldrich. One clue to his location can be found here: "Let’s review what was happening in our country during the Nixon presidency: entire cities were being burned to the ground, and banks and universities bombed, while hard-Left Marxist radicals like Bernadine Doran called for 'Revolution!' even as they stuffed cash into their pockets that had been funneled to them by the Soviet Union." On this planet no entire cities burned to the ground, and the Weathermen, although certainly a nasty outfit, were pathetically small and incompetent, never received Soviet money, and incidentally never had a leader named Bernadine Doran.

In these fantasies Mr Aldrich is on his own, but for another flight of imagination he matches what many other Nixon apologists have said. "Claims that 'there was only one thing that Mark Felt could do' seem especially hollow when you consider that there was always a legal way available to this cabal. There is a third branch of government on Capitol Hill called the U.S. Congress, who at that very time was gleefully sharpening their knives, salivating at the chance to impeach a detested president." This standard theme of Felt's attackers deserves a more detailed answer.

Both houses in 1972 did have Democratic majorities, but there was little eagerness to go after Nixon aggressively. The most obvious committees for an investigation of Executive abuses, the Judiciary Committees, were headed by James Eastland (Senate) and Emmanuel Cellar (House), both friends of Nixon with very little loyalty to their own parties. (Cellar would have been unlikely to run a serious impeachment investigation, but his loss in the 1972 Democratic primary to insurgent Liz Holtzman paved the way for the much less pro-Nixon Peter Rodino, recently deceased, to become the new House Judiciary Chairman and oversee impeachment hearings.)

One committee did go after Watergate. The House Banking Committee chaired by Wright Patman, knowing that some funds used by the burglars had been laundered through a Mexican bank, tried to employ Felt's famous advice to "follow the money". The staff requested subpoenas on eight witnesses, and the witness list shows that the staff had made significant progress: John Kitchell, Maurice Stans, Jeb Magruder, Robert Mardian, John Dean, Hugh Sloan, John Caulfield, and Fred Larue. Most were then completely unknown, but every one was in fact significantly involved in Watergate.

On October 3, the committee met and voted 20 - 15 not to issue subpoenas. Every Republican voted no, joined by some Dixiecrats, and apparently some Democrats who had ethics problems of their own that were threatened with exposure. They were given cover by a letter sent from the Justice Department, but actually instigated by Dean, that claimed the hearings would interfere with the ongoing investigation, although Patman had deliberately left out the 5 burglars, Hunt, and Liddy, who were the only targets of the criminal inquiry. Nixon was actively involved in blocking the Banking Committee; he told Haldeman on September 15, "All Republicans boycott all Committee hearings after the Conventions - will hamstring them."

That ended the only attempt to hold Congressional hearings between the break-in and the election. Congress never did get around to holding hearings until the cover up had largely unraveled. On April 30, 1973, Nixon announced the resignations of Haldeman, Erlichman, and Attorney General Richard Kleindienst, and the firing of John Dean, who was giving the Special Prosecutor testimony that directly implicated Nixon. The famous Ervin Committee held its first public hearings on May 17. The televised hearings did Nixon endless political damage, but they revealed only one new fact of real importance - the existence of the tapes.

So Felt's decision to work with Woodward rather than going to Congress, made only a few days after the break-in, was correct. Congress wasn't eager to investigate Nixon before the election; after his landslide victory, they were even less interested. If the cover-up hadn't come apart in Judge Sirica's court and the pages of the Post, Congress would almost certainly never have acted.