The Senate Watergate Committee hearings stretched out over six months in 1973. There were 319 hours broadcast overall, much of it simultaneously carried by the three national networks, spread over 51 days with each averaging over six hours in length. The majority of American households, an estimated 85% of them, watched some portion of the hearings.
I was fascinated and watched as much of them as I could, usually sprawled on the floor of our den, back when I could get on the floor and back up without the assistance of a neighboring coffee table. Each day seemed to provide a new nugget of information, and I listened intently to catch every one of them as they fell out of the mouths of the witnesses.
It was my first encounter with watching government in action. The star of the show, as even then I interpreted things in terms of the movies, was Sam Ervin, the senator from North Carolina who chaired the committee. He had bushy, dancing eyebrows and a Southern drawl dripping molasses, which sometimes contained a bitter pill. Senator Ervin had a particular charm and charisma that I don’t believe we’ve seen since then.
The rest of the committee were men who seemed quite ordinary except for the extraordinary roles they were playing. They seemed like deacons at the Baptist church, a bank officer, or salesmen who, in those days, probably sold a lot of white shoes.
Out of the witnesses, there were only two who stand out in my memory as not looking like regular guys. H. R. Haldeman had a crew cut, and John Ehrlichman had heavy eyebrows that didn’t dance over two beady eyes. They looked like a couple of high school biology teachers who got way too much pleasure from dissecting frogs.
Even with all that (mostly white) testosterone in the room, there were just four days during the whole thing when a lady without a speaking part caught my attention. Never mind that it was her husband, Nixon’s White House Counsel, who was the star (and cooperating) witness. Never mind that he testified about telling the president there was a “cancer on the presidency.” While he was telling about Nixon’s Enemies List, I wanted to know about Maureen Dean, the sphinx-like beauty sitting, in this case, by her man. She wore her white-blond hair pulled back in a tight bun, a style more associated with much older women rather than the full and loose way favored by many young women of that time.
Here we are, nearly fifty years later, in the middle of another set of congressional hearings. There are obvious comparisons to the Watergate counterparts that can be made. Both involved break-ins, this time at the U. S. Capitol rather an office complex, and there were planning conspiracies that led to the highest level of government. Both crimes were committed in attempts to hold power at the presidential level, although Nixon didn’t really need any unlawful help to win the upcoming election and Trump needed all the unlawful help he could get to overturn an election he had already lost.
There are notable differences, too. While the current committee still looks like a group of fairly ordinary folks, it also includes women and people of color. Testifying as a U. S. Capitol Police officer in the first session was Caroline Edwards, who was speaking in front of a group of male officers who literally and figuratively had her back.
Most importantly, we are not watching today to see the committee do its work. Rather, it is showing us the work it has already done. Most of us can’t spend six or seven hours waiting for that nugget I mentioned earlier. So the committee is presenting the evidence and telling the story using the smallest number of episodes necessary, each with a much shorter duration. The committee seems to understand that the way to reach the largest possible audience is to present this complicated tale as though it were a streaming series on Netflix.
The chairman this time is Bennie Thompson, a congressman from Mississippi who brings a Southern drawl to the proceedings which I enjoy. But the star of the show is a woman, this time with a speaking part. A big one. Liz Cheney is the vice chair of the committee and she, more than anyone else, is the most interesting character in the room. When she speaks, I ask myself, “What are you up to, and is it going to work?”
I know it’s inappropriate to talk about anyone’s looks these days, but I wouldn’t be gay if I didn’t mention that Ms. Cheney’s beautiful white-blond hair is worn in a full and loose style. That choice seems strikingly appropriate to the job she has set for herself.