Published August 03. 2014 4:00AM Updated August 04. 2014 11:09AM
As the 40th anniversary of the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon nears, the last surviving member of the investigating committee recalls the conspiracy and how it changed American politics
With the death this year of former Sen. Howard Baker of Tennessee, Connecticut's former Republican U.S. Sen. Lowell P. Weicker Jr., now 83, is the last surviving member of the Senate Select Committee that investigated the Watergate break-in and related conspiracies in 1973 and 1974.
On Aug. 9, 1974, 40 years ago this week, President Richard M. Nixon resigned from office and lifted off in the presidential helicopter from the White House lawn. Nixon's departure came two years after what his press secretary had called a "third-rate burglary" of Democratic headquarters in the Watergate building in Washington. The four burglars eventually proved to be linked to the White House and to the Committee to Re-Elect the President.
Weicker, a three-term senator who later served a term as governor of Connecticut, was a Senate freshman and one of three Republicans on the seven-man committee chaired by Sam J. Ervin Jr., a North Carolina Democrat. Millions of Americans watched the hearings live on television.
Along with the committee's official report, Weicker submitted his own, naming more than 80 illegal, unethical and unconstitutional acts and suggesting a variety of reforms, some of which he still recommends. Recently, with many of Watergate's issues still echoing - relations between Congress and the executive branch, presidential exercise of power, internal spying, impeachment, war powers and campaign finance - Weicker spoke at his Old Lyme home with Lisa McGinley, The Day's deputy managing editor, about the lessons Watergate has for Americans today.
Q: It's been 40 years since President Nixon resigned and 42 years since the Senate Select Committee got underway. You must have thought a lot about it over the years.
A: To say I have been thinking about it for 42 years is probably not correct. I tried to forget it as fast as I could after it was over. And I mean that, because I felt really Watergate was a negative exercise. ... That really took a whole two years of nothing but Watergate, so very little positive was accomplished.
But in retrospect I think you'd have to say we were doing something that had never been done before, I guess not since Andrew Johnson had been put up for impeachment and narrowly escaped by one vote, in that we brought a president of the United States into the spotlight as far as his conduct was concerned, as far as his upholding the Constitution was concerned.
For me it was going full circle. Richard Nixon campaigned for me, as a congressman and two years later running for United States Senate. ... What people forget when they start discussing Watergate is that aside from some foreign policy mistakes, specifically in the area of the Cambodian bombing, etc., is Nixon was a pretty good president. He was a moderate Republican. He passed many good measures in terms of domestic policy ...
So I start off over here, a Nixon fan and someone that liked his policies, and I end up full circle over here, obviously not having a great respect for the man.
Q: Sen. Ervin, who chaired the committee, said Watergate was the country's greatest tragedy, not excepting the Civil War. Do you agree?
A: I'd agree with that. He took every aspect of the Constitution of the United States and trashed it. This is by the highest elected officer in the land ... It's a huge, huge tragedy.
We're sitting here in Old Lyme, Connecticut, a stone's throw away from Mystic and Groton. It brings up for me the memory of Pat Gray, who was a submarine commander, and who lived up here in eastern Connecticut. Gray was a decorated war hero. He commanded a submarine when, believe me, a submarine was dangerous, dangerous duty. ... He was a great man and a great hero. He was used and his life ruined by Richard Nixon ... when he appointed Patrick Gray as temporary head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and used him in that role to suppress evidence of the Watergate scenario.
The report that I issued enumerated the violations of the Constitution ... privacy, the sanctity of your home, the president making sure that the laws were not enforced. I can go down the whole list.
Q: When you were chosen to be part of the committee, you were a freshman. Dozens of people were ahead of you in seniority. They didn't want it?
A: I think that's fair to say. They didn't want it. I had been constructing campaign finance reform to present as legislation and so I was sort of into this business of ethics in government. Hugh Scott, who was the minority leader, thought the committee needed a young person, a moderate, and someone who understood the field ... I wanted to be a part of the committee and I made that known to Sen. Scott.
Q: People watched days and weeks of the hearings on television, and their opinion of the president changed, much as yours did.
A: What Watergate did was it really brought the workings of our government and its people, those who govern, into everybody's living room.
When the hearings started, no American believed that a president could do wrong to the point of impeachment any more than he thought his congressman or his senator could do wrong. With Watergate that all ended. Everybody in elected office was open to scrutiny … maybe to an excess. People question everything now. Everything becomes 'thisgate' and 'thatgate,' and of course none of them really relate in the same way in terms of seriousness to what happened at the Watergate.
The American people have forgotten the lessons of Watergate. On the other hand, they have a general unease with all forms of government.
Q: Was there one turning point when everybody latched onto how much bigger this was?
A: I can remember very well my own turning point.
I had been pursuing a private interview with (White House Counsel) John Dean ... I think I asked several general questions about the president and Dean's relationship to him. They were all on the line of the investigation itself ...
Dean turned to me ... and said, 'Aren't you afraid that the president has something on you?' I said, 'Nothing that I know of.'
He said, 'Well, are you sure you didn't receive some illegal contributions from the president?' I said, 'Not that I know of.'
So he continued with the interview and that was it.
Now what happened had been that during the campaign, Nixon's people had reached out to various Republican candidates and offered them cash money for their campaigns. ... Under the law, it was only a violation if you put the cash in the senator's hands personally. As happenstance would have it - I don't pretend to be any purer than anybody else - I was campaigning in upstate Connecticut and (they) wanted to give the campaign contribution to me but ... couldn't travel to upstate Connecticut so ... gave it to my campaign manager. That ended any connection that would constitute wrongdoing on my part ...
My involvement was pursued by a reporter for The Washington Times. ... I suggested any information he had ... be turned over to the special prosecutor. ... The special prosecutor later on established my innocence in the matter and that nothing illegal was done. But that meeting with John Dean made me realize these guys weren't kidding around. They had done things that were much graver than anything that had been reported or investigated up to that point.
Q: There were bomb threats to the committee rooms. Were there any threats to your family?
A: I do remember my father on this very point. It was when I interrogated (Nixon's chief of staff, H.R.) Haldeman about how he had set up protests in the South against Nixon. ... He actually reveled in the fact that the president had been threatened, heckled, etc.
As Haldeman sat there ... you could see the look on his face, and it was a no kidding around look. After the hearing was over I got a call from my father. He said, 'Lowell, do those of you on the committee have any protection? Bodyguards, etc., whatever?' I said no. He said, 'Because I'll tell you one thing: I have never seen such hate in any man's eyes as I saw in Haldeman's glances toward you.'
But I felt very strongly that the last thing we needed to do was immunize ourselves to what was occurring before us. This in essence was an exercise of a democracy that's free, free from all intimidation, and if all of a sudden you're running around with bodyguards, security and all the rest, it seems to me that's defeating one of the purposes of the investigation. ... But, yeah, there were lots. I received them daily in my office, real threats, but I never asked for any security and neither did any other member of the committee, as far as I know.
Q: There was something called the Huston plan, which was supposed to explain all the ways to spy internally. Do you think it is one of the things Watergate hinted at (for the future)?
A: I think the American people have totally forgotten the lessons of Watergate, and what went on ... Totally. That's the shame of it.
I think it was somebody from Armed Services, testifying ... I said, 'Tell me something: Did they teach constitutional law as part of a military program?' The answer came back: 'No.'
I don't think there's many a youngster out there in school right now who could tell anything about Watergate at all, when really it should hang out as a lesson for everyone in all its aspects. There wasn't much there that was left uncovered - all the dirty tricks and all the campaign finance irregularities, the attitudes of the executive, etc. It's all laid out for you. You don't have to experience another Watergate to catch what the lesson is.
Today nobody's taking any lessons except those that lived through it, and who are getting a little in short supply.
Q: Probably Nixon wasn't the first to do these kinds of things?
A: Absolutely, he wasn't.
Q: Did he take it to a higher level?
A: No, I don't think so. Nobody questioned the president of the United States. You just didn't.
Q: What was your reaction to President Ford's pardon of the president?
A: Number one, if you asked me who my favorite president is in terms of in my lifetime, I wouldn't hesitate: Gerald Ford. I think he was a fine man. He sort of proves the point, also, it helps to go through the chairs, having been in the House, having been speaker, minority leader, vice president, albeit for a short time. Gerry Ford had enormous integrity, and he was a kind and a good man. I disagreed with his pardon and I was wrong. There is no question in my mind that that was a correct decision so we moved on to other things.
You heard the expression at the time 'wallowing in Watergate,' and we were. Once it was over, it should have been over. Otherwise it'd have gone on and on and on. I think he did absolutely the right thing for the country, and he paid a huge price for it. He could have won the next election easily because he was a popular man.
Q: You made campaign finance reform part of your very early career, and there was campaign finance reform in 1972 and 1974. With Supreme Court decisions and changes in the law, are we right back where we were?
A: This is the toughest problem intellectually that I have ever had to deal with.
I certainly accept the fact that money is free speech. I have no problem with that. But we also see how that creates a real problem in terms of excess when it comes to campaign money.
I'm beginning to think the solution lies in the amount of time that is given to raising and spending money. Can you in other words shorten the time? If you can do that, I think you can control to some extent the problem of money.
As an example: You give $2 million to my campaign within this shortened time period of several weeks. OK, I've got the $2 million.
Well, if the American people see that $2 million has been given in a couple of weeks by one person, I think they will smell a rat. That's where the prohibition lies, in the perception. Yet your free speech is not being denied. You can give any amount you want, but it has to be within a certain time period, both before the election, during, after.
Q: Part of the mess of Watergate was people who were not elected, including young people with a lot of brains and skills but not a lot of experience. We had a 'training system' for people, and you yourself went through it, and your colleagues in the Senate mostly had prior experience. Where do we look for models now if we want to show (public service) to young people as something to aspire to, not fall into easily?
A: For starters, everybody ought to go vote. …When you have the percentages voting now that are just minimal for the highest offices in the land, that's sort of a bad example for anybody to follow. I've thought about this long and hard: How do you get people to vote? One drawback is the fact that we have our elections on Tuesday, which is in the middle of the work week. We ought to either have a national holiday or have it on Saturday … make it a day when the sole purpose of the day is to go vote and you don't have any other excuse.
The idea of getting more numbers in voting is just critical to getting quality in the governmental business. When you do that, I suspect you are going to eliminate the fringe candidates who are in office right now because so few people are voting.
Look, we both know that America, taken as a whole, is very much a centrist nation. There are many things that people would agree with the Republicans, many things people would agree with the Democrats.We don't get to see centrist-guided solutions. Everything is way off to the left, way off to the right.
The only reason why those men and women can control the national agenda is because they got in, hardly anybody cared, hardly anybody voted.
... The death of my good friend Ted Kennedy is one of the reasons why Obama has run into a lot of problems … Obama was only four years a United States senator. He didn't know how Washington worked; Ted Kennedy did. If Kennedy had been at his side, would be at his side right now, this would have been a totally different presidency. ...
I think it's a great thing that young people do get experience in government … more so than in the private sector. I worry about the fact that young people today form their opinions based on the attitudes of their elders, which is a cynicism when it comes to politics.
The main lesson is: In the end we are all responsible for the government in Washington. ... If we involve ourselves, we're going to get good government … and if we don't, things like Watergate occur. And they could occur tomorrow.
This couldn't have happened on a watch where the American people engaged. I hope we understand we're absolutely playing with fire here with these percentages on what can happen in the future.