July/August 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 4
Watergate broke slowly upon us. It was simply a nuisance story throughout the presidential campaign of 1972 and still appeared as barely a blip on our national radar as winter gave way to spring in 1973. But several events occurring in a short period of time that March spurred the Senate to convene a special panel to investigate the break-in and its connections to the Nixon administration. As all the networks began to cover the steady parade of witnesses appearing before the seven senators and their counsels, the public became spectators to the proceedings. Soon many of us became addicted.
But as thorough as these hearings appeared to be, all the facts seemed open to question because the only serious charges tying the break-in to the Oval Office came from one man, John Dean. Further, his account of events was sharply disputed by others of greater stature within the White House.
That summer, at the age of twentythree, I took a vacation with my seventy-eight-year-old grandmother. At the end of that trip we found ourselves visiting relatives in Virginia just outside Washington. Being so close and so caught up in the hearings, I made plans to attend if at all possible.
Since I assumed there would be a long wait to get into the Senate caucus room in the Old Senate Office Building (and since I wasn’t even sure where this building was), I decided to drive into Washington on Monday, July 16, to see what I was up against. I was just going to assess the situation in preparation for the real visit I would make the following day.
So it was that, twenty-five years ago this summer, I arrived on Capitol Hill shortly before 10:00 A.M. The weather was beautiful, clear, and warm. I spotted a parking space and decided to take advantage of it. A congenial passerby pointed out the building and the door I needed to enter. Once inside I was surprised at the absence of any crowd. In the foyer I spotted a newsperson doing her report on camera, a minor CBS reporter I had seen a few times on television, Connie Chung.
Continuing my efforts at reconnaissance, I asked a guard where the hearing room was. He pointed up the stairs, and to my utter disbelief I realized there was no line to get in. Like a kid at Christmas, I bounded up the Steps and into the room. I had made it on my first try.
I took a seat in the next to last row as the main actors in this national soap opera began to arrive. We applauded some but saved our main ovation for the chairman, Sen. Sam J. Ervin, Jr., of North Carolina. Must have been a Democratic crowd that day, I remember thinking.
The morning’s testimony was disappointingly unexciting, but when the panel broke for lunch I didn’t want to chance losing my place, so I stayed close until shortly before 2:00 P.M. and returned to my seat. More people were showing up now, and a line was beginning to form.
When the hearings resumed, I was surprised to see an unscheduled witness taking an oath of truth before us. I caught only his last name: Butterfield.
Sam Dash, the chief counsel, turned the questioning over to the young minority counsel (now a U.S. senator himself) Fred Thompson. Thompson established Butterfield’s identity and position within the Nixon White House. Then he asked, “Mr. Butterfield, are you aware of the installation of any listening devices in the Oval Office of the President?”
“I was aware of listening devices, yes sir,” came the reply.
Now I’m not sure exactly how long it took for the significance of this exchange to sink in. But I recall that the low undercurrent of whispering throughout the room stopped as if by order.
In a quick succession of questions, Thompson and others on the committee learned the locations of some of what would become known to us as bugs. Some in the audience around me even noted the irony of the new information: Watergate had started with the attempt to bug the offices of the Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate complex. Now the President’s own bugs could help establish that Nixon was telling the truth about what he knew and when he knew it, or that he was lying.
Butterfield wasn’t there long, and neither were the members of the press once they came to grips with the new revelations. I, too, left soon afterward, and as I descended the steps, I remember thinking how worried I would be if I were John Dean. After all, Nixon would surely use these tapes to disprove everything Dean had charged.