Susan Collins was a 21-year-old intern in the office of Rep. William S. Cohen during the politically charged “Watergate Summer” of 1974, when Cohen and five other members of the House Judiciary Committee voted to impeach Richard Nixon.
Trent Lott, now the Republican leader of the Senate, was one of the Republican Judiciary Committee members who opposed Cohen’s move to pull the plug on Nixon.
As fate would have it, Hillary Rodham, a recent graduate of Yale Law School and soon-to-be-wife of the president, was a staffer for the Democratic majority on that panel. On the other side of Capitol Hill, Senate Watergate Committee Republican counsel Fred Thompson elicited the damaging admission by White House aide Alexander Butterfield that Richard Nixon had secretly tape-recorded all of his Oval Office conversations.
Realizing that American history was unfolding each day during that politically charged summer 23 years ago, Collins grabbed as much time as she could viewing the proceedings from the area allocated to interns in the crowded Judiciary Committee hearing room. After Cohen’s pro-impeachment vote, which some predicted would end the Maine congressman’s career, Collins recalled in an interview last week that she opened many angry constituent letters containing rocks and biblical references about “those casting the first stone.”
Fate has reunited many of the young men and women of the Watergate Summer. Mrs. Clinton and her husband are the target of numerous investigations, including one that will be gaveled into session on July 8 by Fred Thompson, now a Republican senator from Tennessee. Collins, who was elected to the Senate last year, is a member of the Government Affairs Committee headed by Thompson that has begun probing fund-raising abuses evolving from last year’s elections. She has emerged Thompson’s closest ally.
That’s not surprising.
Tom Daffron, who was Collins’ Senate campaign manager, is Fred Thompson’s Senate chief of staff. During Watergate, Daffron was Cohen’s top aide. Cohen, whose political career was advanced, not aborted, by Watergate, now is secretary of defense in Clinton’s Cabinet. For trivia buffs, defense secretary is sixth in the line of presidential succession should Bill Clinton prematurely leave office.
Collins sees some parallels and disturbing differences between the Watergate era and this year’s raw political jockeying before public hearings on the campaign funding issue. Like 1974, Collins said, there is a sense that Congress and the White House are edging toward another major confrontation.
What’s missing, the Maine senator says, is a few more political heroes — like Bill Cohen, Howard Baker and Sam Ervin. There is little evidence to date, Collins said, that the major players in the current campaign spending controversy are acting to put the national interest ahead of partisanship, as their predecessors did.
For the most part, Republicans and Democrats rose above party bickering in dealing with Watergate. They did the same during the Iran-Contra hearings, Collins pointed out. For sure, there were a few bad actors. Republican Judiciary Committee member Charles Sandman, R-Calif., became something of a cartoon figure because of his zealous attacks on Nixon detractors. There were a few theatrical performances by Republicans during the Iran-Contra hearings. The key players of both parties, however, played it straight.
Judiciary Chairman Peter Rodino let Cohen and his GOP allies take the lead in drafting the key article of impeachment. Democrat Sen. Sam Ervin and Republican Sen. Howard Baker, co-chairmen of the Senate Watergate hearings, acted as if they were partners in the same backwoods Southern law firm. The same was true of Iran-Contra, where co-chairmen Democrat Dan Inouye and Republican Warren Rudman played it straight down the middle. Cohen and fellow Maine Sen. George Mitchell, both of whom served on the Iran-Contra panel, worked so well together they co-wrote a book about the hearings.
That sort of bipartisan search of truth seems to be sadly lacking as Congress gears up for House and Senate hearings on allegations of epidemic campaign fund-raising abuses and illegal laundering of foreign contributions by the Democratic National Committee, the Clinton-Gore re-election campaign committee and, quite possibly, the Republican National Committee. An L.A. street gang war would seem a better analogy.
Lott, the 1970s Nixon protector, initially tried — and then retreated — from a move to torpedo the Thompson inquiry by limiting its scope to alleged violations of law by Democrats. The refusal by Collins and a few other moderate Republicans to toe Lott’s GOP hard line apparently ensured that the abuses of both parties will be aired.
That wasn’t enough to satisfy Democratic Senate Leader Tom Daschle, however, who continues to act like the Clinton administration’s witness protection SWAT team in a tireless effort to shield key figures from having to testify under oath about the White House’s Chinese money connection.
Things could get rather ugly. USA Today reported that Democrats have hired private investigators to dig up dirt to discredit Republican campaign funding probers. Clinton political consultant James Carville is posting the data on an Internet Web site.
Collins is hopeful that the white hot glare of televised hearings will put an end to the stonewalling and partisan gamesmanship. Democrats, she said, seem to have incorrectly concluded that, because Bill Clinton was re-elected, the American public has become “immune” to scandals.
That’s what Charlie Sandman and Trent Lott thought during the dog days of the Watergate Summer of 1974, two years after voters had returned Richard Nixon to office in a 49-state drubbing of George McGovern. — WASHINGTON