Editor’s Note: Bill Carter, a media analyst for CNN, covered the television industry for The New York Times for 25 years, and has written four books on TV, including The Late Shift and The War for Late Night. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
Almost 50 years ago, fresh out of school, I was transfixed by the coverage of the famous hearings into the Watergate break-in. They were certainly as compelling as anything I saw on television in that era. And I wasn’t the only one: An estimated 80 million watched at least some part of the coverage that dominated television for almost a year.
That likely exceeds the cumulative number for the most recent hearings by the House committee investigating the January 6 insurrection. The first edition attracted more than 20 million viewers, and the latest edition reportedly reached almost 18 million. Even with uncounted numbers on streaming, surpassing Watergate’s audience would seem to be a reach. People have more diversions now, off and on television.
What’s more, though: A significant segment of the population — supporters of Donald Trump, who has been the target of the investigation — has stuck their hands over eyes and ears and pretended there’s nothing of interest going on.
Still, even with fewer Americans tuning into the January 6th committee hearings, I believe they will have just as great of an impact (or even greater) on American history as the Watergate hearings did.
The stakes are clearly higher. Watergate was about a bungled attempt by a Republican president to sabotage the political prospects of his Democratic opponents through an office burglary; the attack on the Capitol was about a concerted attempt by a Republican president to undo the foundation of American democracy: the peaceful transfer of power.
But if you’ve listened carefully, it’s hard to miss the echoes. That is perhaps the most significant takeaway from what has played out on television in these two separate events. Anyone who believed after Watergate that nothing like that could ever happen again in America has been taught a lesson: History does repeat itself.
Sitting through all the TV coverage half a century ago, the dominant theme was whether there would ever be a “smoking gun” — irrefutable evidence of Richard Nixon’s malfeasance. And, eventually, there was: The release of the tapes that connected Nixon to the cover-up of the break-in at Washington’s Watergate complex led to his resignation in 1974.
Without an army of influential conservatives — aka Fox News hosts — to shield him by denying all the spectacular evidence uncovered about him, Nixon faced an untenable political position. His order to fire the Watergate special prosecutor, in what became known as the “Saturday Night Massacre,” provided a turning point the current hearings have yet to duplicate. Many of Nixon’s supporters began to abandon him; after the massacre, the percentage of people believing he should leave office doubled from 19% to 38%. The credibility of the Watergate committee was only enhanced.
Unquestionably, the state of American democracy was different in that era. The two parties were not so rigidly ideological that a dissenter (or truth-teller) would be ostracized or “censured.” Nor was there formally partisan national media, like Fox News and MSNBC, or the din of political talk radio. Bomb-throwing commentators were not an everyday presence. Faith in national institutions, including the presidency, Congress and the Supreme Court, was much greater.
It is far from certain the January 6 committee will find something as undeniably incriminating as the Nixon tapes, though the recent stories of potentially missing text messages by Secret Service agents have a distinctly familiar ring. Still, nothing so far presented by the January 6 committee has resulted in a wave of defections by Trump loyalists. The quasi-religious backing of Trump among Republican base voters, and the presence of unrelenting Trump defenders in conservative media, have given him sanctuary from the tsunami of defectors Nixon experienced.
Nixon was never formally charged with crimes because that was taken off the table by President Gerald Ford pardoning him. But he paid a massive price in historical terms: the humiliation of resignation followed by years in an exile of public disgrace.
It’s unclear whether a Trump prosecution will occur, but official disgrace may still await him in some form; though his cult-like acolytes in the public and conservative media will never accept it, no matter what the evidence. And that’s what makes this moment in history even more troubling.
During the Watergate investigation, the fundamentals of American democracy had not been shaken to their foundations yet; they held strong because the public seemed to grasp the ultimate gravity of being led by a lawless president.
NBC’s David Brinkley put it this way in 1973:
“Our history shows the American people will put up with a great deal, even when the demands on them are outrageous, as they often are. But they will not put up with anyone who claims to be, or tries to be, above the law, immune to the rules applying to everybody else. It seems to be known instinctively that if anyone acquires that privilege, it will be the end of this country.”
Fifty years ago, I was sure Brinkley was right. I’m not confident of that now after watching the most recent Jan. 6 hearings. I expect he wouldn’t be either.