Yet what many recall as an incisive, if not noble, question about the behavior of a president from Baker’s same political party was anything but. Rather, it was a shrewd and calculated attempt to stem the rising tide against Nixon. Nor was it even Baker’s first assault against getting at the truth of Watergate, and it would not prove to be his most cynical.
It is true that Baker’s behavior during the Senate hearings does not resemble in the slightest Republicans’ comportment so far. At every good opportunity, which is to say constantly, Baker, oozing border-state charm without being too obsequious, flattered Sam Ervin, the folksy, 76-year-old Dixiecrat from North Carolina who chaired the committee. “It has been a great privilege for me to learn from you and to go forward in this unpleasantness,” typified the remarks Baker directed at Ervin. But here’s the thing: Baker was a highly sophisticated, even Machiavellian, partisan. His genuine role was one of collusion with the White House ; followed by an attempt at a firebreak that failed ; and finally, in desperation, an embrace of conspiracy-mongering.
Much of what we know about Baker’s true role comes from three books: a memoir by Fred Thompson, the Watergate committee’s minority counsel ( At That Point in Time, 1975); a memoir by Sam Dash, the panel’s majority counsel ( Chief Counsel, 1976); and a comprehensive history based on primary documents by the late dean of Watergate historians, Professor Stanley I. Kutler ( The Wars of Watergate, 1990). In addition to these books, a fine-grained picture of Baker’s behind-the-scenes behavior has emerged as more of the tapes surreptitiously recorded during Nixon’s presidency have been released and deciphered.
Schiff had just turned 12 years old when five burglars put the Watergate scandal in motion, so he can be forgiven for not recalling the nuances of what happened. But now that the California Democrat is one of the leaders of the impeachment inquiry—and will probably be one of the managers who presents the case to the Senate—it is incumbent on him, and Democrats in general, to purge their minds of Watergate fairy tales. And Baker as Watergate truth-seeker is as good as any place to begin. If the Watergate scandal is any kind of historical guide, the Democrats are going to succeed only if they stop hankering for a magical nonpartisan Republican and instead focus on building a strong, factual case against the president—one that convinces the American people on its own merit.
Baker’s perception of his role on the committee was inextricable from his larger aims. Ervin had insisted that no senators with presidential aspirations be allowed on the committee. But that was interpreted to mean senators intending to run in the next cycle. Baker was looking further ahead, and in that sense Ervin’s edict was fortuitous. “Although senators are by definition politically ambitious,” Dash wrote in his memoir, “Baker was excessively so.” The Tennessean was a political boy wonder. Elected to the Senate in 1966 at the tender age of 41, after having not served in any previous office, Baker was the first Republican senator from Tennessee since Reconstruction, and an example of the great political realignment taking place in the South. He naturally harbored thoughts of running for president in the foreseeable future. Serving on the committee would burnish his credentials, particularly if he became renowned for stopping the Watergate scandal from metastasizing further and consuming a Republican president.
Baker had led the GOP in opposing a full-fledged Senate investigation of the 1972 presidential campaign, and then maneuvered to become the ranking Republican on the Watergate panel. Via Nixon’s trusted aide Charles Colson, Baker conveyed his reasoning. The senator had only accepted the committee assignment, Baker’s administrative assistant told Colson, to “go all the way … and defend you and the Republican Party.” He “wasn’t getting off the reservation.” The president was to disregard any seemingly critical comments Baker made in public, as well as any elaborate displays of deference to Ervin in the future. The only purpose behind these utterances was to maintain Baker’s credibility with Ervin in order to negotiate and “control him.” Baker, Colson was told, had to “act like one of the Senate club lest he destroy his effectiveness with Ervin.”
Shortly after his appointment to the Watergate committee, Baker also sought a secret meeting with Nixon to discuss the probe. From Baker’s perspective, the meeting would serve a twofold purpose. First and foremost, he wanted to reassure the president personally about his efforts and goodwill. But he also wanted to gather intelligence about what to expect from the upcoming testimony of all the president’s men, and needed guidance on where the White House intended to draw the line. The key question was whether the onus for the break-in would be placed solely on Nixon’s reelection campaign, or whether some responsibility could be traced back to the White House, if not the Oval Office itself. This same issue was a matter of keen interest for Baker too, for to a degree he had now tied his own future to the president’s protestations of innocence.
Baker insisted the meeting with Nixon be clandestine. It was arranged for a day when he was already scheduled to attend a large reception in the White House for supporters of the president’s Vietnam policy. Baker arrived an hour early, and was escorted to Nixon’s hideaway in the Executive Office Building.
Unfortunately, the recording of their meeting happens to be one of the Nixon tapes that is irreparably flawed. Baker just happened to sit as far away from the microphones implanted in the president’s desk as possible, resulting in a mostly inaudible recording. Moreover, while the meeting lasted 40 minutes, the tape recording is only eight minutes long. Still, the gist of some remarks can be discerned, and the president later described the discussion in subsequent conversations with John Ehrlichman, his top domestic policy adviser, Attorney General Richard Kleindienst and H.R. “Bob” Haldeman, the White House chief of staff.
Baker stressed that he was intent on preventing a “fishing expedition.” While he expected the hearings to start with a bang, he thought public interest would taper off dramatically—and his goal was to help make that happen. Baker disclosed that the Democrats were hoping, as Nixon later put it, to first call “a lot of pipsqueak witnesses, little shit-asses over periods of weeks to build it up, the pressure.” Inside the committee, Baker was arguing for a different approach, one that would have all the president’s big men up there from the start to “prick the boil.” Then Baker could confront Ervin with the emptiness of their testimonies and cut off the inquiry, leaving it at the seven men already convicted of the burglary. As Nixon explained, Baker aimed to “choke the goddamn thing for the week, and after that people will be bored to death.” While this approach had its attractions, the president remained wary. He expressed the hope to Baker that through some combination of executive privilege, closed executive sessions or written interrogatories, the administration might avoid the spectacle of having its top men “dragged up” to Capitol Hill, testifying in public under oath.
When the senator gingerly hinted at the possibility of White House involvement, the president denied the insinuation vigorously. But Nixon allowed that he was concerned about former campaign chairman John Mitchell’s role, thereby indicating to Baker where the line should be drawn if necessary: around the now-defunct Committee for the Re-election of the President (CRP). Indeed, as Nixon later recounted, he told Baker that if and when the time came for him to cross-examine Mitchell, the senator needed to bring out the facts about Mitchell’s “horrible domestic situation,” meaning his alcoholic wife, Martha.
I said [to Baker], Martha, you know, is very sick. And John wasn’t paying attention, and these kids ran away with it. … John Mitchell is a pure, bright guy who would have never done such a thing, but the kids ran away with it. And if John did lie [about CRP involvement], it was simply because he’d forgotten. Now whether that will wash or not, I don’t know. But I just want you [Baker] to know that [is what] I consider the Mitchell problem.
The next day, Nixon recounted the meeting to Kleindienst; the president now believed Baker would be working for him inside the committee. “Howard came down for the purpose of telling me what are his plans for the hearings … what he’s planning to do. What he’s going to do is … try to make it appear the Republicans are cooperating … [that] the hearings are honest and the administration’s cooperating.” There was a concrete reason for discussing the meeting with the attorney general as well. Baker had indicated he didn’t want to be seen talking to anyone in the White House from now on, so they had agreed that Baker’s liaison would be Kleindienst. He was to convey whatever inside information Baker had to John Dean exclusively, who would then take it to the president, and vice versa. Baker hoped the line of communication would run both ways, as he wanted a heads-up before the White House publicly stated its position on any of the contentious procedural issues that still had to be worked out.
In the 11 weeks that remained before hearings commenced, Baker, now assisted by Fred Thompson, his choice for minority counsel, labored to circumscribe the probe along the lines of Baker’s February 22 secret meeting. Truncating the witness list so that the hearings would be finished in one month was Baker’s top priority. One of his arguments was that Americans fixated on daytime soap operas would be upset by having their favorite shows preempted by long, drawn-out hearings. Ervin dismissed Baker’s proposal as preposterous, even if it risked provoking TV viewers’ ire. If accepted, Ervin argued, Baker’s scheme would make the committee an accessory to the White House’s obfuscations and falsehoods. Then, on April 30, the situation became immensely more complicated and the stakes exponentially higher. The White House announced Haldeman and Ehrlichman had resigned, that Dean was fired and Kleindienst had quit.
Now the question was not whether all the president’s big men would appear, but in what order. During a pivotal committee meeting on May 8, Baker lobbied for the burglars to testify first, followed by Mitchell, Colson, Haldeman and Ehrlichman, with Dean coming in last. This topsy-turvy approach meant that none of them could be asked about Dean’s accusations; the accused would be heard before the accuser, and everything could be wrapped up in 20 days. Baker also wanted senators to question witnesses first, before committee counsel did. That all but guaranteed the hearings could easily veer into incoherence and grandstanding, rather than fact-finding and narrative-building. Most tenaciously, and with uncharacteristic vehemence, Baker fought against giving Dean immunity for his testimony, echoing the then-prevailing White House line that Dean was “the most culpable and dangerous person in the Watergate affair.”
Baker did not prevail on any of these narrative-building issues, and his initial effort to collude with the White House was largely for naught. When the hearings finally commenced on May 17, the senator, exuding charm, assured his colleagues, along with a national television audience, that “this is not in any way a partisan undertaking, but rather, it is a bipartisan search for the unvarnished truth.” In reality, though, Baker was soon to embark on the next phase of his partisan effort to save Nixon’s presidency regardless of that truth.
The context of Baker’s famous question means everything. Baker posed it to Dean after 3½ days of earth-shattering testimony from the former White House counsel—testimony that Baker readily agreed was “fairly mind-boggling.” Single-handedly, and in the space of a day, Dean had decisively shifted the committee’s focus from the initial crime, of which Nixon had no foreknowledge, to the cover-up. If the president committed just a few of the acts attributed to him, he had violated his oath of office. Nor were the president’s alleged misdeeds due to passivity, inattention or distraction. He had, according to Dean, abused his powers and actively conspired to obstruct justice.
Seen in its proper context, Baker’s question—“What did the president know and when did he know it?”—represented a shrewd defense from a highly skilled lawyer who recognized the inherent limits in Dean’s testimony. Baker intended to erect nothing less than an insurmountable firebreak in the conflagration that now threatened the Oval Office.
Dean had had almost no personal contact with Nixon for more than seven months after the June break-in. He could not offer direct testimony about what the president said and did in the earliest and most crucial phase of the cover-up. Dean’s first urgent, Watergate-related meeting had not occurred until February 27, 1973; only after that were there almost daily meetings with the president.
Repeating his rhythmic question over and over, Baker took Dean step by step through the key events beginning in June 1972 until Dean’s departure. At each important juncture, Baker depicted Dean’s account as based on hearsay or circumstantial evidence at best—meaning Dean was drawing unwarranted inferences about the president’s conduct. The strategy was supposed to result in an alternate narrative, wherein the president allegedly was unaware of the steps taken to hush the burglars, or supposedly ignorant about the pressure the White House exerted on the CIA to thwart the FBI from pursuing certain avenues of investigation. Ultimately, it would come down to Dean’s word and narrative against the president’s. And in fact, Baker’s firebreak did work as well as could be expected. By the time Dean finished his last day of testimony on June 29, the lack of independent corroboration of his allegations appeared to be an insuperable obstacle.
What Baker did not know at the time, of course, was that Nixon had done his immediate predecessors one better, and surreptitiously installed a voice-activated taping system that had been operational since February 1971. Two weeks after Dean’s last day of testimony, White House assistant Alexander Butterfield revealed the tapes’ existence. Suddenly, the recordings promised to resolve who was telling the truth. And just as abruptly, Baker’s calculated question transmogrified into a dagger pointed at the heart of the presidency.
As Stanley Kutler wrote, the “discovery of the tapes undid Baker’s careful handiwork. The tapes made irrelevant his question to John Dean . . . [Because now] Richard Nixon himself could answer Baker, and in indelible words.”
In late 1973, as the Watergate committee moved closer to its expiration date; while the legal battle over the tapes was winding its way toward the Supreme Court; and months before the House Judiciary Committee mounted its impeachment hearings, Baker turned desperately to a last resort—what would today be recognized as deep state conspiracy-mongering. Given his own direct knowledge from Nixon that only the CRP was responsible for the break-in, this last phase represented Baker’s most cynical tactic.
First, a little of the back-story is required.
The possibility of CIA involvement in the burglary had been an issue from the very start. Two of the five burglars arrested, and one of the masterminds who organized the illegal entry, had undeniable links to the agency. But then it swiftly turned out that one of the burglars, and both masterminds, had undeniable links to the White House or president’s reelection campaign. The FBI was initially flummoxed and investigated both possibilities. By mid-July 1972, however, the FBI investigation had “settled down.” Agents working the case knew the CRP, not the CIA, organized the break-in. The only remaining question was how high up in the CRP the conspiracy went.
This perception of culpability lasted until May 1973, when two new revelations caused allegations of CIA involvement to resume with even greater ferocity. It turned out that beginning in July 1971 the agency, at Ehrlichman’s behest, had given technical assistance (a wig, camera, voice-altering device and false identity cards) to E. Howard Hunt, one of the two Watergate masterminds, without knowing what it was going to be used for. And before the Democratic National Committee break-in, some of the items had been used in the burglary at the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s Los Angeles psychiatrist. Ellsberg was the Defense Department consultant behind the embarrassing leak of the so-called Pentagon Papers in 1971.
Various House and Senate committees (there were no Intelligence Committees as such at the time) leaped into the fray and announced investigations. Perhaps envious of the attention the Senate Watergate committee was already generating, although it had yet to hold its first hearing, the House Armed Services announced a full-blown probe. A special subcommittee was hastily formed, and Representative Lucien Nedzi, a Democrat and University of Michigan Law School graduate, was appointed chairman.
Nedzi’s investigation proceeded rapidly. The first hearing occurred May 11, 1973, and by the end of July the special subcommittee had gathered statements or testimony from 26 witnesses. Nothing like this probe into the CIA had ever been conducted before, much less in full public view. Nedzi’s subcommittee (along with a much smaller Senate investigation that occurred in parallel) developed stunning new information directly related to the CIA and Watergate all right, but nothing proving foreknowledge of the break-in, much less that it was a CIA operation. Rather, the House subcommittee spent the majority of its time investigating the White House’s attempt, albeit unsuccessfully, to use the CIA to impede sensitive aspects of the FBI’s Watergate investigation over a period of two weeks right after the break-in.
The Nedzi subcommittee laid out its findings in a final report published on October 27, 1973. While the report criticized the CIA for bowing to White House pressure to help out Hunt in the first place, it correctly noted that the CIA had terminated the assistance in August 1971 because Hunt kept making new demands, and absolved the CIA of responsibility for the break-in. Nonetheless, 10 days later, Baker initiated his own investigation of CIA involvement with a letter addressed to the new director, William Colby. The agency responded by supplying Baker with many of the same documents it had already produced for Nedzi. Baker decided to plow ahead, and in January 1974 even set up a task force comprised of three Republican staff members from the Watergate committee, headed by Fred Thompson. For the next three months they reinvestigated what Thompson called the CIA’s “mystifying role,” often working 18-hour days.
Baker had no idea what was on the White House tapes and whether they would exonerate or implicate the president in the cover-up, or simply be inconclusive. But he did know that his famous question now threatened the president. Indicating the CIA had foreknowledge of the break-in would suggest that perhaps it was a CIA operation all along—and that seemed the most promising, if not only, way out for the president. In one stroke it would return the focus to who was responsible for the break-in, and render the cover-up almost moot. After all, Nixon could hardly be blamed for any measures he took in response to a charge he knew to be untrue. In this new narrative Nixon would be the victim of dark forces, rather than the culprit.
About halfway through Baker’s frantic, three-month investigation, the Washington press corps, thanks to Charles Colson—the only person in the White House to take a keen interest in the last-ditch effort—got wind of the task force. Reporters pressed the senator for some concrete results, but all Baker could offer in return was innuendo and unsupported implications. There were “animals crashing around in the forest” that he could hear but not yet see, Baker claimed.
Increasingly alarmed by what Baker was up to, the CIA became recalcitrant about responding to Thompson’s incessant demands. Journalists known for their ties to the agency, such as Tom Braden, a former CIA officer but now a syndicated columnist for the Washington Post, published articles that pointedly criticized Baker. Braden suggested Baker was pursuing a fruitless angle for transparent political reasons and harming the CIA in the process. Feeling the heat, and with nothing to show after three months of ceaseless effort, Baker ordered the task force to pull together whatever information it had developed and write a report.
Baker submitted what came to be known as the “Baker-CIA report” to Ervin for inclusion in the committee’s final report, to be published in mid-July 1974. But the chairman did not want to lend any dignity to the rump report and refused to include it in the main text. Rather than admit that there was “no there there,” after all, Baker insisted the report was merely “incomplete” and raised more justifiable questions than it answered. About two weeks before the committee’s full report became available, Baker and Thompson leaked their findings to the press, with modest results. The most newsworthy item was that the agency had learned via its grapevine, prior to the break-in, that E. Howard Hunt had been looking to hire a retired lock picker from a group of former CIA employees. The Baker-CIA report quickly fell flat, and Thompson recalled in his memoir that it was a “lonely time” for his boss. “Because of his persistent inquiries, [Baker] seemed to have placed himself at odds, not only with the CIA, but with the White House [sic], the press, and the rest of the committee.”
Three weeks after newspapers disclosed the Baker-CIA report, the Supreme Court issued its unanimous ruling that Nixon had to provide all the tape recordings demanded by the Watergate special prosecutor, not just transcripts the president unilaterally deemed responsive. And on August 5, the White House released what instantly and infamously became known as “the smoking gun” tape: an Oval Office conversation between Haldeman and Nixon on June 23, six days after the break-in, which provided the definitive answer to what the president knew and when he knew it.
Howard Baker’s reputation, perhaps surprisingly, perhaps not, suffered no lasting damage from his role on the Watergate committee. It was as if image, rather than substance, prevailed. As Kutler put it, Baker “projected extremely well on television, combing a boyish smile with the appearance of a diffident, nonpartisan pursuit of the truth.” When the senator’s devastating question was remembered, and it often was, it was misremembered because it was invariably taken out of context. Baker certainly exhibited no abiding impulse to correct the misunderstanding.
So for the Democrats to pine now for another Howard Baker is, at best, folly. Howard Baker was no Howard Baker, and any hope that a Republican champion will suddenly emerge and relieve Democrats from doing the necessary hard work that remains is a historical fantasy. The only sound course open to them is what the Watergate committee actually did: to continue to develop and compile the facts until they have exhausted them. Because it was the facts, gathered together to build the truth, that ground down Nixon finally, until he had no recourse except resignation unless he wanted the ignominy of removal. “Facts are stubborn things,” as one former president, John Adams, noted. Enough of them will either move public opinion and the political calculus, or appeal to Republicans of principle who still abide by their oath of office.
At least that was true in the past.