What Watergate Experts Think About the Jan. 6 Hearings
The public hearings of the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol—the eighth and last of which is set for prime-time broadcast on Thursday—were always going to be a unique moment in American history, given the unprecedented events they were meant to investigate. But, as far back as the planning stages, Select Committee members indicated that they did have one historical analogy in mind: the 1973 Watergate hearings, which investigated President Richard Nixon’s role in the attempt to cover up a break-in at the office of the Democratic National Committee—and which led up to Nixon’s Aug. 8, 1974, resignation.
“We’re going to have hearings for the American people which I hope will seem somewhat like the Watergate hearings did,” Rep. Jamie Raskin said on MSNBC on January 17, “in that they will be a daily occurrence so people can follow the unfolding narrative.”
TIME spoke to experts in Watergate history about the validity of this analogy as the Jan. 6 hearings were winding down.
The history of the Select Committee remains to be written. However, one commonality is evident. These rare bipartisan hearings into abuses of presidential power do have the power to shift public opinion—for some people.
“The Jan. 6 Committee hearings have already accomplished what the Watergate hearings did. A majority of Americans—the middle and the left—have concluded that the President under investigation did wrong. Neither set of hearings, however, convinced the Republican base,” says Ken Hughes, a Watergate expert at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs, who spoke to TIME as part of a presidential-history partnership between TIME History and the Miller Center. ”A majority of the Republican base supported Nixon during Watergate, buying into Nixon’s narrative that he was the victim of liberal Democrats in Congress and liberal bias in the news media. That’s why congressional Republicans stuck with Nixon until after their 1974 [midterm]Primaries were finished. They knew if they withdrew support from the Republican president, the base would withdraw support from them, and they would lose their jobs.”
Nixon’s approval among the general public, however, dropped during the Watergate hearings. After winning an overwhelming victory in 1972, with a 68% approval rate, Nixon’s popularity plummeted to 31% in the polls by August 1973. This was just a few months before the first televised Watergate hearings began. Trump is now out of office with one important difference. It remains to be seen if the hearings deter Trump from his long-rumored run for the White House.
“The Watergate hearings were compelling to so many Americans because Nixon was the sitting President, and there were these growing revelations about the guy in office having committed and overseen this criminal conspiracy,” explains David Greenberg, author of Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image. “We learned about enemies lists, and we learned about secret White House tapes, and we learned about the abuse of the FBI and other federal agencies. It’s different with Trump out of office. Obviously, it could affect whether people want him to run again, whether they vote for him if he does run again, but it’s very different from having people turn on and become disillusioned with the sitting president.”
Greenberg also adds that the impact of the Jan. 6 hearings is difficult to gauge in the streaming era, with thousands more TV channels diverting people’s attention than there were in 1973, and people catching just snippets of the hearings on social media. “The Watergate hearings, which were like man landing on the moon, just had this momentousness to it that I don’t think is at work today,” he says. “I think for a lot of people right now, [the Jan. 6 hearings are] not top of mind.”
Customers and employees at a New York department store can watch the opening preliminaries for the Senate special committee hearing about the bugging of Democratic headquarters in Watergate on May 17, 1973.
Tim Naftali was the first director at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum. What stands out to him is Trump’s huge popular support compared with Nixon.
“One of the things that emerged from Watergate that we’re not seeing yet is a consensus that the President had hurt the country…a bipartisan nonpartisan view that the President had done wrong and had to leave the White House and that we didn’t need another Nixon,” says Naftali. “We don’t have as bipartisan and nonpartisan and pervasive [a] view today that this country doesn’t need another Trump. It would help our society. It would help us heal, and the January 6 committee could contribute to that, but that’s one big difference from Watergate. President Trump left office with much more support than Richard Nixon left office despite the fact that we experienced a violent insurrection in Trump’s presidency and not in Nixon’s.”
But, Naftali adds, this is not the only moment in which the hearings could affect Americans’ thinking about Trump. Just because the hearings can’t produce a resignation the way Watergate did, that doesn’t mean they won’t have a lasting and significant impact.
A key legacy of the Select Committee, he says, will be the way it “deepened and broadened our understanding of the President’s responsibility for the insurrection,” laying the groundwork for how future generations will talk about the events of that fateful day.
The Select Committee’s final scheduled hearing begins on July 21 at 8:00 p.m. E.T.
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