Instead of trivia, the participants were asked about their knowledge of the 1972 break-in and phone-bugging at the Democratic headquarters in the Watergate office building in DC
But if the subject matter was a bit more opaque, the ratings were even better.
As the House Select Committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol prepares to kick off the first of a series of televised hearings Thursday, some in evening prime time, it’s hard to think of a political spectacle more analogous — and TV-worthy — than the Watergate hearings of nearly a half-century ago.
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This summer’s hearings promise to produce fireworks from the start. “The hearings will tell a story that will really blow the roof off the House,” Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.) said.
By contrast, when the Watergate hearings began on May 17, 1973, little was known about the Watergate break-in except that five burglars had been arrested, some with ties to President Richard M. Nixon’s Committee for Re-Election of the President, known to Nixon critics as CREEP. The first witness was one of the burglars, James McCord Jr., who was CREEP’s security chief. His testimony was less-than-riveting TV. “If you like to watch grass grow, you would have loved the opening” of the Watergate hearings, The Washington Post reported.
The drama picked up in June, when former White House counsel John Dean III testified about a Watergate coverup. Dean said he had told Nixon there was “a cancer growing on the presidency.”
Among the spectators during Dean’s five days of testimony were former Beatle John Lennon and his wife, Yoko Ono. “Since we saw the Watergate hearings on TV, we thought we’d take them in,” Lennon said. The plot took a sensational turn on July 16 when a surprise witness, former White House aide Alexander Butterfield, revealed that Nixon had secretly taped his conversations.
By now, all eyes were on the televised hearings. “The Senate Watergate investigation is proving a television-viewing phenomenon,” wrote columnist Jack Anderson. AC Nielsen reported that an estimated three out of four of the nation’s homes watched at least part of the hearings. The drama-filled inquiry outdrew popular daytime soap operas. “I watched the Watergate hearings for three days before I realized it wasn’t the ‘Secret Storm,'” wrote humor columnist Erma Bombeck.
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People tuned in day and night, newspapers reported. A grave digger in Boston took time off during the day to watch the hearings at a bar to get “an education.” A Chicago woman told a friend: “I’ve gotta hurry home and watch the Senate investigation on TV. It’s more fun than an X-rated movie.” At Washington’s upscale Sans Souci restaurant, business was “dragging” during the hearings, its maître d’ said, because people “were home watching television.”
Chairman Ervin, with his bushy “dancing eyebrows,” was an instant TV star. “Thanks to the Watergate hearings, Sen. Sam J. Ervin Jr. is well on his way to becoming an authentic American folk hero,” wrote United Press International. “Sam Ervin Fan Clubs are sprouting up all across the land,” and there was even a song, “The Ballad of Senator Sam,” calling him the “greatest thing since country ham.”
“After 19 years in the Washington phone book,” Ervin “got an unlisted home phone number to avoid the press” and admirers, wrote Washington Post columnist Jeanette Smyth. “A Dallas woman wanted to marry the 76-year-old senator.”
Ervin’s sidekick was urbane co-chairman Sen. Howard Baker (R-Tenn.), who on July 23, 1973, asked the famous question, “What did the president know, and when did he know it?” Smyth reported, “Baker, 47, leads the hit parade with about 100 mash notes and is said to be embarrassed about it. The notes range from that of a lusty 69-year-old who wrote, ‘I could vote for you for President all day and all night, too,’ to the cheeky babysitter who penciled, ‘You broke my heart Sen. Baker! I was all set on marrying you (so what if you’re 30 years older) when I found out you were already married.’ ,
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Ervin and Baker weren’t the only committee senators drawing romantic attention. Smyth wrote: “The switchboard at Sen. Edward J. Gurney’s (R-Fla.) Northwest Washington apartment building lights up with calls from women wanting to know if the wavy-haired 59-year-old is ‘unattached and available.’ (He has been married for 33 years.)”
Boyish-looking Dean, 34, with his horn-rimmed glasses and button-down shirt, appealed to women of all ages. “John Dean was a hit, I was told at the beauty parlor,” one reporter wrote from Harbor Beach, Mich. Some women called him “clean-cut, regular-featured, soft-spoken, the kind of a fellow a woman would want her son to be, or a girl her beau.”
Not everyone involved in the hearings drew such rave reviews. “The best time to go to the bathroom when watching the Watergate hearings,” humor columnist Art Buchwald wrote, is when Sen. Joseph Montoya (DN.M.) “is questioning the witness.”
The three major TV networks rotated live coverage of the hearings. The Public Broadcasting System’s audience boomed with its gavel-to-gavel coverage, including taped reruns at night. PBS stations tried pairing fundraising drives with their coverage, with mixed results. “We cleaned up with John Dean” but did “poorly” with dour former Attorney General John Mitchell, said a spokeswoman for the PBS outlet in Miami.
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Nixon, at an Aug. 22 news conference, downplayed the hearings as “water under the bridge.” Republican Senate leader Robert J. Dole of Kansas called for closing down the televised inquiry, contending that “the people want the hearings off the screen.” An Ervin received countered that 90 percent of the 14,000 letters the panel had received since Nixon’s news conference favored continuing the inquiry.
The hearings went on until November. By the next summer, after the White House released the Nixon tapes under order from the Supreme Court, there was talk of new televised hearings — this time to impeach the president. Nixon preempted those by announcing to a nationwide television audience on Aug. 8, 1974, that he was resigning and turning the presidency over to Vice President Gerald Ford. Nixon’s announcement drew 110 million viewers, second all-time among non-sports events only to the 1969 moon landing.
Disclosures in the Watergate hearings were widely credited with forcing Nixon’s resignation. “The live television Senate Watergate hearings were a gradual course in civics and political science. They’re among television’s finest hours.” CBS newsman Dan Rather wrote in 1973. He added a word of advice that feels newly relevant ahead of the Jan. 6 Hearings: “Remember Watergate. Somebody, lest we forget, ravaged the Constitution and very nearly stole the government.”