Forty-eight years ago today, the American people were riveted by a spectacle that would result in the end of a presidency. With North Carolina Democrat Samuel J. Ervin Jr. presiding and Tennessee Republican Howard H. Baker Jr. serving as co-chairman, the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities commenced its much-anticipated public hearings.
Sam Ervin's record on race relations wouldn't fully pass muster today: 76 years old at the time of the Watergate hearings, he was a product of his time in a segregated South. But Ervin had served his country nobly in World War I and had the combat citations and Purple Heart to prove it. He had been among the leaders in the 1954 Senate move to censure Joseph McCarthy.
The televised hearings he chaired, complemented by a special prosecutor's investigation, the sentencing of a cast of burglars by Judge John J. Sirica, the work of a Washington grand jury, and reporting by the Washington Post and other news organizations -- along with a probe by the House Judiciary Committee -- all would culminate in the resignation of Richard M. Nixon.
"We are beginning these hearings today in an atmosphere of utmost gravity," Senate committee Chairman Sam Ervin intoned on this date 48 years ago. "The questions that have been raised in the wake of the June 17 break-in strike at the very undergirding of our democracy. If the many allegations made to this date are true, then the burglars who broke into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate were in effect breaking into the home of every citizen of the United States. If these allegations prove to be true, what they were seeking to steal was not the jewels, money or other property of American citizens, but something much more valuable -- their most precious heritage, the right to vote in a free election."
When it was his turn to speak, Howard Baker was less dramatic (although he was flanked by a Republican committee lawyer with a theatrical flair: future actor and senator Fred Thompson). Acknowledging Ervin's main point -- that the integrity of the political process had been called into question -- the Tennessee Republican emphasized that the committee was not a court or a jury and was not impaneled "to pass judgment on the guilt, or innocence of anyone." Its task, Baker said, was to find the facts and "assemble those facts into a coherent and intelligible presentation and to make recommendations to the Congress for any changes in statute law or the basic charter document of the United States, that may seem indicated."
Today, Baker isn't remembered for that anodyne opening statement, but rather for a question he posed to former White House counsel John Dean during the proceedings: "What did the president know and when did he know it?"
Initially, it seemed that this was as much of a defense of Nixon as it was a damning line of inquiry. At the outset of the hearings, Baker was considered by the White House to be an ally, and not without reason: Three months earlier, he had met privately with Nixon and advised the president on how the hearings would unfold.
But Baker's searing question is remembered today because it underscores two essential traits of any congressional oversight that are in short supply on Capitol Hill today. The first is a willingness to follow the facts wherever they lead, irrespective of which political party stands to gain. The second, a condition of the first, is that the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities was truly bipartisan, in both the letter and spirit of that concept.
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.