The latest excursion into my photo archives took me back 37 years, to the Senate Watergate hearings in the spring and summer of 1973. And from there, to the botched break-in the year before at the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters in the Watergate complex in Washington, eventually leading to the resignation of Richard Nixon in August 1974.
In many ways, the story really began in June 1971, with a former Marine officer and Vietnam veteran named Daniel Ellsberg. Ellsberg, working as an analyst with the RAND Corporation, had access to classified military documents and leaked what became known as the Pentagon Papers to Neil Sheehan of The New York Times (and a number of other newspapers.) Those documents disclosed much about Vietnam War strategy during the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations. Simply put, the thousands of pages that comprised the Pentagon Papers showed top officials’ belief that the war could not be won and that casualties would be far higher than ever publicly speculated. Ellsberg’s actions caused Nixon and his top aides to establish a secret group, known as the “White House Plumbers” (since they would stop leaks), who used both legal and illegal methods to investigate Ellsberg and anyone he worked with.
Nixon’s well-known insecurity (you may recall his famous ‘enemies list’) combined with the eagerness of his top aides to fan the flames of his paranoia. So as Nixon’s “Committee to Re-Elect the President” (known by its unfortunate acronym CREEP), took on the 1972 campaign, the Plumbers went to work again. After the break-in at the DNC’s offices was revealed to be far more than a ‘third-rate burglary,’ Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of The Washington Post were off and running with the story that would end with Nixon’s resignation.
The Watergate hearings began on May 17, 1973, and one of the earliest witnesses was Robert Odle, 29, who was CREEP’s personnel director. As photo assignments go, this was not difficult work. The Senate Caucus Room was lit for national television; photographers were not ducking for cover; the off-mike huddles of senators and staff made for riveting pictures. Sen. Sam Ervin (D-NC), chaired the committee and was a great subject, as was the Vice-Chairman, Howard Baker (R-TN), who famously asked during the hearings, “What did the President know, and when did he know it?” Here’s Baker (l.), Ervin in the middle, and the committee’s Chief Counsel, Samuel Dash (r.) during one of their many huddles.
But if you had any sense of where this might lead, coupled with a strong interest in national politics, that summer, Washington was definitely the place to be. On a personal note, I spent so much time in Washington that summer that my three-and-a-half year old daughter saw far more of me on television (in the wide shots of the hearing) than she did in person.
So when I watch current hearings in Washington, whether about the conduct of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, or the banking crisis, or the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, I think back to 1973 and the competition to produce better images, different images than everyone else. Some things never change, but most important for me, it was the chance to bear witness to history. In August 1974, the Watergate story came to an end… but I’ll leave that to an upcoming post.