Room G308 of the New Senate Office Building is a stuffy, brown-colored, marble-sided auditorium with a seating capacity of 450. In this dreary hall, scores of high-school tour groups have assembled to hear their home-state senators deliver homilies on the virtues of the American System, and here the Senate Staff Club has met for private viewings of second-run movies.
Nowadays, a policeman guards the door to G308, and it is worth your life to try to penetrate the auditorium without the proper credentials or a suitably accredited escort, for the room now houses the staff of the Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, not to mention one of the largest collections of explosive political documents in the world.
Most of the auditorium’s padded seats have been ripped out and replaced by a shantytown of tiny cubicles, partitioned off, one from the other, by lengths of greenish, corrugated fiberglass and topped off with white acoustic tile and fluorescent lights. Fenced in by these cubicles are nearly 100 assistant counsels, investigators, researchers and secretaries. The fences are not good enough to make for particularly good neighbors.
The 60-odd staffers for the Committee’s Democratic Majority, most of whom reside at the center of the clerical slum, long ago ceased to trust the 25-odd Republican Minority staffers, most of whom work at its fringes or in offices off the main hall. The Minority staffers lose no love on the Majority staffers. Many of the Majority staffers, what is more, can no longer stand the sight of each other, and everybody withholds information from everybody else for fear of leaks. It is this complex, intriguing underworld which feeds interviews, documents, witnesses and questions to the Committee’s two main counsels and seven senators—and does so with an ever-decreasing faith that the senators can put two and two together.
But who are these people and where did they come from? The genesis of the Committee staff was only slightly less convoluted than the casting of Gone With the Wind, and a good deal more Southern. In the beginning, the Senate Democratic leadership called upon a reluctant Sam Ervin to serve as the chairman of the Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, and the Republican leadership called on a far-less-reluctant Howard Baker to be the Committee’s vice-chairman.
Ervin immediately faced the prospect of recruiting the Majority staff, but he was not without advice. Ervin had a young aide named Rufus Edmisten, a bright, good-natured North Carolina farmer’s son who had earned his law degree by going to night classes at George Washington University. Edmisten had a friend named Arthur S. Miller, a professor of law at George Washington. Miller had a friend named Sam Dash, a professor of law at Georgetown University. Miller wanted Sam Dash to become the Committee’s chief counsel. The story goes that Miller told Edmisten that if Sam Dash got the job, Dash would appoint Edmisten to be the deputy chief counsel. So Edmisten went to Ervin and convinced him to rule out anyone who had applied for the post, which left the way open for Dash. Dash had appeared many times before Ervin’s subcommittee on Constitutional Rights as an “expert witness” on electronic eavesdropping, and since Ervin expected that the Watergate Committee would deal mainly with bugging attempts. Dash’s expertise made him a logical choice for chief counsel. Once appointed, Dash immediately hired Rufus Edmisten as his deputy chief counsel and Arthur S. Miller as his chief consultant.
Edmisten, who was a good ole boy, soon went out and hired about 35 other North Carolina good ole boys, ranging from assistant counsels to newspaper-clippers, for the Majority staff. If the good ole boys had a distinguishing trait, it turned out to be a certain benign incompetence.
Sam Dash recruited the key majority counsels—Terry Lenzner, David Dorsen and James Hamilton, about whom more later. These counsels went on to hire staffers of their own, who ran the gamut from brilliant to disastrous. (An example of a disaster was the investigator who managed to provoke a lawsuit from Bebe Rebozo last spring by letting an ABC camera crew follow him into Rebozo’s bank. “I’d tell you more about this guy,” says a Committee staffer, “but he’s so bad that he might single-handedly put the Committee out of business with one of his fuck-ups, and I’d feel badly if I predicted it ahead of time.”)
In the meantime, the Republican Minority had been setting up its own shop. Howard Baker passed over the White House’s list of suggestions for chief minority counsel to choose Fred Thompson, a 30-year-old Tennessee lawyer who had managed a crucial area of Baker’s 1972 senatorial campaign. Then Baker and Thompson hired a tall, silver-haired, sharkskin-suited ex-FBI agent named Donald Sanders as their key assistant minority counsel. Sanders, says a Committee staffer, was “everything an FBI agent should be—fair, methodical, pretty bright, and he follows orders. Altogether, he’s a lot more competent than most of the people on the Majority staff.” Thompson hired the remainder of the Minority staff and his choices did not, for the most part, give Sanders much competition in the field of competence.
Once the staffs were hired, they quickly fell into a working procedure. The Majority staff always took the initiative, finding all the witnesses, furnishing all the evidence, and building up the whole case concerning the Watergate bugging and the subsequent White House cover-up. The Minority staff did no more than monitor the Majority staff, keeping tabs on each new development and trying to check out the Majority’s case whenever possible. Or, as Rufus Edmisten put it, “The Majority laid out the buffet and the Minority tried to pick at it.” Each witness was supposed to be interviewed by a team of Majority and Minority staffers, and then the staffers were supposed to write a summary of the interview. This system gradually fell apart. “The Minority people are spread too thin,” says a staffer, “and the Majority people just don’t tell them about the interviews that the Majority doesn’t want them to come to. The Minority people didn’t have anyone at the interview where Hunt implicated Colson, and they’ve never met Bebe Rebozo or any of Hughes’ people. They seem to be getting a little concerned, because they’ve assigned a couple of research assistants to shadow some of the Majority staffers and see what they’re up to.”