Some of the big witnesses, like John Dean, were questioned by all the senators in executive session. “But we’ve been trying to avoid that,” says a staffer. “Because if you get into an executive session, all the senators are there, and it means that all the testimony will be leaked the next day.”
Aside from the Majority personnel hired by Dash and Edmisten, and the Minority personnel hired by Thompson, there was yet another category of staffers: Each senator was entitled to hire a man of his own. Although most of these appointees were technically attached to the Committee as assistant counsels, they were really meant to serve as senatorial squires. In theory, at least, they were supposed to provide an independent channel of information so that the senators did not have to rely solely on the summaries of staff interviews. In point of fact, however, Lowell Weicker was the only senator who ever bothered to do much independent preparation. Weicker’s man on the Committee was a short, high-strung assistant counsel named Bill Shure who managed to alienate almost everybody when he walked away from questioning a witness on nationwide TV and proudly announced that the exposure had been worth $150,000 to his law firm in New Haven. Nevertheless, Shure was widely considered to be one of the few competent and perceptive members of the Minority staff.
But Weicker had more going for him than Bill Shure. At the outset of the hearings, he set up his own investigative team, which at one time included five men and which came to be known as the Third Front. Weicker’s investigators put in 16-hour days, and by April they had found enough evidence so that Weicker could confidently drop two bombs. First he called a press conference and implied that his fellow senators were focusing on pawns like Liddy and McCord and overlooking bigger fish like Mitchell and Haldeman—which was precisely what the White House hoped the senators would do. At another press conference, Weicker called for Haldeman’s resignation, since he had been the man responsible for supervising the people who planned and covered up the Watergate break-in. Weicker’s fellow senators immediately blasted him for speaking out of turn, but Weicker had achieved his goal, which was to up the ante of the investigation.
It was Weicker’s people who first contacted John Dean and decided he would make a viable witness. Weicker’s people turned up the Enemies List; they unearthed the tape of the phone conversation in which John Ehrlichman described Patrick Gray as “twisting slowly, slowly in the wind”; they brought to light the domestic spying activities of the Justice Department’s Internal Security Division. They discovered the existence of the memo on which Bob Haldeman had penciled “Good” and “Great” next to a sentence predicting that demonstrators at a Nixon rally would be “violent” and “obscene.” Having found the memo in the Committee’s files, they insisted that Weicker be given a copy, and Weicker sprung the memo on Haldeman before Sam Dash had a chance to do so. Since Dash’s staff had prepared a detailed line of questioning on the memo, they were furious when Weicker stole their thunder. In fact, some Majority staffers dispute Weicker’s claim to all these scoops, saying that the Majority always got there before Weicker. But no one disputes the fact that Weicker does his homework.
“Weicker does what you and I would hope would be the bare minimum for any senator on that Committee,” says a Majority staffer, “and he’s the only one.” Ervin never looks at a summary. “The Senator says that when he was a judge, he always listened to the witness first, before making up his mind and he wants to operate the same way in the hearings,” says Rufus Edmisten, who is Ervin’s man on the Committee. But Ervin sometimes displays an almost mystical knack for asking the right questions. “Ervin somehow picks up the thread of Dash’s questions and takes the moralistic part and drives it home,” says a Majority staffer. “I can never understand how he does it, because he doesn’t talk that much to Dash, and Rufus doesn’t help him that much, either.”
Talmadge’s aide is a young mustachioed Atlanta lawyer named Barry Schochet, who arrives at the office around seven o’clock every morning to help the senator prepare his questions. Schochet sometimes goes to Majority staffers to ask for questions, and they give him questions they think Sam Dash won’t get around to using.
Inouye also confers every day with his aide, an amiable, middle-aged Humphrey Democrat named Eiler Ravenholt. “Ravenholt prepares very narrowly, sticking to a couple of issues, which is smart,” says a staffer. “I think he’s a bad choice for Inouye, though, because Inouye could say pretty flamboyant things, and I think we need that. I think if he had a more dynamic guy, someone who was willing to work harder, we’d be in much better shape. Inouye could become another Weicker. He could become the Fourth Front. But that just ain’t happening.”
Montoya’s questioning, of course, has made him the butt of a thousand jokes. Ervin wanted him on the Committee because he was a decent man and a sure vote, but no amount of preparation has made him quicker on his feet. Nor has he received much help from his aide, Jed Johnson, a former Oklahoma congressman and a man of legendary incompetence. “Johnson is a consultant to the Committee and he was supposed to investigate the Muskie Canuck letter at one point,” says a Majority staffer. “He ran around New Hampshire, causing all kinds of crap. He got himself in the papers and managed to piss off Bill Loeb, the publisher of the Manchester Union Leader. And at the end of it all, he had narrowed the field of culprits down to about 46 people.”
On the Minority side, Baker, like Ervin, usually comes into the hearings cold turkey. Baker’s man on the staff is Fred Thompson, of course, and although the two work together closely in executive sessions, Baker does not ask Thompson for questions.
Gurney’s man on the staff is Robert Silverstein, who is chiefly known for the resemblance he bears to Richard Nixon, at least on TV. During the Eisenhower years, Silverstein was a trial lawyer for the Internal Security Division of the Justice Department, and he now serves on the Committee as an assistant Minority counsel. His aid to Gurney has been negligible. “All Silverstein does is to carry around Gurney’s bags,” says a staffer. “The Majority staffers love to have him in an interview because he can never figure out what’s going on.” Silverstein was in an interview once with one of John Mitchell’s secretaries. The Majority staffer kept asking her how she got along with Mitchell, and the secretary had great difficulty in answering the question. Finally, the Majority staffer said, “Look, all I really want to know is: What do you think of John Mitchell?” Before she could answer, Silverstein blurted out, “I’ve known him for 15 years, and I think he’s a helluva guy!”
If the staff which feeds the senators tends toward anarchy and warfare, the senators do not dwell in perfect harmony either. The Democrats distrust the Republicans, the Republicans distrust the Democrats, and everyone is wary of Lowell Weicker’s maverick impulses. Nor do the Committee’s chairman and vice-chairman always please the other five senators. The most recent outbreak of backbiting erupted over the deal Baker and Ervin struck with the White House regarding Nixon’s tapes.
“Ervin and Baker made absolute damn fools of themselves,” says a Weicker aide. “This was a problem that Nixon had with Cox, it didn’t have anything to do with us. But what Nixon really wanted was the imprimatur of respectability that men like Ervin and Baker could give if he could weasel them into coming down to the White House and agreeing with him. Which, of course, they did. And by doing so, they put Archie Cox out on a limb. They sold him out.
“But the main point is, they had no power or authority to go out and do what they did. That’s what infuriated everybody. Sam Dash was very, very upset. Weicker and Inouye were plenty pissed off, and there are going to be some very bitter words from them at the next executive session.
“I mean, the Committee rules very clearly spell out what the chairman and vice-chairman are empowered to do on behalf of the Committee. And they’re not given the power to bind the Committee to any deals or agreements. We had this out before, last spring, when Baker and Ervin went down to the White House and tried to make a deal on executive privilege. When we heard about that, we raised holy hell. Weicker was downright mean with Ervin and took him on in no uncertain terms. And we thought we’d got the whole thing resolved.”
With disagreements like this pulling the Committee apart, it takes a cataclysmic event to bring the seven senators and two chief counsels back into perfect harmony. Such an event occurred on the morning of October 11th, when Rick Stearns, the former McGovern aide, strongly implied that the Republicans were out to smear the McGovern campaign, and accused the Committee of summoning him as a witness for partisan purposes.
Partisan purposes! The outrageous accusation shocked the Committee. Senator Gurney suddenly came to life like a lizard poked with a sharp stick. He angrily asserted that Stearns had been called to testify by the Democratic counsel and that “the Republicans had nothing to do with it.” The Republicans had not yet produced a single witness, Gurney snapped, but they would when they were good and ready to make their case. (Which must have sent a shudder through the Minority staff, who knew that they had no case to make, and damned little chance of finding one.)
Then Sam Dash chimed in that there was no such thing as a Majority witness or a Minority witness—there were only witnesses for the Committee. Senator Baker, his voice oozing with indignation, jumped in to second that. There were only “Committee witnesses,” he said, and they were called “for no overt political purpose but only for a fact-finding mission and with a high degree of cooperation between the very excellent Majority staff and Minority staff.”
All of this self-righteous protestation could only have produced harsh laughter from anyone who knew anything about the case. The staff had interviewed Stearns three times before his public appearance, and had given him every reason to suspect partisan motives. In the first interview, they only asked him general questions about the McGovern campaign. In the third session, it was true, the Majority’s Terry Lenzner had questioned him vigorously. But at the second and most important session—it was the only time Stearns was put under oath—the Republicans asked 99% of the questions.
The Majority staffer present tossed Stearns a couple of softballs, and then the Minority took over in the persons of Dick Schultz, a Dick Tracy look-alike who had cut his teeth as counsel to the House Committee on un-American Activities, and Howard Liebengood, a chubby, bespectacled Southerner who was one of the sharpest Republican staffers. The two Minority staffers grilled Stearns relentlessly for two hours about an entirely peaceful anti-Nixon rally that the McGovern people had helped to stage outside the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles in September, 1972. They tried to chip away at Stearns’ denial that he had ever authorized McGovern participation in the rally. They tried to make him admit to improper and illegal campaign practices. They took him over the same ground again and again in the hope that he would contradict himself or some other McGovern witness, thus opening the way for a perjury charge. Though they got nowhere in that session, the Republicans continued to urge that Stearns appear before the Committee. The Century Plaza incident—though it had been an altogether exemplary demonstration—was the only case they had against the Democrats, and they kept hoping to impeach Stearns’ testimony at the last moment.