So much for Ed Gurney’s outburst that “the Republicans had nothing to do with” calling Stearns. Though the Committee took great pains to deny it, nearly everybody involved in the hearings, and the Republicans in particular, had been playing partisan games from the outset. There had been no spectacular partisan flare-ups, of course, nothing to rival the walkout that the Democratic minority had staged during Joe McCarthy’s hearings some 20 years ago. The partisanship in the Watergate hearings did not often break the surface for one good reason. As one Committee staffer succinctly put it, “The partisanship is just as incompetent as everything else about these hearings.”
The most incorrigible partisans have been Senator Gurney, Senator Baker, Fred Thompson and the Minority staff in general. Their mission has been twofold: They have tried a) to make things easier for the White House whenever possible, and b) to show that Democrats have abused the Canon of Ethics just as flagrantly as the Republicans. They have failed, but not for lack of trying. One of the first moves came from Fred Thompson, the tall young Tennessean with an Edward G. Robinson scowl, the man Howard Baker had hand-picked for the job of Minority Counsel, later describing him to President Nixon as a “Tennessee lawyer with brass balls.”
Once on the job, Brass Balls immediately became concerned that Committee interviews were pouring into the press and hurting the White House. He and his Minority staff set out to plug the leaks, spending nearly all of their working hours on the project. The fact that other staffers claimed that Thompson spent most of his spare time leaking pro-White House stories to the press didn’t seem to daunt the Minority Counsel at all.
Thompson had his work cut out for him. “With the exception of Ervin,” says a staff member, “every senator on the Committee leaks. Even Montoya leaks, but he has to leak documents because he can’t remember anything. His staffer, Jed Johnson, leaks everything he can get his hands on. But see, he’s an idiot too, and he’s one of the few people who gets stuff turned down because he tries to leak things that have already been out for two weeks.”
People like Montoya and his aide leaked for the sheer thrill of it, but there were also partisan leaks, calculated to discredit witnesses or take the sting out of the other side’s surprises. Baker had a key aide who tried to discredit John Dean by calling reporters and passing out what Sam Donaldson of ABC described as “venomous rumor and innuendo.” Later in the year, the Baker aide did a curious about-face; instead of leaking things that helped the White House, he started giving out things that harmed the Administration. Committee staffers suspected him of leaking the devastating Huston plan. One day he appeared in the office of a famous network anchorman, called the President a “criminal” and a “terrible man” and broke down in tears. Soon after that, he took a leave of absence.
“All these leaks happen because we don’t get any leadership,” complains a staffer. “Neither Ervin nor anybody else is willing to come down hard on the leaking. Obviously, you can’t investigate the senators, but there’s a certain amount of moral pressure you can put on them. You can get the senators to agree that they will not give information to their aides. And if that doesn’t work, you can get them to agree that they won’t get the information until a few hours before the sessions begin. But Ervin doesn’t insist on any of these measures. He’s a laissez faire administrator and he’s afraid to speak out too harshly.”
At any rate, when Fred Thompson set out to trail the leakers, he had an incredibly varied field to choose from. But, whether from ignorance or malice nobody knows, Thompson seized on Dick McGowan as the chief villain.
Dick McGowan was a short, wispy-mustached former New York Daily News reporter who served as Lowell Weicker’s press secretary. McGowan had covered the White House and the Hill for nearly 14 years. Nearly every veteran in the Washington press corps was fond of him not only because he had served with them in the trenches, but also because he had a political savvy and a fine deadpan wit that most press secretaries lacked. “A lot of reporters try not to chop up Weicker because they know it would hurt McGowan,” said one Capitol Hill reporter. “McGowan’s very tight with the guys.”
At one of the Committee’s first meetings, it was suggested that McGowan find out what information his friends in the press were digging up and bring it to the Committee. McGowan considered this to be the worst kind of plagiarism and rejected the proposal out of hand. But he countered with a suggestion that the Committee appoint a press secretary to brief the reporters every day and thus cut down on the demand for leaked information. Nobody listened to him. But in April, when the leaks began to reach flood proportions, Committee members started to blame the one man who knew more reporters than everyone else—Dick McGowan. McGowan was giving out some information, but nearly all of it came from Weicker’s own investigation, in which McGowan played a major role.
Despite McGowan’s protestations of innocence, Fred Thompson convinced himself that McGowan was the blackguard who was passing around the Committee’s choicest findings—findings that were not flattering to the White House. So Thompson set a trap. He had his secretary phone McGowan and feed him a phony story. “Is this for release?” asked McGowan. “Yes,” the secretary distinctly replied. McGowan immediately put out the story. It was on the wires within 20 minutes. For some reason, this struck Thompson’s supposedly legal mind as proof positive that McGowan was the leak. Thompson appeared in Weicker’s office brandishing a memo which triumphantly detailed his brilliant stratagem. A shouting match ensued. McGowan called Thompson a “twisted shit,” and threatened to torpedo Thompson’s future as Minority Counsel by giving the memo to the press. Weicker, according to one witness, “flayed about 20 pounds off Thompson’s ass.”
The Thompson/ McGowan incident is more laughable than sinister, and it has been forgotten by almost everyone but the principals. But there are other, more recent incidents in which the Minority showed less than a “high degree of cooperation,” and these still rile the Majority staffers. There was, for instance, the matter of the Bellino investigation, in which the Minority withheld powerful information from the Majority.
Carmine Bellino, a stocky, graying ex-FBI man, is the Committee’s chief investigator. A certified public accountant, Bellino has spent most of his time tracing dirty money for the Committee. He has a reputation for being a relentless, infallible finance-sleuth, a man who will plow through mountains of ledgers to find a single penny in the wrong column. Herbert Kalmbach, the President’s bagman, reportedly turned state’s evidence upon hearing that Bellino was on his trail. He could face almost anything, he reportedly told his friends, but not an investigation by Carmine Bellino.