Mark Twain is reputed to have said that “history doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes.” Whoever said it, you can expect to see many comparisons over the next couple of weeks between the Watergate scandal and the January 6 insurrection.
I am a veteran observer of the Watergate era and, like everyone else, new to the January 6 insurrection era. The rhyming parts are of interest to me as well. They include the two committee hearings that were the culmination of both events. The hearing from Watergate, long ago, was conducted by the Senate. Today’s January 6 hearing is conducted by the House of Representatives. Both concern themselves, superficially speaking, with a particular date in history when the foundations of the American government came under attack. Both concern themselves with the question of what part the president of the United States played.
Watergate had its quiet watershed moment. It came when a minor player in the drama, Alexander Butterfield, revealed that conversations in the Oval Office had been taped. It was a moment so simultaneously quiet and stunning that you could have easily missed it had you not been paying careful attention. I don’t doubt that someone at some point will identify a similar moment for the January 6 hearings.
Meanwhile the Washington Post is in search of this hearing’s John W. Dean III. Dean was the White House insider who agreed to cooperate with prosecutors about Nixon’s involvement in the Watergate coverup. His testimony during the Watergate hearings in 1973 was pivotal — and damning to Nixon.
It remains to be seen whether or not the January 6 Committee hearings will rhyme in those specific ways, finding its own Alexander Butterfield and its own John W. Dean III. Whether or not it does, these new hearings will be of historic importance. The potential of that importance is already greater than the Watergate hearings, and it is here that the two historic events neither repeat nor rhyme.
The most important difference between the Watergate hearings and the January 6 Committee hearings is the state of the crime each was investigating. The Watergate hearings were concerned with investigating a single crime that was planned, executed ineptly and covered up. The January 6 hearings are concerned with investigating a crime that is ongoing.
During the Watergate hearings no members of Congress were active members of Nixon’s so-called plumber’s squad. During the January 6 Committee hearings many members of Congress were and remain members of the insurrection. Many are practitioners of and repeaters of the Big Lie.
For example, while the insurrection was ongoing Congresswoman Lauren Boebert tweeted the location of Nancy Pelosi’s office. During the insurrection Senator Josh Hawley, in a gesture of solidarity, raised his fist to the attacking mob. Evidence suggests that prior to the attack several members of Congress led ‘reconnaissance tours’ of the Capitol. The president of the United States gleefully watched the insurrection on TV. It is in these ways that the comparisons neither repeat nor rhyme.
So while comparisons between Watergate and January 6 may be amusing and distracting, the darker reality is this committee hearing could be the last of its kind. It could be the last time the American government has the freedom and capacity to take a good long critical look at itself. Fascist regimes do not take critical looks at themselves.
This is why we must win in November. Because if we don’t win, Republicans will try to use their power to make it impossible for us to ever take America back from them. So the greatest benefit the January 6 Committee can bestow on the American people right now is to convince them of the very real danger in their midst. This is not Watergate, oh no, this is far, far worse. And, as ever, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, comrades and friends, stay safe.
Robert Harrington is an American expat living in Britain. He is a portrait painter.