Show trials and hanging judges

On September 26, 1973, Pat Buchanan appeared before the Senate Watergate Committee, long after the committee had heard from such star witnesses as Bob Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, and John Dean. The Democratic chairman of the committee — North Carolina Senator Sam Ervin — was the old self-dramatizing segregationist turned cornpone constitutionalist, a character beyond fiction or satire. By September, he had used the hearings to turn himself into a folk hero.
The Republican vice chairman of the committee — Howard Baker — found the motivation to lose weight in anticipation of the televised portion of the hearings. He seemed to think that the hearings might provide a perch from which he could launch his own presidential campaign. His post on the Watergate Committee should have been a bit awkward for Baker, whose 1972 campaign literature had proclaimed him to be a “close friend and trusted advisor of our President, Richard M. Nixon.”
Instead, it was Baker who sounded the theme that brought down Nixon: “What did the President know, and when did he know it?” The usual Republican role on such committees is to serve as the respectable front for the Democratic hit men who know what they’re doing.
As a witness, however, Pat Buchanan refused to play along with the committee. As Stanley Kutler recounts in The Wars of Watergate, Buchanan slashed the committee for its leaks and its (disgusting) treatment of administration witnesses. At the time Newsweek sorrowfully described the “turnabout drubbing” the committee had taken “from a pugnacious White House speechwriter named Buchanan.” But it was Dean’s turn in the spotlight as Nixon’s Judas that persisted in the nation’s consciousness. By the time Buchanan testified, the cameras had been turned off.
Buchanan may have been one of the few administration witnesses who had not engaged in criminal misconduct in connection with Watergate. In that respect he had an advantage over colleagues such as Haldeman, Ehrlichman and Dean. His testimony seems to me to set an example of how innocent conservatives should approach show trials that Democrats convene to serve as forums for hanging judges with higher ambitions.
It is John Ashcroft’s gutty performance before the 9/11 Commission that brings Buchanan’s Watergate testimony to mind. Consider Wlady Plesczynski’s column on Ashcroft’s testimony: “Gorelick licked.” Robert Tagorda provides more on the subject of Gorelick over at Priorities and Frivolities (this is a priority) in “Gorelick’s conflict of interest,” as do David Rivkin and Lee Casey in their Washington Times column “Shaking the trees.”

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