The late Fred Thompson is being honored today for a remarkable life. He’s best remembered for his acting and an unsuccessful run for the presidency but his eight years in the Senate and accomplishments in the law also deserve respect. But it was the Congressional Watergate hearings that first brought Thompson, then a young lawyer and protégé of Tennessee Senator Howard Baker, into public view. Though that was just the prelude to a successful career, from the perspective of the fall of 2015, it is particularly significant because it illustrates the vast difference between the Congress of 1973 and that of today. With the partisan wrangling of the House Benghazi committee fresh in our minds, what Thompson did as the minority counsel on the Watergate Committee is simply unimaginable today. Then, both parties, including the one whose ox was being gored by the investigation sought to get to the bottom of the scandal. If such a committee were convened today to probe a sitting president, you can be sure that his party would, as the Democrats did while providing cover for Hillary Clinton on Benghazi, try to obstruct rather than assist its work.
The Congress of 1973 was a very different place than it was today. The incumbents in both Houses were part of a big club and had more in common with most members of the other party than they did with political activists that might have helped them gain office. That atmosphere created a political establishment that often seemed to be in business for itself. In particular, conservatives correctly felt this helped government to grow in power and scope because politicians used taxpayer dollars to fund initiatives that helped buy them votes rather than defending the integrity of the budget. The comity of Congress of that era made it a more pleasant place, and outliers who wished to jam up the works for the sake of ideology were unpopular pariahs.
That had to change, and the revolution that Newt Gingrich helped lead in Congress in the early 1990s was as necessary as it was inevitable. Part of that was a process by which the two parties stopped being loose coalitions united by opportunism rather than groups that offered genuine alternatives to each other’s policies. Those who lament the disappearance of liberal Republicans or conservative Democrats must ask themselves whether they really want to return to an era in which national politics was governed solely by the self-interest of its practitioners rather than by the wishes of the voters. Despite all the pious sermons we hear about needing to emphasize governance, all too often that has been merely the cover for business as usual. That means the taxpayers paying the price for measures that make the lives of representatives and senators easier and more secure.
The change has made politics messier and Congress a nastier place to work. The most distinctive feature of our national conversation is now divisiveness and extends even to the media that people read, listen to or watch. But for all of the justified complaints about the current situation, I don’t think either liberals or conservatives or that small group of independents in the middle really want to go back to what we used to have or anything like it.
But there was one aspect to the change in Washington that we should lament. In 1973, Republicans were not prepared to put their partisan loyalties, even to a president that had been re-elected only months earlier in a historic landslide, above their responsibility to investigate potential wrongdoing. That’s why Thompson, in his capacity as counsel to the GOP minority on the Watergate committee, pressed witnesses as closely as his Democratic colleague. While they may not have approached their task with the zeal of the Democrats, there was no thought in 1973 that the purpose of the Republicans there would be solely to play defense for the administration. So it was no surprise when it was Thompson’s questioning that elicited the replies that uncovered the facts about the secret White House tapes that blew the case open.
Liberals will now say that there is no comparison between Benghazi and the crimes of Watergate and they’re right up to a point. There is, as of yet, no conclusive proof of criminal behavior. But when the Watergate hearings began, we knew little about what Nixon had done either. But whatever you may think about Benghazi, we should focus on the principle involved in such investigations. Congress has a role to play in finding the truth whether it is about Benghazi or something else like the obvious wrongdoing at the IRS that the Obama administration was clearly unwilling to investigate or to respond to with appropriate action on its own.
If Democrats are being honest, they would admit that the only thing members of their congressional party think about is to shield the administration from scrutiny whether the issue is serious or not. And if Republicans are honest, they’d admit that in this hyper-partisan atmosphere the odds are most of them would behave the same way to defend a GOP administration that they might think is being unfairly hounded by liberals in the media or the other party. However, I will admit that it is possible to imagine the Tea Partiers of the Freedom Caucus tearing into the next Republican president with the same zeal as the Democrats if he or she displeases them. Their “against all flags” spirit may, as it already has done, make them unwitting allies of their liberal foes.
The memory of the Watergate committee should not lead us to rethink entirely the more ideological politics we have today. But it ought to make us ask our leaders to realize that there are higher values and more important principles to be defended than pure partisanship. That’s a lesson Fred Thompson taught us at the start of his public career and not one that we should forget now that he’s gone.