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Sam Ervin took down Nixon. We’re still waiting for his heir

Maybe Nancy Pelosi needs to appoint a small select committee modeled after Watergate

Folksy North Carolina Sen. Sam Ervin, center, chaired the committee that destroyed Nixon’s strongest claim to power — his political popularity, Shapiro writes. (CQ Roll Call file photo)
Folksy North Carolina Sen. Sam Ervin, center, chaired the committee that destroyed Nixon’s strongest claim to power — his political popularity, Shapiro writes. (CQ Roll Call file photo)

OPINION — It is easy to imagine an undiscovered Samuel Beckett play entitled “Waiting for Mueller.” On stage, faithful Democrats vacillate between stubborn hope (“He should be here”) and fatalistic despair (“He didn’t say for sure that he would come”). In the end, they just wait, day after day.

Whatever Robert Mueller’s internal timetable (seers like Rudy Giuliani have so far been comically wrong in trying to predict it), the investigation will face new pressures with the virtually certain Senate confirmation this week of William Barr. For the first time, Mueller will be supervised by a legitimate attorney general — rather than an acting Donald Trump factotum — who has avoided any promises about releasing the full report.

All of this might be ominous for Mueller were it not for existence of Democratic House committee chairmen armed with subpoena power. Jerry Nadler, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, just pointedly announced the appointment of two high-profile Trump critics (Norman Eisen and Barry Berke) as legal consultants.

At moments like this, it is tempting to dust off Watergate parallels from the Saturday Night Massacre (Richard Nixon ordered the firing of special prosecutor Archibald Cox) to the House Judiciary impeachment vote that helped precipitate Nixon’s resignation.

But there are major differences between Trump’s current troubles and Nixon’s resignation beyond the existence of a presidential Twitter account and capital-letter tweets wailing and railing about a “WITCH HUNT.”

Trump’s behavior, from his fan-boy embrace of Vladimir Putin to his cynical profiteering from his hotel empire in the White House, has never been subject to sustained congressional scrutiny. Fired FBI Director James Comey’s June 2017 appearance before the Senate Intelligence Committee remains the most dramatic congressional hearing about Trump’s conduct in the Oval Office.

In dramatic contrast, the Senate Watergate Committee hearings, chaired by folksy North Carolina Democrat Sam Ervin, paved the way for Nixon’s downfall. For 51 days from May until November 1973, Americans of all political persuasions were riveted by the Ervin hearings that were broadcast gavel-to-gavel and repeated in the evenings on PBS. According to the Gallup Poll, more than 70 percent of Americans watched at least part of the hearings.

Watch: How does impeachment work?

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The hearings had everything, including the stunning revelation by Nixon aide Alexander Butterfield that the president had a taping system for recording conversations in the Oval Office.

The parade of witnesses included comic characters like tough-talking retired New York City detective Tony Ulasewicz, who recounted his adventures as a Nixon bagman delivering cash payoffs to the plotters behind the Watergate break-in. But the hearings were mostly defined by gravely serious witnesses like former White House counsel John Dean, who testified about telling Nixon, “There was a cancer growing on the presidency and that if the cancer was not removed, then the president himself would be killed by it.”

(I should mention that the idea for this column was triggered by a recent conversation with Taylor Branch, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Martin Luther King biographer. More relevant, Branch was the ghostwriter for Dean’s bestselling Watergate confessional, “Blind Ambition.”)

The Ervin committee hearings destroyed Nixon’s strongest claim to power — his political popularity.

At the beginning of 1973, fresh off his 49-state sweep against George McGovern, Nixon boasted a lofty approval rating of 68 percent. By August 1973, Nixon had lost more than half his supporters, with the Gallup Poll clocking him in at a dismal 31 percent. Although Nixon survived in the White House for another year, his approval rating never again came close to 40 percent.

Despite a mostly buoyant economy, Trump’s own approval rating has been bouncing along for months just over 40 percent. But for all the attention devoted to the Mueller investigation in Washington, there remains a level of abstraction surrounding it. It’s like a battle scene in Shakespeare when everything is occurring offstage — and the audience just gets periodic bulletins from messengers and wounded soldiers.

While nothing is certain, the odds seem high that Trump’s popularity would take a major hit if Americans got to view protracted public testimony from the likes of Michael Cohen, Roger Stone, Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn and, yes, Jared Kushner. Whether the topic were plans for the Trump Tower in Moscow or campaign payoffs to the president’s purported paramours, it would be hard for honest Republicans to dismiss such a tawdry parade of Trump associates as “fake news.”

But a dramatic set of congressional hearings needs more than just a compelling roster of witnesses. Part of the secret of the success of the Ervin committee was that, as a select Senate body, it was limited to just seven hand-picked members. As a result, senators could pursue their inquiries without being tongue-tied by arbitrary time limits.

Nadler’s Judiciary Committee, in contrast, has (gulp) 41 members. Unless committee Democrats are willing to subordinate their political egos for a larger cause, there would be no way to follow a consistent line of inquiry in the face of expected GOP obstruction.

Maybe the solution would be for Nancy Pelosi to appoint a small select committee on the Watergate model. Or maybe the bulk of the questioning before the Judiciary and similar committees should be handled by senior staffers and outside attorneys rather than individual legislators preening during their five minutes on camera.

All predictions about Trump’s future have to be balanced against the reality that House Democrats are planning what they hope will be the most explosive set of congressional hearings in nearly half a century.

These hearings may prove as politically important as the Mueller report itself. Which is why there may be still another Beckett play called “Waiting for Nadler.”

Walter Shapiro  has covered the last 10 presidential campaigns. He is also a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.