W. Joseph Campbell

Recalling Mansfield’s contribution to unraveling Watergate

In Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on May 29, 2010 at 1:22 pm

Politics Daily posted yesterday an admiring piece–make that a hagiographic piece–about former U.S. Senate leader Mike Mansfield, saying his “savvy and sensibilities … are what our politics need on Memorial Day 2010.”

Well, maybe.

Mansfield (left), who died in 2001, was a Democrat from Montana and the Senate’s longest-serving majority leader, holding the position from 1961-1977.

In its most interesting passage, the Politics Daily commentary recalled Mansfield’s seldom-remembered contribution to unraveling the Watergate scandal, which culminated with President Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974.

The commentary noted:

“He insisted on a special Senate committee to investigate the unfolding sins of the Nixon era … Because of Mike’s strategic decision to make the Senate investigation open, fair and bipartisan, the country supported a constitutional political process that, for the first time in history, forced a crook out of the White House.”

While that’s a bit over the top, it is clear that Mansfield’s efforts as majority leader to empanel a bipartisan select committee was crucial to the outcome of the scandal, which broke in June 1972 with the arrest of burglars inside Democratic National headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C.

As Stanley I. Kutler, the leading historian of the scandal, wrote in his fine book, The Wars of Watergate:

“Watergate might have remained as the story-that-never-was had it not been for the determination of Mike Mansfield and Sam Ervin.”

Ervin, a Democrat from North Carolina, “played a crucial role in securing Senate passage of a resolution calling for the creation of a Select Committee to investigate illegal and unethical conduct in the 1972 presidential campaign,” Kutler wrote. “Mansfield, meanwhile, worked behind the scenes to marshal Democratic support for the resolution. He kept Ervin in the forefront, shrewdly using Ervin’s political capital among Southern Democrats and Republican senators.”

Ervin presided over the hearing of the select committee, which riveted much of the country during the summer of 1973. Its investigation led to the disclosure that Nixon had secretly tape-recorded most Oval Office conversations. Those tapes were crucial to revealing Nixon’s complicity in the scandal and forcing his resignation.

So why is this of interest, and pertinent, to Media Myth Alert?

Recalling Mansfield’s role illustrates anew how a variety of forces were needed to bring down Nixon’s corrupt presidency–a point raised in Getting It Wrong, my soon-to-be-published book that debunks prominent media-driven myths, those false, dubious, or improbable stories about the news media that masquerade as factual.

As I write in Getting It Wrong, rolling up a scandal of Watergate’s complexity required “the collective if not always the coordinated forces of special prosecutors, federal judges, both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the FBI.”

Even then, I argue, “Nixon likely would have served out his term if not for the audiotape recordings.”

The media-centric interpretation of Watergate is that the investigative reporting of the Washington Post was what brought down Nixon. A related claim is that if its reporting didn’t exactly take Nixon down, the Post alone kept the story alive in the summer and fall of 1972, when few people and institutions were much interested in Watergate.

Such claims are mistaken.

The Post didn’t take down Nixon; as leading figures at the newspaper have insisted as much from time to time over the years.

Nor was the Post alone in digging into Watergate during the summer and fall 1972. As I note in Getting It Wrong, rival news organizations such as Los Angeles Times and New York Times also pursued the scandal during those months.

Despite some revealing reporting by the Post and other news organizations, the dimensions of the Watergate scandal were hardly certain by May 1973, when the Senate select committee convened. It was “like an unassembled picture puzzle with crucial pieces missing,” Ervin recalled in his memoir of Watergate.

But with the committee’s hearings during summer of 1973, the scope of the scandal became clearer, leading relentlessly to Nixon and his closest aides.



  1. […] solidify the notion that the Post and its reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were central to unraveling the Watergate […]

  2. […] Senate Select Committee on Watergate–not Woodward and Bernstein–disclosed the existence of the White House tapes that […]

  3. […] forces included special Watergate prosecutors, federal judges, bipartisan panels of both houses of Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the […]

  4. […] but “Deep Throat” and his conversations with Woodward were scarcely pivotal in the U.S. Senate’s decision to empanel a select committee and convene hearings in 1973 about the Watergate […]

  5. […] on the scandal, for having “framed and, you know, created” conditions that gave rise to the Senate select committee’s hearings on Watergate during the summer of 1973. Those hearings are regarded as crucial in deepening public […]

  6. […] forced Nixon from office.”Those forces included special Watergate prosecutors, federal judges, bipartisan panels of both houses of Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the […]

  7. […] of investigative agencies such as the FBI in exposing the crimes of Watergate. Subpoena-wielding Congressional panels also were crucial to defining the scandal’s […]

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