THE SUMMER OF 1973, for most Americans, will be remembered as the first of the "Watergate Summers." Under television lights in the venerable Caucus Room, the Senate Watergate Committee became an afternoon fixture almost as important as the soap operas it replaced on home television screens. Phrases like "At this point in time," and "What did he know and when did he know it?" as well as appointment logs and White House organization charts became the lifeblood of political conversations. The really knowledgeable viewers knew not only the names of the senators and their peculiar questioning habits, but the names of the senators and their peculiar questioning habits, but the names of the staff lawyers, Sam Dash and Rufus Edmisten for the Democrats, Fred Thompson for the Republicans. The summer's game was guessing the revelations the staff members were hiding behind their green covered table.
More than three years after his national spotlight faded, Samuel Dash, the chief counsel for the Watergate Committee, has come out with his version of the story called, appropriately, Chief Counsel. Although subtitled "Inside the Ervin Committee--The Untold Story of Watergate," Chief Counsel actually reveals precious little new information about the break-in, the cover-up, the associated dirty tricks, or anything substantive about the process of the Senate committee's investigation. What the book does provide is a large chunk of new Watergate trivia; gossip--and often nothing more--about individual senators on the committee and Dash's own investigators, spiced with a few professorial observations about due process and the role of congressional investigating committees.
Most personal narratives have their heroes and villains, and Chief Counsel is no exception. The hero, of course, is Dash himself, although Committee Chairman Sam J. Ervin of North Carolina takes nearly equal billing. The villain is principally Senator Howard Baker, the Republican from Tennessee, who served as vice chairman. Another villain, interestingly, is Archibald Cox '34, Williston Professor of Law, with whom Dash tangled during his short-lived role as the Watergate special prosecutor. It soon becomes clear that anyone who impeded the investigation that Dash envisioned comes under fire in Chief Counsel, and this predictability of Dash the author is what principally weakens the book.
In the opening chapters, Dash portrays himself as a reluctant warrior: a mild-mannered law professor who when asked by Ervin to act merely as a legal consultant to the committee is certainly honored to serve. The "who, me?" modesty that comes with Dash's added responsibility is quickly replaced by self-confidence as he tells his wife, Sara, an often-referred-to figure, "'I think I can. I know I can,' I said with a sense of exhilaration."' Later in the book, Dash tells of an article in Rolling Stone that was critical of his investigation and quoted an unnamed staff member as saying Dash was "egotistical." From Dash's own narrative, the description seems accurate.
Throughout most of Chief Counsel, Dash's principal adversary seems not to be Nixon or the White House, but Baker. In essence, Dash accuses Baker of serving as a tool of the White House while trying to maintain a facade of non-partisanship and professing a desire to get to the truth. Baker, he says, wanted to keep the public hearings short and start them early, before Dash felt ready to go before the television cameras with his evidence. Dash also suspects that Baker was behind Senate Minority Leader Hugh Scott's move to postpone John Dean's testimony for a week while Nixon met with Brezhnev. It seemed at the time that the delay was used to discredit Dean in advance, but in the end, Dash felt it backfired because of Dean's well documented testimony. The only confirmation of Dash's suspicions offered here is Dean's own evidence that Baker met with Nixon to discuss ways of limiting the Senate investigation.
Not all that Dash has to say about Baker is bad, however. When the members of the committee, along with Dash and other counsel, gathered in Ervin's small, dark paneled Capitol office to await a phone call from the president, the atmosphere was tense. Ervin and Baker, says Dash, traded country-lawyer stories to entertain the others. When Talmadge jokingly asked if they should all stand up when the phone rang, Baker betrayed a slightly different character in his reply. "I suppose we should, and then all sing 'Bail to the Chief,'" Baker said.
Dean and James W. McCord become two heroes in Chief Counsel, apparently because they cooperated with Dash and provided evidence crucial to the success of the hearings. Dean, for example, talked secretly to Senator Lowell Weicker of Connecticut and persuaded him that his testimony was explosive, thereby pushing Weicker into voting with the Democrats to grant Dean immunity from prosecution. Dash needed Weicker's vote to form a two-thirds majority on that question and others, so the chief counsel was grateful to Dean for his testimony and his political astuteness.
McCord, of course, is viewed throughout as one witness who started the avalanche of disclosures with his letter to Judge John J. Sirica and his subsequent testimony to the committee. With both Dean and McCord, Dash had to work slowly and cautiously, but because they finally cooperated, Dash treats them kindly in this book.
Cox, although he fought the despicable Republican architects of what Dash sees as a blueprint for a police state, becomes as much an enemy as Baker. Dash welcomes Cox and James Vorenberg, professor of Law, to Washington, but soon recoils in horror as Cox suggests that the time for the Senate's investigation has ended. Cox argued at the time that he was fully competent to investigate and prosecute the Watergate transgressions himself and didn't want the Senate committee interfering or prejudicing possible trials with excessive publicity. Dash, naturally, defended his position with vigor, and reports the following exchange:
Cox posed some further objections about the committee's publicity and ended up by saying, "What you're really saying to me, Sam, is that I should go back to Harvard."
"And what you're really saying, Archie," I replied flatly, "is that I should go back to Georgetown."
The committee's use of computer programs written by the Library of Congress for information storage and retrieval, one of the most interesting and little emphasized aspects of the investigation, becomes part of the Watergate story in Dash's book. After all the documentary evidence was catalogued, Dash was able to press a button and have a print-out of, for example, all testimony about the March 23, 1973, meeting between Dean and Nixon. Or he could have all the evidence relating to transactions between McCord and the comic ex-New York cop, Tony Ulasewicz. Access to this kind of this information must have been invaluable in sorting out the masses of documents the committee collected and was used by the special prosecutor's office and the subsequent House impeachment inquiry. Had the Senate committee been able to get accurate transcripts of Nixon's White House tapes, the computer could have answered in seconds Baker's famous question to Dean: "What did the President know and when did he know it?"
More than anything else, the issue of the tapes illustrates the irony that pervades the last few chapters of Chief Counsel. On the whole, the latter half of the book becomes more interesting as Dash describes the witness' actual testimony before the committee, which still stands as the most exciting part of the affair. But despite its interest, most of the material is not new. What is new, and a bit touching, is the committee staff's feeling of impotence during the summer of 1974. By then. the House impeachment hearings had its turn on television and the House members poured over the tape recordings that the Senate committee was unable to obtain the year before. Although it was Dash's investigators who first heard Alexander Butterfield detail the White House taping system, the committee never got the recordings or unedited transcripts.
By the time the House's creaky impeachment machinery swung into motion, and in fact, even as its first phase of public hearings ended in 1973, the Senate Watergate Committee had begun to outlive its usefulness. Dash acknowledges that the McCord, Dean and Butterfield testimony was all that was necessary to propel the Watergate investigation into a higher, more far-reaching stage.
Chief Counsel suffers mainly from Dash's perspective. While the chief counsel was on top of most of the investigation, Dash's personal narrative shows that he wasn't intimately involved in all of it. Although his descriptions of the early interviews with McCord, Dean and the committee members are interesting, Dash can't tell us what the first Butterfield interview was like because he simply wasn't there.
Of all the figures in Chief Counsel, perhaps Ervin is the one most sympathetically portrayed. Dash sees the gentle North Carolinian as the one who always fought for the right way to press the investigation--Dash's--and the one who should be credited with its success. In the same way, if Chief Counsel succeeds at all, it is because of Ervin and the investigation, rather than Dash himself.