By Michael McCord
Courtesy of the late great David Halberstam came this remarkable historical nugget: in late February 1974, Watergate Special Prosecutor Leon Jaworski sat down for a “quiet dinner” in Washington with top editors and writers of Time magazine.
Safe to say, Special Counsel Robert Mueller will take part in no such supper.
When I saw this otherwise minor vignette a few days ago, it was, given our current predicament, a scene stealer. It came during a partial reread of The Powers that Be (1979), Halberstam’s sprawling, highly entertaining, and modifier-heavy chronicle of American media heavyweights — New York Times, Washington Post, Time, CBS & Los Angeles Times — from the 1930s (the rise of Franklin Roosevelt) to 1974 (the fall of Richard Nixon).
I was focused on learning more about media coverage of Watergate. Halberstam, a wonderful gossip and superb historian, expertly captured the wild and challenging ebb and flow of Watergate as a public phenomenon. Even when matters seemed crystal clear, they weren’t, and when big breakthroughs in public knowledge occurred, serious lulls followed.
In particular, by the beginning of 1974 — after more than 18 months of stories, compelling Senate hearings, the October 1973 Saturday Night Massacre (which led to Jaworski’s appointment), some indictments, and calls for Nixon’s resignation — it was, according to Halberstam, a time of “some uncertainty.” This was due to the velocity of headlines, hearings and confirmed public knowledge creating a race of public expectation that left political and legal processes far behind. Not unlike today with a president so clearly in need of removal, there was a fear that Nixon might be able to hold on, keep his base together and avoid Impeachment conviction in the Senate (when Nixon resigned after his criminality was laid bare, his public support was around 25 percent. Expect the same if not more from the Trump cult).
According to interviews conducted by Halberstam, the “vain and clever” Jaworski came to the dinner with the Time brain trust to share some speculative inside information and solidify media support for what was to come (Jaworski’s choice for dinner companions was not accidental: Time had already called for Nixon’s resignation in the fall of 1973. Also: back in the day, Time was very influential).
“It came at a critical time for the Special Prosecutor’s office,” Halberstam wrote. “The staff there had just received the tapes and was bitterly divided over whether to indict Nixon or simply to name him as an unindicted co-conspirator…Jaworski had been unusually careful and restrained with the press, but that night, needing help and needing allies, he deliberately decided to stretch his discretion to the absolute limits.”
Stretch those limits he did. Jaworski asked the Time people a hypothetical question which no doubt caught their attention: what would the President do if there was hard evidence of crimes and he had committed an impeachable offense. When one writer suggested Nixon would resign, some laughter broke out, as though the concept was not fully conceivable despite what was known.
Jaworski said “Well, let’s not laugh at that…suppose the President knows we have this tape which is so damaging, knows we have have this information. Wouldn’t he think this is good time time to get out and give a self-sacrificing speech and say he was doing it as a magnanimous gesture?”
Halberstam wrote that no one at the gathering laughed anymore. It was also clear to everyone that Jaworski did not want to indict the President of the United States. According to Halberstam, Jaworski’s press secretary Jim Doyle was amazed at the “indiscretions” his boss had shared and dreaded the consequences of such knowledge leaking. When Ed Magnuson, one of Time’s top political reporters, later wrote to Jaworski and asked why “he had been outspoken,” Jaworski replied it was critical at the time to be candid: “that unless they knew which way the process was going, they could easily be mislead.” (Halberstam didn’t hold back that Jaworski wanted a Time cover, which was a really big deal in the pre-Internet universe. A few weeks later, Jaworski got his wish.)
In addition to some unhappy Watergate prosecutors who believed Nixon could and should have been indicted (former Watergate prosecutor Jill Wine-Banks has been eloquent and insistent on this point during her frequent appearances on MSNBC), Jaworski also displeased another important constituency — the Watergate grand jurors.
According to a 1982 ABC News report, members of the 30-month long Watergate grand jury believed justice had not been served. They pushed hard to indict Nixon in the summer of 1974 after hearing the tapes. Jaworski refused, citing lack of precedence for indicting a sitting president and fear that it would further it traumatize the country. In late July 1974, the House Judiciary Committee approved three articles of impeachment but Nixon was not impeached: he resigned, was pardoned and he kept his government pension.
Every day Trump becomes more and more unhinged and his lawlessness more and more certain — only in Trumpland could a conman stooge like Matthew Whitaker be the Acting Attorney General which is the equivalent of Trump pissing on the rule of law — and his Republican allies show few signs of abandoning their complicity. As the country plunges forward into uncharted waters — with freshman Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich) promising to “impeach the motherfucker” and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi insisting that indicting a settled president is not out of the question — a friendly dinner in 2019 between a special prosecutor (or in Muller’s case, a Special Counsel with fewer powers and independence) and critical media representatives would be inconceivable for scores of proper reasons.
There is a piece of history worth debating. Would the country have been better off and the concept of rule of law been better preserved, if Nixon had been indicted? What kind of a message would that have sent to the future?
Michael McCord is an award-winning journalist and writer living in New Hampshire. He is the author of the forthcoming political satire End Times: More Great Adventures in Real America, the second part of his Real America saga. Follow him on Twitter (@mmgolfer) and find out more at https://www.michaelmccordauthor.com