During the televised Watergate hearings senators kept reminding witnesses that they were all part of a “great civics lesson,” that the revelations and expiations were necessary steps in a painful process of education that could prevent the country from making the same mistakes again.

After six months of presenting their celebrated hearings, members of the Watergate committee themselves demonstrated how hard it can be to absorb the lessons of their inquiry.

On November 19, the committee’s chief counsel, Sam Dash, suspended one of his staff members for being the source of a magazine article containing unflattering comments about his colleagues. No one accused the investigator, Scott Armstrong, of incompetence or poor performance. Indeed, Senator Lowell Weicker has called him “the best investigator on the staff,” and, even in announcing the punishment, Dash called Armstrong “a very fine staff member who will be welcomed back [at the end of his one-month suspension without pay] because we need him.” Nor was there a suggestion that Armstrong had leaked any substantive information about the committee’s work. The article that undid him, “Senators, Sandbaggers, and Soap Opera,” by Timothy Crouse in the November 22 issue of Rolling Stone, contained nothing new on where the committee was looking or what might crawl out from under the next rock to be upturned. Instead, the Crouse article quoted anonymous sources to portray the committee as an organization run with all the selflessness of the Medici Court and the competence of the Lavender Hill Mob. This, for example, was his description of how the committee’s three assistant chief counsels—Terry Lenzner, James Hamilton, and David Dorsen—got along with their boss:

“Everyone hates Lenzner and his crew because they think they’re better than anyone else and let them know it,” says a Majority staffer. “Terry’s a prima donna, and he’s caused a lot of clashes. He ran into trouble with Buchanan [presidential adviser Patrick Buchanan, who appeared to best Lenzner at one session] , but he’s still the best cross-examiner on the committee, and it’s a shame that Sam Dash hasn’t let him ask more questions in the hearings. Sam’s an egomaniac and he won’t let anyone else handle a major witness. He doesn’t mind Jim Hamilton so much, because Hamilton’s so lame. I mean, Mardian [Assistant Attorney General Robert Mardian] got on the stand and just ate Hamilton up. And Dave Dorsen’s a passive type, so he doesn’t worry Sam. But Lenzner’s a fireball. He threatens Sam. And there was so much flak after the Moore session [in which White House counsel Richard Moore, silver-haired and feigning the onset of senility, made Lenzner look like a character out of Clockwork Orange] that the Senators didn’t want to put Lenzner back on, either.

There was more in this vein, especially about chief minority counsel Fred Thompson and Senators Baker and Gurney. Not all of it came from Armstrong, but a lot did and that was what earned him his punishment. The process leading up to the suspension took more than a week and revealed some unpleasant truths about the way power can affect those who exercise it. Knowing what we do about the Nixon inner court, none of this would seem surprising if it involved the leak-haters of the White House—or, indeed, if Sam Dash and his crew were as tediously self-righteous as they often appear over the airwaves. In fact, Dash, et al., are decent, likeable men, but they were sharpening the knives of retribution in a fashion which was only a faint shadow of the Nixon plumbers but which was a shadow nonetheless. It’s tempting to make “sense” of such a situation by assuming that the behavior was actually better than it seems, or that the people are worse. But fudging the evidence sacrifices the importance of the case, the meaning that grows from its very inconsistency and that applies not just to politics but to culture and commerce as well. It is that bad men aren’t the only ones who do bad things, and that the forces which make the bad men worse can also affect those with high purpose and a distinguished record.

It’s Fratricide Time!

“It was on a Friday afternoon—that would be November 9—when it first started being handed around,” says one person involved in the affair. “People were saying, ‘Hey, have you seen Rolling Stone?’ and then, ‘Hey, where did this come from?’ “

For all the upset the piece caused, it might well have appeared in the Congressional Record rather than in a rock magazine whose other big articles in the same issue were on the Grateful Dead and a truck driver’s blues. In some of the hipper parts of the country, Rolling Stone‘s political coverage has attracted considerable attention. Hunter S. Thompson’s hallucinations about the body politic first appeared there, as did Crouse’s fine pieces on the presidential press corps. But in Washington, where light reading means picking up The New Republic, Rolling Stone‘s day is still to come.

But no one was feeling philosophical about gnat bites from the world of rock when the issue was hot off the press, and copies were being marked up to indicate the juicier quotes. The day after the story came out, Dash walked into the tacky auditorium that has been converted, Resurrection City-style, into committee headquarters, where he was surrounded by staff members “in a state of emotional pique.” Just what happened from that point on is hard to pin down with great precision, since Armstrong refuses to comment at all and the staff members in general speak with all the forthcomingness of McGeorge Bundy and Robert McNamara musing on the early days of the war. Dash, who was the key man in the Armstrong deliberations, is the only one who will speak for the record, and while he seems candid and sweetly reasonable, he does have an interest in imparting a certain perspective on the affair.

As reconstructed, the events were friendly competition was causing. The lackluster hearings in late summer which turned the daytime airwaves back to the soap operas not only left the staff with a little more time for quarreling, but also brought knocks from the press for “incompetence” and sloppy performance, which improved no one’s temper.

Out of the Closet

Into this atmosphere came just the kind of article designed to enrage everyone. The whole committee had been put on the roaster before, but the criticism had mainly come from the likes of William Safire, the Manchester Union-Leader, and the Senate’s own version of Bebe Rebozo, Edward Gurney. While Safire could be considered the enemy, the quotes in the Crouse article were interpreted by the members as an inside job. Their potential for havoc was increased because they did what all good reporting about Congress should do—attach names and personalities to the anonymous creatures who run around as The Staff. Committee staffs in general, and this one in particular, are more important than the big- name Congressmen in determining how well an investigation is carried out, but in the six months of Watergate hearings the public had come to know Joseph Montoya’s every quirk while hearing nothing at all about Mark Lackritz, Bill Shure, Scott Armstrong, Polly Dement, or the several dozen other investigators who were actually working on Haldeman, Mitchell, and Hunt. What “in-depth” coverage there was of the staff was confined to the poobahs—Dash, minority counsel Fred Thompson, deputy counsel Rufus Edmisten and Lenzner-HamiltonDorsen. So in taking on the staff, Crouse was doing an important job, but one not likely to please its subjects.

While the wounds were still fresh, on the weekend on November 10-11, the investigation got under way. Dash ordered his investigators to prepare a report on the case, in which offending quotes would be matched with possible sources. Despite early speculation that the source had to be one of the handful of people who came off well in the article—Lowell Weicker and his associates, and Rufus Edmisten (Armstrong was not mentioned)—Armstrong soon saved everyone the trouble of a manhunt by admitting that he had been responsible. As he explained it to Dash and later to the staff members, he wouldn’t retract the names he’d called people, but he hadn’t really expected to see them appear in print.

“He knew he’d been foolish and indiscreet, and he felt terrible about it,” Dash says. Another staff member adds, “I got the feeling that Tim came to Scott and said, ‘I hear Terry Lenzner’s a prima donna, is that true?’ and Scott didn’t deny it.” Whatever the circumstances of the quotations, by November 12 there was no secret about their source.

But finding a leak who would admit he’d been a leak solved one problem only to pose a more complicated and far more time-consuming one. Someone had to figure out what to do about it. That someone quickly turned out to be Dash, to whom the Senators were only too pleased to leave the messy role of internal disciplinarian. When Sam Ervin had first heard of the case, he had urged Dash to dump Armstrong. But he did so only because he thought the Crouse article incriminated Armstrong in previous leaks of substantive material from the committee’s files. Told differently by Dash, Ervin happily stayed out of the matter.

Over the next week Dash and his employees spent between a few and a lot of hours each day on the case. Contact had to be maintained between Armstrong and his victims, the victims and Dash, Dash and Armstrong, and the press and no one. Armstrong made a series of apologies and explanations, and Dash, while emphasizing the final decision would be his alone, collected advice.

The thoughts running through Dash’s mind during this week have been subject to differing interpretations. The day after the suspension, The New York Times quoted an unnamed source as saying “The minute Sam saw that part about his being an egomaniac, he went bananas. Nobody else who mattered gave a damn but Dash.”

Dash himself vehemently denies that he was working personal vengeance on Armstrong, and of all the people on the staff who now say they just shrugged off the article’s criticisms, Dash is most convincing. In person he lacks the grating traits of his TV persona, especially the droning artlessness of speech and the guise of cardboard superiority. When he says that he admired Scott, that he was anguished about what to do, he conveys the genuine impression of a man caught in a vise: ” I had hired Scott at the recommendation of Bob Woodward at The Washington Post, who told me that if I wanted a tough investigator, someone with guts and integrity who wouldn’t leak, this was the guy to get. Because of Scott’s friendship with Woodward, he had been suspected of leaks before. I had checked all those reports out, and I firmly rejected the suggestion that he had leaked before. He had been careless and naive in this case, but I was very moved by his personal integrity
and guts in admitting what he’d done.”

Dash knew too that this was no marginal performer on the block but one of his stronger investigators. Armstrong had been working on Bebe Rebozo’s affairs, and he was regarded as one of the best investigators on Terry Lenzner’s sharp team. Lenzner himself, who was by no means flattered in the Crouse article and who says Armstrong made a “serious error of judgment,” strongly urged Dash not to punish Armstrong.

But Lenzner wasn’t the only one giving Dash advice. Pushing from the other side were, according to most reports, minority counsel Fred Thompson (a “twisted shit” in the words of a non-Armstrong source quoted in the story) and three others offended by the article: Dorsen, Michael Herschman, and Wayne Bishop. James Hamilton, who weeks later was still irate about the piece, removed himself from the deliberations. The others did not.

As he turned the matter over in his mind, Dash must have come upon one especially compelling argument for clemency. Given that Armstrong had been indiscreet or even foolish, the best way to handle the case might be not to cast the sinner out, but to tell him he’d made a mistake, make sure everyone knew it was a mistake, and then stick with him in hopes that the staff would emerge with greater morale and enhanced respect for its leader. Dash himself had once profited from such a policy of forgiveness. Full of his own authority, he had decided one day early in the committee’s history to hold an impromptu Saturday morning press conference. This left the committee’s senators in varying degrees of ire. Several wanted to fire him on the spot, but after reflection they considered that internal vengeance would do far more harm than good.

But even as he remembered the clemency extended to him, and even as he stressed that he would decide by himself free of external pressure, Dash knew it was delusion to ignore the accumulated bitterness on the staff. In an interview, he made a wan attempt to recapture the vindictive mood, saying that everyone had been working hard and that internal criticism like Armstrong’s makes “you go home sick and want to vomit. I’ve got a tough enough skin myself, but I was bothered to see the staff so upset. It could interfere with our work. There was a danger that we’d be ‘wallowing’ in this affair for too long.” In the back of Dash’s mind too was the likelihood of losing some of his other investigators if he didn’t punish Armstrong. The whole affair seems to have been played out under such pressure that no one was able to step back and think about the most important question the incident raised—why the staff had become so Balkanized and suspicious that these few off-hand quotes would throw it into an uproar.

So, after a Friday morning session generally described as a “bloodletting,” and after telling Armstrong on Saturday what he had decided, Dash gathered the staff on Monday, November 19, and announced his “compromise” decision: Armstrong would be suspended without pay for a month, but could then return to the fold.

In remarks quoted by the Associated Press that day, Dash said that Armstrong “had broken a pretty ironbound rule that is broken too often.” Those who understood Dash’s allusion to the no-leak rule might have been permitted a chortle at the “ironbound” description. During its relatively brief existence the committee has leaked an astonishing amount of material. After a while it became the custom for the committee’s bombshells to make headlines in The Washington Post—the day before the hearings. Just about the only major news items that didn’t leak were Alexander Butterfield’s testimony about the White House taping system, and the “Colson memorandum” that linked Nixon to ITT. Before Armstrong, none of the sources had been caught, and Armstrong would probably have escaped if he hadn’t confessed. The poor capture record is, in fact, to Dash’s credit, for he has refused helpful suggestions from people like Gurney that he run all his staff members through a lie detector to find the culprits. Even if he caught the small fry, of course, the leaks would not have stopped, for the senators themselves were enjoying the thrill of feeding the press.

Of course Armstrong’s case was special—why else was he the only one punished? The committee’s explanation is that he was the only one caught. “Scott was unique because he was man enough to admit it,” Terry Lenzner says.

Fine. But to outsiders another peculiarity of the case is just too tempting to ignore. Armstrong’s leak was the only one that had nothing to do with the substance of the investigation. These were not John Dean’s diaries he was feeding out or the latest summary from L. Patrick Gray. They were only comments on the people he worked with, a group like any other which contained its share of incompetents and lightweights. Nothing he said affected the rights of witnesses, or the content of the study, or anything but his colleagues on the staff. “Scott didn’t tell me a single substantive thing,” Crouse says. “Everyone else on the staff has told a member of the press some substantive detail. Scott has not. All he told me was about some of the folks on the staff and how they worked.”

This feature of the Armstrong case did not escape the notice of that enthusiastic scourge of the Ervin committee, Senator James Buckley. In a Senate speech on November 21 he said:

You can imagine my delight when I saw the headline suggesting that the chairman had changed his mind and that those who had abused the rules of the committee by leaking confidential information were being investigated and punished.

Alas, such is not the case. As I read the story, I discovered that it was not concern for the rights of witnesses that brought about the suspension but the concern of certain high-ranking staff members for their own image…. I am puzzled that the committee should feel it could devote more than a week to search for someone who said unpleasant things about Mr. Dash—whether these judgments are true or not is irrelevant to my point—but will not spend five minutes in an attempt to identify those committee staffers who leak confidential information involving outsiders. In his letter to me, the chairman of the select committee dismissed Patrick Buchanan’s complaints over abuses by staff members by quoting Truman’s aphorism, ‘If you can’t stand the heat get out of the kitchen.’ Yet when one of the staffers gave a reporter his nonprivileged views on Mr. Dash, the matter was considered so serious as to warrant a full-scale investigation lasting eight days.

Out of the Blue

The truth of the article’s allegations is hard to determine. Now that comments are on the record, staff members insist that the article was “unfair” and “a hatchet job.” On the other hand, it is fair to note that the criticisms did not exactly come out of the blue. For example, as soon as one Washington reporter saw a passage in the story about an investigator “so bad he might single-handedly put the committee out of business with one of his fuck-ups,” he telephoned Crouse to say he knew exactly who the story was referring to.

But as Buckley suggested, the accuracy of the criticisms is not really the point. True or false they provoked the committee to a reaction, and it is there we may go for education. The televised hearings had jacked staffers up one level of public visibility; when they watched the taped replays at night they must have thought, “My God, do I really slouch like that?” Political caricature is one step higher, and Crouse was the first one to take them there. By the time he got to be Secretary of Defense, Melvin Laird must not have minded too much to see cartoonists draw his head in the shape of a bomb—that was how the game was played. But committee staffers like James Hamilton hadn’t been parodied before, and it came as a shock.

Hamilton is a good example of the committee’s peculiar reaction to the story. He was the lawyer who prepared a legal brief that Judge Sirica eventually threw out of court, and Crouse’s article savaged him for that. Hamilton had worked for six years in Covington and Burling, one of Washington’s nut-cracking law firms, before coming to the committee, and he could take professional criticism with equanimity: “If someone doesn’t approve of the way I do a job, it doesn’t worry me. I can weigh his opinion against those who have congratulated me.” What really seems to bother Hamilton is the “knit-brow” passage:

Hamilton is a slim, dark-haired young man with a blank face and a habit of knitting his brow when asked a question. “You walk into Jim’s office and ask him a question,” says a Majority staffer.”He knits his brow and looks puzzled, and all you’ve asked him so far is, ‘How are you today, Jim?’ “

“A person can take one feature like that and make you look like a fool,” Hamilton says. It is fruitless to reply that this hardly represents the far extreme of political caricature, or that Hamilton does indeed have the kind of worried face often seen staring into destiny from the pages of high school yearbooks. It is only natural that the people who were satirized felt like throttling either Crouse or Armstrong. The complaint against them is that they let themselves be diverted from their real task by an essentially trivial irritant.

Monster Stories

The complaint is one of style, of instinct and reaction. The committee was faced with a temptation infinitely less serious than those the Nixon Administration encountered in the days of the “national security” leaks. There was no Daniel Ellsberg here, not even columnists revealing new investigative plans. All that was at stake was internal cohesion, a serious enough matter but not one presenting the kind of drastic challenge the Nixon White House mistakenly saw in Ellsberg. How did the committee respond? With the same reflexes as those that led to the plumbers operation: they launched an investigation, invested a week in deliberations, and became more impassioned by the whole affair than by much of their real work. Like the Nixon Administration, the committee seemed not to discriminate between the leaks that genuinely threaten the national security or the fair operation of justice, and those that were merely irritating. In the President’s case, data about the Polaris submarine is an illustration of the kind of information the country couldn’t afford to leak. But 98 per cent of the other leaks that caused the p 1 umber-mania—including Ellsberg’s embarrassing but purely historical revelations—had no conceivable relation to our national safety and well-being. The committee, too, had its genuine secrets to guard (though it often failed in this task), but Armstrong’s quips just didn’t fit that category.

To be sure, the committee’s actions were not remotely comparable to Nixon’s; no civil rights were abused nor laws violated. But the mentality which forced Dash to suspend Armstrong was a more civilized version of the philosophy this committee has taught us to denounce in Nixon. And that is precisely the difficulty: that the lessons have all been about Nixon and his band of henchmen and not about the way men go wrong when close to power. Everything has encouraged us to identify monstrous acts with the monsters who committed them, to assume that only a Haldeman or a Mitchell could carry out the wiretap plans, and that only a Nixon could create the atmosphere in which all else flourished. If we are honest with ourselves we may admit that many of the facts piled up in the last year have been side-dressing to our opinion of Nixon. Many of us suspected all along that he was a crook and a tyrant; we felt contempt for the cronies he brought in to serve with him. And look! The facts have proven us right.

Viewed in this way the whole Watergate affair has an illustrative value but not an educational one. Confined to monsters it yields us only lessons about monsters—it is as if we assumed that World War II meant only that Hitler was demonic and the German people obedient, and not that the human capacity for evil was so easy to tap. It is no wonder that the Watergate committee did not detect the singular gracelessness of its position, in which the very group that had been applying Public Scrutiny as the remedy for all seamy situations suddenly drew into its shell when the circumstances were reversed. They couldn’t see themselves reacting in the same way as Nixon, because they knew they were better people than Nixon’s group.

They are indeed superior—Dash, Hamilton, Dorsen, and the rest are intelligent, engaging, honest. These decent people, in power, succumbed to a temptation of power. Their reaction suggests that the most important lessons of Watergate are not about the enemies list or the corrupt values of Southern California, Florida, and the other places that make up what Kirkpatrick Sale has called the “Southern Rim,” but rather about the way men in positions of responsibility can fail, even honest, likeable men. This truth has been grasped in part. Long before the Armstrong episode, Sam Dash fired a committee investigator for using the committee’s name and stationery for private purposes. “It was a microcosm of the whole problem we were investigating, the misuse of public power,” Dash said. Yet the committee’s behavior in the week of November 12 shows that the implication has not been fully understood.

The question David Halberstam posed in The Best and The Brightest was how so able a group as the Kennedy men could do so much harm. It is an interesting question, but the fact that we would not bother to ask it about the Nixon men shows how committed we still are to the monster theory of government failure. The Watergate case can offer an enormous number of lessons about how power corrupts and government fails—”government” in a sense not confined to Washington, but embracing the whole series of institutions by which we manage our lives. The last year has provided fragments that might answer Halberstam’s question, or help us understand why Joseph Seamans, former Secretary of the Air Force, as decent and urbane a man as any in the government, led the campaign to get rid of Ernest Fitzgerald, or why good men running agencies like the Peace Corps or the Environmental Protection Agency soon find themselves hunting the leakers as if they were working in the Nixon White House. But if we assume that the Watergate case applies only to Nixon and his monsters, the lessons will be lost. When we understand that they apply to good men as well, we will be ready to learn.

James Fallows

James Fallows began his magazine career at the Washington Monthly in the 1970s, later serving as editor of U.S. News & World Report and as a White House speechwriter. He has written 12 books, the most recent being Our Towns, coauthored with his wife, Deborah Fallows, which was a national best-seller and the basis of a 2021 HBO documentary.