James Hamilton Contrasts Watergate and January 6
For more than half a century, James Hamilton has been an active participant and an inside
observer of some of the most consequential moments in modern US history. He has been
involved in investigations concerning Watergate, the Kennedy assassination, “Debategate,” the
Keating Five, the Clinton impeachment, Vince Foster’s suicide, the Valerie Plame affair,
Benghazi, and the Major League Baseball steroids scandal. He argued against Brett Kavanaugh
in front of the Supreme Court and won. James has written about his career in his book
Advocate: On History’s Front Lines from Watergate to the Keating Five, Clinton Impeachment,
and Benghazi.
Below he uses his experience to compare the Watergate Committee and the January 6
The Senate Watergate Committee. The House January 6 Committee. Both focused on a corrupt
president. Both were highly successful in informing the nation of wrongdoing. But how different
they were in approach and historical context.
Consider these facts about the Watergate Committee.
1. The committee essentially proceeded in a bipartisan fashion. It was established by a 77–
0 Senate vote. The questions revealing the existence of the Nixon White House tapes
were asked by Republican staffers. The committee’s votes to subpoena Nixon for the
tapes, and then to sue him when he rebuffed the subpoena, were unanimous. The vote
to adopt the committee’s massive report damning the Nixon Administration was
unanimous. Such bipartisanship would not be possible in today’s divisive world.
2. When the Watergate Committee began, its ultimate conclusions were unknown. It was
not until Watergate burglar James McCord claimed there was perjury in the trial of the
burglars and that higher-ups were involved until John Dean testified that Nixon was
involved in the cover-up, and until Alexander Butterfield revealed the existence of the
White House tapes that the committee’s primary focus shifted to President Nixon.
Eighty million people watched in suspense to see where the hearings would lead.
3. The committee presented facts in an old-fashioned way—by putting on witnesses and
subjecting them to cross-examination. Videos of executive session testimony were not
used. The testimony of witnesses, some of whom were hostile, was at times
unpredictable. While a coherent story was presented, the hearings were not minutely
Now consider these facts about The House January 6 Committee.
1. This committee has been a partisan affair from the beginning. It was created by an
essentially party-line vote. Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy had the right to appoint five
members to the committee, but he withdrew his nominations after Speaker Nancy
Pelosi rejected two of them, including firebrand Jim Jordan. Pelosi herself appointed
two Republicans—Vice Chair Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger—to the committee, but
they are known for their opposition to Trump and are pariahs in the Republican Party.
2. There is no mystery or suspense as to the outcome of the committee’s investigation.
During the first hearing, the committee announced that President Trump had an
unlawful “sophisticated seven-part plan” to stay in office. The committee’s hearing is
filling in the details of that seven-part plan. Some of the information presented has been
indeed shocking, but the committee’s final conclusion as to Trump’s conduct has never
been in doubt. Perhaps in part due to the lack of suspense, only around twenty million
people so far have watched the hearing.
3. The committee’s hearings have been well-orchestrated presentations. Witnesses have
testified, but their testimonies are part of carefully scripted sessions where committee
members lay out the basic facts, and excerpts of video depositions and messages are
used to bolster the case being made. There has not been any hostile cross-examination.
There are, of course, a lot of ways to skin a cat—or expose a corrupt president. The Senate
Watergate Committee did it one way. The House January 6 Committee chose another. Given
the time restraints, it faced, with the predicted change of control of the House in November,
the choice of the latter is understandable. (The Watergate Committee, with more time, had
over 280 hours of public hearings.) While recognizing the different approaches and the
disparate partisan context, the work of both committees should be applauded. We will see if
the January 6 Committee ultimately changes the course of history as the Senate Watergate
Committee did.
James Hamilton is a retired partner from the Morgan Lewis law firm.