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What the Jan. 6 hearings have in common with the Watergate hearings

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Thursday night at 8 p.m. Eastern time, the committee investigating the January 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol takes center stage. The group of seven Democrats and two Republicans will begin to lay out what they've discovered about that attack 18 months ago. ABC, NBC and CBS, along with CNN and MSNBC, will carry the hearing live.

NPR senior editor and correspondent Ron Elving says this moment is reminiscent of another watershed event, one that happened nearly half a century ago - the Watergate hearings. Ron is with us to remember back. Hi, Ron.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Sacha.

PFEIFFER: Ron, for people who don't know this or didn't live through it, describe the link between January 6 and Watergate.

ELVING: The common element would be a president trying to hold on to power - in one case by denying an election defeat and in the other earlier case by trying to prevent an election defeat. Now, in the case of President Richard Nixon, his reelection campaign in 1972 had a covert side operation that was breaking into various offices around the country, bugging phones, gathering intelligence on opponents and trying to disrupt their campaigns. Now, next week, we're marking the 50th anniversary of one particular burglary in that series that gave a name to the overall scandal - Watergate.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED NEWSCASTER: Good evening. We have a mystery story out of Washington. Five people have been arrested and charged with breaking into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in the middle of the night.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: The Democratic...

ELVING: On June 17, 1972, five burglars were arrested inside the office space that had been rented by the Democratic National Committee inside the Watergate complex here in Washington. And it was soon learned that some of those burglars had at least some sort of connection to the Nixon campaign or even to the White House itself.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Four more years. Four more years. Four more years.

PFEIFFER: But Richard Nixon was still reelected.

ELVING: In a landslide - one of the biggest in history. But not long after he had had his second inauguration, the lid on the Watergate story started coming off. Pretty soon, some of Nixon's top aides were resigning. And eventually, the Senate decided it needed to get to the bottom of it all.

Now, Nixon was a Republican, and Democrats controlled Congress, so in 1973, the Senate began a special investigation with a committee of five Democrats and three Republicans. Now, the chairman was a fellow named Sam Ervin. Most people called him Senator Sam. He liked to call himself an old country lawyer. Of course, he also had a law degree from Harvard. And he kicked off the proceedings on May 17, 1973.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SAM ERVIN: We are beginning these hearings today in an atmosphere of utmost gravity. The questions that have been raised in the wake of the June 17 break-in strike at the very undergirding of our democracy. If the many allegations made to this day are true, then the burglars who broke into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate were, in effect, breaking into the home of every citizen of the United States. And if these allegations prove to be true, what they were seeking to steal was not the jewels, money or other property of American citizens, but something much more valuable, their most precious heritage - the right to vote in a free election.

PFEIFFER: You mentioned there were five Democrats and three Republicans on that committee. How did the Republicans on the committee handle things?

ELVING: The most important Republican on the committee was Howard Baker, a two-term senator from Tennessee. He was the vice chairman. And in a sense, he became the embodiment of what happened on the panel that summer, starting out as a Nixon defender. But he came to see how wrong Nixon had been, and he asked a question at a key point in the process.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HOWARD BAKER: The central question at this point is simply put. What did the president know, and when did he know it?

PFEIFFER: And what seemed to have turned Howard Baker around?

ELVING: Certainly one key element was the testimony of John Dean, the young White House attorney who had been supposed to handle the cover-up for Nixon. Nixon had then subsequently fired him. Dean then became what you could call a witness for the prosecution.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: John W. Dean III.

ERVIN: Stand up and raise your right hand.

ELVING: Dean read his 245-page statement into the record over two days of riveting live TV.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN DEAN: I began by telling the president that there was a cancer growing on the presidency, and if the cancer was not removed, the president himself would be killed by it. I also told him...

PFEIFFER: Now at this point, Nixon and some of his inner circle were still denying everything. It was their word against John Dean's. What happened to change that?

ELVING: Nixon was weathering the storm, as you say, until a new element was introduced in the third month of the hearings. Fred Thompson, a member of Baker's staff, learned that there had been microphones and recording devices in the White House, including in the Oval Office itself, and that was something that they thought they should question a member of Nixon's staff about in the hearings.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ERVIN: Mr. Butterfield, are you aware of the installation of any listening devices in the Oval Office of the President?

ALEXANDER BUTTERFIELD: I was aware of listening devices, yes, sir.

ERVIN: Were you aware of any devices that were installed in the Executive Office Building Office of the President?

BUTTERFIELD: Yes, sir, at that time.

PFEIFFER: Ron, are these hearings that begin Thursday night expected to have anything like this pivotal a role to play in what happens next in this country's history?

ELVING: Obviously, we don't know yet. But think how hard it would have been to evaluate the Watergate hearings before we had heard from John Dean or found out about the tapes. We certainly did not know in 1973 that people would still be talking about those hearings 50 years later. Will we be talking about the January 6 attack on the Capitol 50 years from now? A big part of the answer to that question is likely to come from the hearings that begin at 8 o'clock on Thursday night.

PFEIFFER: That's NPR's senior editor and correspondent Ron Elving. Ron, thank you.

ELVING: Thank you, Sacha. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.