Fred Thompson has a new ad touting his days as the top Republican lawyer on the Senate Watergate committee’s staff:
In the ad, he boasts of having “helped to expose the truth during Watergate.”
The story is not that simple. As Thompson himself acknowledged in a 1975 book, right after the congressional Watergate investigators learned of Richard Nixon’s clandestine taping system, Thompson tipped off the Nixon White House that the Capitol Hill gumshoes had uncovered this big secret. This was not S.O.P. for a prosecutor. (Thompson had been an assistant U.S. attorney previously.) A member of an investigative team usually does not unilaterally rush to tell the subject of a probe–via an unofficial back channel–that he or she has just discovered a possible treasure trove of evidence against the target.
Referring to this episode, Scott Armstrong, an investigator for the Democrats on the committee, in July told The Boston Globe, “Thompson was a mole for the White House. Fred was working hammer and tong to defeat the investigation of finding out what happened to authorize Watergate and find out what the role of the president was.”
The Nixon tapes show that Thompson also cooperated behind the scenes with the Nixon White House regarding how to handle the public testimony of John Dean, a White House lawyer who had turned against Nixon and his aides. (On those tapes, Nixon referred to Thompson as not “very smart” but “friendly,” meaning friendly to the White House, not to children and puppies.) In a conversation with Nixon on June 11, 1973, shortly before Dean was to testify, J. Fred Buzhardt, a Nixon lawyer, informed the president that Thompson was “now willing to work with us” in trying to undermine Dean. “He was far more cooperative really than I expected him to be,” Buzhardt remarked, noting that Thompson “said it’s just getting to be a political dogfight.” Buzhardt also told Nixon that Thompson was more willing to engage in political battle concerning the hearings than Senator Howard Baker, the top Republican on the Watergate committee, who had hired Thompson, a fellow Tennessean. (The transcripts of these tapes were published in 1997 in Abuse of Power, edited by Stanley Kutler.)
On his website, Thompson neglects to mention his role as a snitch and Nixon comrade. In his campaign bio, only one line describes his Watergate committee service:
He gained national attention for leading the line of inquiry that revealed the audio-taping system in the White House Oval Office.
That’s not accurate.
As the Globe noted, it was another Republican staffer, Don Sanders, who, during a private interview with a Nixon aide named Alexander Butterfield, asked the question that led Butterfield to disclose Nixon had covertly recorded conversations. Days later, when Butterfield was to appear before the Watergate committee for a public hearing, Baker insisted that Thompson ask Butterfield the question about the White House taping system. (Everyone on the committee knew the question would yield an explosive, headlines-grabbing reply.) So exploiting good material developed by someone else, Thompson got to play the starring role in that important Watergate drama. The website gives the misleading impression it was his digging that led to unearthing Nixon’s secret tapes.
And there’s another Watergate matter that does not reflect well on Thompson. As Kutler points out in his definitive account of Watergate, The Wars of Watergate, Thompson worked with Baker to limit the Watergate hearings:
Baker and Thompson labored [in May 1973] to ensure that the hearings would end by June  and to keep them confined to the Watergate break-in, dirty tricks and campaign financing. At a crucial May 8 executive session of the committee, Baker argued that the [Watergate] burglars…and the arresting police officers should appear first, followed by [Nixon aides] Mitchell, Colson, Haldeman, and Ehrlichman. Dean would be last, thus enabling the others to avoid responding to his accusations.
That is, Baker and Thompson were trying to rig the hearing schedule in Nixon’s favor. Senator Sam Ervin, the Democratic chairman of the committee, shot them down, and the hearings ended up running well into the summer. But all’s well that ends well–or, at least, that is forgotten. Had the hearings been conducted in the manner Baker and Thompson desired, Thompson would never have had the chance to ask Butterfield the well-prepared question that now supports his mythical Watergate accomplishment–and a rather selective campaign ad.