Watergate Survivors

While some careers ended, others were launched to political prominence

By Jeanne Meserve/CNN

WASHINGTON (AllPolitics, June 12) -- Watergate is known for the careers it ended, but for some, Watergate was a beginning. For several players, it was a launch pad to political prominence.
The televised hearings of the Senate Select Committee on Watergate catapulted Sen. Howard Baker to the front ranks of his party. He went on to become Republican leader of the Senate and a presidential contender.
Looking back, Baker says, "That was the meanest time in public life I've ever lived through. It probably conditioned the players, the people involved, in a way that probably served them well in years to come."
People like William Cohen, who served on the House Judiciary Committee.
Cohen voted to impeach his own party's president. During the Iran-Contra investigation he was critical of another Republican president: Ronald Reagan. Now he serves a Democratic president, as secretary of defense.
And that young fellow who sat next to Cohen during the Judiciary Committee hearings? Trent Lott. Lott supported his president then, and leads his party now in the U.S. Senate.
The House and Senate committees investigating Watergate drew their staffs from among the best and brightest young lawyers in the country. Now some of them are political players.
Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is now embroiled in a few ethics controversies of her own, served as a counsel to the House Judiciary Committee.
Bernard Nussbaum, former White House counsel, also worked for that committee. So did William Weld, now the Republican governor of Massachusetts.
Former Impeachment Committee member Rev. Robert Drinan says, "I think that they got a certain visibility and experience at that time and that law firms and government agencies would want them."
Now a senator, Fred Thompson was drawn to Washington to serve as Republican counsel to the Senate committee. His interrogation uncovered the Nixon tapes.
"It was a bad atmosphere, it was a real downer. I had enough of it after Watergate, I was ready to get out of town and resume my normal life," Thompson recalls.
But it seemed a logical segue when a star of the television hearings became a star of the silver screen. And logical too, when Thompson moved from the sound stage to the political stage.
Now Thompson is a lead actor in another investigation: this one into campaign finances.
Thompson says, "There are probably more pitfalls than advantages politically for a person doing what I'm doing right now. Most investigations are deemed a failure because they don't produce a smoking gun or a taping system or a John Dean."
But Thompson harbors presidential ambitions. And as a veteran of Watergate he knows as well as anyone that an investigation is a platform from which some politicians can rise ...
... while others fall.

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