Linked in history — Watergate and Common Cause

Linked in history -- Watergate and Common Cause

This essay was prepared for Common Cause’s “Lessons of Watergate” conference, March 13 -14, 2013 at the National Press Club, Washington, D.C.

Common Cause was less than one month old when it first showed up on Richard Nixon’s radar screen.

An entry in White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman’s diary for Sept. 20, 1970 reports that the President wanted aides to “deal and needle” Common Cause “and try to push them to the left.” Nixon apparently believed the fledgling “citizens lobby” could be made into a third political party, splintering Democrats and smoothing his path to a second term in 1972.

As it turned out, Democrats found other ways to splinter themselves in that election. Common Cause stayed out of partisan politics and the plot Nixon envisioned against it seems never to have gotten beyond the discussion stage.

But the destructive impulses evident in the President’s diatribe that September morning at Camp David ultimately did in Nixon himself, and Common Cause had a central role in bringing them to light.

A lawsuit brought by Common Cause in 1972, well before the Watergate break-in, forced the Committee to Re-elect the President (CREEP) to reveal the names of donors who provided millions of dollars to the Nixon campaign, including large sums provided in the weeks before a new disclosure law took effect.

“They were rushing the money in thinking they would not have to disclose,” said Fred Wertheimer, then a lobbyist and lawyer at Common Cause and later its president. CREEP collected more than $6 million in the last few days, “literally in suitcases and satchels of cash,” and ended up having to disclose the donors after Common Cause convinced a judge that the existing law required it, Wertheimer said.

A list of Nixon donors unearthed by the suit led to a series of successful prosecutions for violation of campaign finance laws. Reporters christened the list, which turned up in Nixon secretary Rose Mary Woods’ White House safe, “Rose Mary’s Baby,” after a horror movie of the same name that was popular at the time.

Common Cause’s opposition to the Vietnam War, its dogged pursuit of information about Nixon’s contributors and its support for tougher campaign finance laws repeatedly drew Nixon’s ire. Days after winning a second term, Nixon met with Haldeman again at Camp David, telling the chief of staff that “of course, we’ve got to go after Common Cause.”

Common Cause and its founder, John Gardner, also showed up on the famous “enemies list,” as did Morton Halperin, a former aide to Henry Kissinger who for a time served as a consultant to Common Cause on Vietnam.

The enemies list identified Halperin as a “leading executive at Common Cause,” adding that “a scandal would be most helpful here.”

As the Nixon presidency unraveled through 1973 and ’74, Common Cause kept up the pressure for fuller disclosure of the President’s role in Watergate. In April 1973, Gardner urged the President to proclaim a “national day of explanation” on Watergate and “stand up and talk, talk, talk until the air is cleared.”

And in the wake of Nixon’s resignation in August 1974, Common Cause took the lead in successfully lobbying for the public financing system used to pay for at least part of every presidential campaign from 1976 through 2008. In 1976, when the Ford administration and then-Solicitor General Robert Bork offered an ambivalent defense of the Federal Election Campaign Act, the most important post-Watergate reform law, Common Cause took charge of defending the law in the landmark case of Buckley v. Valeo.

Common Cause was “the central outside player” in the effort to redress the campaign finance abuses revealed by the Watergate scandal, Wertheimer said. It “was the worst political scandal of the last century,” and Common Cause’s work “established the organization as the lead organization working on issues of government integrity and transparency and accountability.”

Common Cause remains a prominent force on behalf of those issues today.

“Our determination to secure a reversal of Citizens United through a constitutional amendment permitting Congress and the states to put reasonable limits on political spending is rooted in the lessons learned during the Watergate era,” said Common Cause President Bob Edgar. “Unless we find a way to get control of big money in our elections, the corruption and abuse of power we witnessed during Watergate are sure to be repeated.”