Both revolve around an out-of-control president who was out of touch with reality and involved in potential crimes. So the investigation into the Jan. 6 assault on the US Capitol was bound to trigger comparisons to the assorted investigations into the break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Hotel that took place 50 years ago.
One key difference: The starring role women are playing in the battle for truth.
Last week, Cassidy Hutchinson was Exhibit A. Her courageous testimony about interactions between her boss, chief of staff Mark Meadows, and President Trump revealed important details about Trump’s desperate play to stay in power. Contrast the image of the now 26-year-old former White House aide testifying before the Jan. 6 committee to that of another woman eternally connected to Watergate: Richard Nixon’s secretary, Rose Mary Woods. Woods took the blame for the mysterious erasure of a taped conversation between the president and his chief of staff, H.R. “Bob” Haldeman. The famous photo of Woods contorting her body — and with it, the truth — as she tried to explain the erasure is the antithesis of Hutchinson’s appearance before the Jan. 6 committee.
Hutchinson has been called “the new John Dean” — a reference to the White House counsel whose devastating testimony during the Watergate hearings helped oust Richard Nixon from the White House. But she’s more impressive. In exchange for his testimony, Dean pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and got a reduced jail sentence. Hutchinson didn’t trade for anything. She engaged in no known wrongdoing. She simply saw truth-telling as her duty and refused to cover for the powerful men around her. For that, Trump personally attacked her, calling her “this girl” in a Newsmax interview, and adding: “She has serious problems . . . mental problems.”
Representative Liz Cheney, the vice chair of the Jan. 6 committee, has been holding Trump accountable from the day of the assault on the Capitol. The Republican from Wyoming took on Trump and her own party, and she now leads a forensic search into what Trump knew about the Capitol attack. She was ousted by fellow Republicans from her House leadership role, and she’s being challenged by a Trump-endorsed primary opponent. But she isn’t backing down. To the contrary, she’s telling Republicans they can choose Trump or truth.
Georgia election workers Shaye Moss and her mother, Ruby Freeman, should not be forgotten either. They delivered powerful testimony concerning lies about election rigging that were spread about them by Trump supporters and the threats they received in the aftermath. They bravely came forward without the benefit of a famous name or political pedigree. In extraordinary times, they are ordinary Americans standing up for democracy.
In contrast, the overwhelming image from the Watergate era is that of powerful men investigating other powerful men — the bipartisan Watergate Select Committee was all male. But of course, women were part of the story too. Female staffers like Hillary Clinton worked behind the scenes. Some women played back-up roles, like Dean’s wife, Maureen, sitting loyally behind her husband during his testimony. The female whistle-blower was Martha Mitchell, the wife of Attorney General John Mitchell. She leaked details of the scandal to reporters and was punished for her disloyalty by Nixon aides who disparaged her to the press as mentally unbalanced and a drunk.
Jill Wine-Banks (then Wine-Volner) was the only female on the team of prosecutors investigating the Watergate break-in and subsequent coverup. Dubbed “the mini-skirted lawyer,” she suffered other indignities, chronicled in her book “The Watergate Girl: My Fight for Truth and Justice Against a Criminal President.” She’s currently a legal analyst for MSNBC.
Then, there was Woods. She became part of the Watergate saga after White House aide Alexander Butterfield revealed that Nixon had been using a voice-activated tape recording system for all Oval Office conversations. When the tapes were finally released, it turned out that a key conversation between Nixon and Haldeman had been erased. Taking the blame for part of the tape erasure, Woods said she reached to take a phone call when she was transcribing it and her foot hit a pedal on the recording machine. That caused the tape player to “record” over the original content. After she reenacted what supposedly happened for reporters, the absurd photo of her contortions led to mockery about “the Rose Mary stretch.” When Woods died in 2005, William Safire, The New York Times columnist who previously worked as a Nixon speechwriter, told NPR, “She wasn’t involved in the coverup. She was involved in being loyal and fighting for her boss.”
Hutchinson, Cheney, Moss, Freeman, and other women involved in the Jan. 6 investigation are defining loyalty in a very different way. They are fighting for truth, accountability, and democracy, and that’s the image they will leave for history.