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the COGENT PROVOCATEUR:
free agent, loose cannon, pointy stick ...
... gateway to the next Progressive Era?
Some say it's nothing but a train wreck ... roll in the big cranes, clear the track, see what the crew was smoking. If I thought so, I'd not be writing this ... and if they thought so, they'd not be drumming so hard.
OTHER GOOD STUFF:
Many thanks to Tony Adragna and Will Vehrs, still shouting 'cross the Potomac at QuasiPundit. Early Camp Enron material can be found in QP's Dispatches department.
Friday, May 24, 2002
--- What Did the Senator Ask ... and Why Did He Ask It? ---"What did the President know ... and when did he know it?" For all who recall Watergate, this crystallizing question is etched in iconic memory. Often condensed as "What did he know, and when did he know it?", it's been trotted out at any number of subsequent history's lesser "gotcha" moments.
Of late, this question in this context has been met with howls of outrage, as an unthinkable accusation of Presidential complicity in the 9/11 attacks. Ironic, since "The Question" was originally framed as an abstract of Nixon's defense, not as an accusatory brief.
As vice-chair of the Senate Watergate Committee, Senator Howard Baker (R-TN) was expected to run interference for the President, observe the formalities, and help give the whole stinking mess a decent burial.
Baker had accepted the post with skepticism, later recalling that he saw the Watergate committee as "just a partisan caper by the Democrats. I didn't think it would get anywhere." ( Oakridger)Baker's opening statement [1973-05-17] framed it a bit differently:
This is not in any way a partisan undertaking, but, rather, it is a bipartisan search for the unvarnished truth.Yes, mistakes had been made ... campaign hotheads cooked up a rogue operation, and it got out of hand. Not unusual in politics. But now an alliance of political enemies (God knows, he has enemies), journalistic guttersnipes and disgruntled aides had Nixon entangled in a web of guilt by association.
The Question was engineered to take the sting out of testimony that could be damaging but inconclusive. A clarion call to reason, it would carve a clean separation between the festering predicament surrounding Nixon's men (how high up did it go, anyway?), and dispositive links to Nixon himself ... links that (presumably) would never be produced, because they (presumably) never existed, because Nixon (presumably) never dirtied his own hands by directing break-in's and coordinating cover-up's.
[Voices of Nixon & Co. can still be heard reassuring each other over Baker's ability to deflect this or that investigative thrust. Taping proceeded contemporaneous with the hearings until Alexander Butterfield disclosed the existence of an Oval Office recording system -- well after Baker first laid The Question on the table.]
Bartleby's dates the quotation to 1973-06-28, with Baker putting it to White House counsel John Dean: "The central question is simply put: What did the president know and when did he know it?" But the Senator had been rehearsing this line for weeks ... despite staff pressure to whip up something with a little more pizzazz. He uncorked it against a key witness widely thought to be acting out of inexplicable ulterior motives. A Democrat sleeper agent? A Soviet sleeper agent? Who knew?
It would be Dean's word against Nixon's. Dean was a nobody, and Nixon held the high ground. Dean himself only inferred Nixon's early involvment in the cover-up, not the broader network of crimes and conspiracies. The Question would set Dean's uncorroborated suspicions in context, and Nixon could go on being Nixon.
In the end, Baker's patient, persistent defense interrogatory "What did the President know ... and when did he know it?" would forge link after link in a chain of evidence that eventually sealed Nixon's fate.
Like committee counsel (and now Senator) Fred Thompson's line of questioning that led Butterfield to blurt out his awareness of the Nixon Tapes, The Question stands as a classic case in point of the lawyer's maxim "Never ask a question you don't know the answer to".
But The Question should be remembered first and foremost in light of its original context and intent ... as a rhetorical defense motif for a President who (presumably) had nothing to hide.