Bill Cohen was certain of one thing in June of 1974: The voters of Maine would not send him back to Congress.

The 33-year-old Bangor mayor had been elected to the U.S. House of Representatives less than two years earlier but had done something unthinkable to many of his Republican colleagues and constituents: He’d voted to hold a president of his own party accountable to congressional investigators, opening a path that could lead to his impeachment.

President Richard Nixon, who had fired the independent investigator probing possible White House involvement in breaking into the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters in the Watergate Hotel, had offered to give the House Judiciary Committee edited transcripts of tapes he had secretly recorded of some of his key conversations. Cohen, a former prosecutor and defense attorney back in Maine, had voted with Democrats on the committee to demand access to the tapes themselves.

“I had thousands of letters coming in and Republicans were saying that they would never support me again,” Cohen recalls. “So it seemed very clear to me that I was a one-term congressman, and I was OK with that. I said, ‘I came here to do the right thing, and so be it.’ ”

So began an ordeal that would subject the young congressman to death threats, hostility from his colleagues and a deluge of angry letters that took his junior intern, 21-year-old Caribou native Susan Collins, and other staffers hours to wade through. In the crucible of the Washington summer, Cohen held his own, pursued the facts and ultimately was vindicated, when evidence emerged showing Nixon’s direct and criminal culpability in the cover-up of the break-in.

Now, 43 years later, Collins is a senator on the congressional committee spearheading an investigation into possible wrongdoing by another Republican president, and likely feeling many of the same pressures her mentor and former boss faced in the summer of 1974, when Nixon’s supporters condemned the Watergate probe as a Democratic trick to overturn the people’s will and his most stalwart opponents wanted him removed from office before all the evidence was in.

U.S. Rep. William S. Cohen on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., circa 1973. Photo by Dennis Brack/Black Star

The Maine Sunday Telegram spoke to Cohen and several of his former aides about what it was like to conduct a nonpartisan investigation of one’s own president in a partisan moment, what the consequences were and how today’s environment varies from that of the Watergate era. They tell a story about the role of both fate and character and of the relative dangers of our age, when established facts no longer take precedence over demonstrable falsehoods in the minds of the public and public figures.

“It’s almost difficult to remember that those events took place in a world without the accelerant of social media,” says longtime Cohen associate Bob Tyrer, who joined the congressman’s office straight out of high school after seeing him in the televised hearings. “It was slower and more deliberative, and while it was astonishing, there was the reassurance that the system was able to deal with it. It remains to be seen, because the president’s party controls Congress, whether congressional oversight will be as aggressive and dispassionate in the ways it needs to be.”

A simmering scandal

President Trump isn’t facing impeachment, but it’s hard to miss the parallels between Watergate and these first five months of 2017. There are questions about malfeasance during a presidential campaign, concerns about the firing of officials leading investigations into the same and debate about a suitable replacement for the FBI director. Senators are calling for the release of tapes the president may have made of key White House conversations, while some of the president’s supporters decry it all as an effort by the media and the establishment to overturn the results of an election.

Trump has been in office only a few months, but in the summer of 1974 the Watergate scandal had been brewing for two years. Nixon campaign aides had bugged phones at DNC headquarters and, on the night of June 17, 1972, five of their hirelings were arrested while breaking into the DNC offices to repair the wiretaps. New revelations trickled out in the coming months – including investigative reports by Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward – tying the Watergate “burglars” to senior White House officials.

In 1973, an independent investigator was appointed, and, during televised Senate committee hearings looking into the matter, aides revealed the existence of a secret taping system Nixon had installed in the White House. When investigator Archibald Cox subpoenaed the tapes, Nixon had him fired, along with two senior aides who themselves refused to carry out the firing. In response to a maelstrom of negative press reaction, Nixon famously proclaimed: “I’m not a crook.”

Into this crucible came a largely unsuspecting Bill Cohen, a Bangor High School basketball star who had served as Penobscot County attorney and as a Bangor city councilor and mayor before being elected to Congress in November 1972. “I didn’t really have any experience in a legislative body before coming to Washington,” he recalls. “The City Council and mayor – that was all nonpartisan, and I was always concerned about having consensus there. My whole training as a prosecutor and a lawyer was to just follow the evidence and pursue the truth. I might have been more cynical if I had had more legislative experience.”

Because of his interest in the law, Cohen asked for and received a seat on the Judiciary Committee, one of the least sought-after positions. “Seeking a seat on the Judiciary Committee was highly illogical for a freshman congressman,” says Tyrer, who joined Cohen’s office in 1975 and has worked for him in various capacities ever since. “The issues involved in a normal session are all controversial – abortion, school prayer – which have zero positive impact on your constituency and the maximum possibility to annoy.”

Instead, Cohen and his committee colleagues confronted one of the most consequential decisions in congressional history: whether to pass articles of impeachment. “The very notion that you would consider moving to remove the president of the United States, a man I had voted for a short time before and had supported,” Cohen recalls. “I knew this would be the biggest trial-like case that I would ever have, so what I did was study the material and read and memorize everything in preparation.”

Months before his resignation, President Richard Nixon faces a televised event with The Associated Press Managing Editors at Orlando, Fla., on Nov. 18, 1973, where the beleaguered president felt obliged to say: “I’m not a crook. I’ve earned everything I’ve got.” Associated Press

Going it alone

Cohen’s own staff was largely young, inexperienced, and hadn’t had time to win the trust of their boss with a high-stakes issue. “Don’t forget, he was a very junior member, and it takes 20 years to have any committee staff people who have any loyalty to you,” recalls Mike Hastings, who was a special assistant to Cohen at the time. “As the investigation heated up, Bill wanted to become his own expert, so he was spending more and more time in the bowels of the Rayburn Building, looking at the documents that were coming in, and we were seeing less and less of him.”

Harvard University law professor Richard Fallon was then Cohen’s press secretary. “I was 22 years old and had not even graduated from college yet,” he recalls. “It’s striking to me in retrospect how hugely junior his staff was, with no lawyers on it. My sense was that he just took those transcripts and went off by himself and pored over them so he could be as prepared as he could be for every set of questioning. He wrote all his Watergate speeches, and he handled almost all the national media stuff himself. My role was pretty much limited to cranking out press releases for the Maine media.”

The only “adult” on the staff who might have had input into the Watergate issues, several aides recalled, was Chief of Staff Tom Daffron, who had served as an aide to both Democratic and Republican members of Congress and would work with Cohen for nearly two decades. (He hired intern Susan Collins as a legislative aide in 1975 and she would serve Cohen for 12 years before embarking on her own career. She and Daffron married in 2012.)

“Cohen was just a beacon of courage and toughness,” Fallon adds. “Nobody pushed him or pulled him, and there were lots of people trying to push and pull him.”

Republican colleagues already distrusted Cohen, who in a flight of apolitical idealism had dressed down one of the most powerful and liked Republican congressmen, Minority Leader Gerald Ford of Michigan, during the latter’s hearing to be confirmed as vice president to replace Spiro Agnew. Ford had made light of Cohen’s question about Nixon having offered the FBI director’s position to a judge then presiding over the trial of one of the president’s associates; Cohen scolded him in a speech championing the need to have deeds speak louder than words, especially when the issue is influencing “the impartiality and neutrality of a presiding judge in one of the most historic cases of the decade.”

Cohen acknowledges he was out of line. “I was just a young whippersnapper, and Gerald was one of the most popular members of the Congress and had been there 20 or 25 years, so my colleagues were aghast,” he recalls. “You could say I did it out of idealism, but others might say naïveté. I thought, ‘Aren’t we all here for the same reason, to pass legislation and get things done?’ And what I found was that politics was much more hard-edged and cynical in Washington” than it had been in Bangor.

Hate mail and death threats

On March 15, 1973, President Nixon speaks to reporters at the White House. He would resign less than a year and a half later. Associated Press/Charlie Tasnadi

As the impeachment hearings got underway, the national spotlight shone on every statement and appearance Cohen made, and his failure to join in an unqualified defense of the president made him very unpopular with party stalwarts. He started receiving letters containing nickels and dimes – a reference to the apostle Judas’ betrayal of Jesus for “thirty pieces of silver” – or small stones (a mute accusation that he was proverbially casting the first one). One Nixon supporter memorably wrote to declare “may a thousand camels relieve themselves in your drinking water.”

There were death threats against him and his children. At one point a bomb threat forced the committee to evacuate its quarters. Many of his Republican colleagues were furious that he wasn’t being a team player.

On one occasion, Cohen charged out onto D Street after making a tough committee vote, seething with anger. “Like some Rambo character, I had been firing mortal thoughts in a wide arc of outrage at everyone in sight” in the committee room, he later recalled in a memoir. “I did not doubt that I had cast the ‘right’ vote that night. But I knew intuitively that I had crossed a line that would define the rest of my career in Congress – which at the moment I believed would be of limited duration.” Symbolically, when he turned to re-enter the Longworth Building, he discovered the door had locked behind him.

Then, on July 28, he and five other Republican members of the committee voted with the Democratic majority to draw up articles of impeachment. “I would never compromise what I think is the right thing to do for the sake of an office; it’s just not that important,” he told the Bangor Daily News at the time. “Only time will tell if the people will accept that judgment.”

Then, a few days later, another tape emerged – the “smoking gun” tape proving Nixon had been deeply involved in the cover-up of the Watergate burglary and had lied to the American people. Nixon was forced to resign.

“Suddenly there was a switch in the people who had been defending the president,” he recalls. “That’s when people back in Maine, Republicans, started to turn around and said, ‘We were wrong, and you were right, and we’ll support this.’ ”

Cohen was re-elected handily that fall, and went on to serve three terms in the U.S. Senate and as Democratic President Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Defense.

“Watergate changed everything,” says Hastings, who later worked for Sen. George Mitchell. “The position he took turned out for the best in terms of his future career, and he went into the Senate as somebody who was bipartisan and willing to accomplish things legislatively.”

A Factless, more dangerous time

Now his former intern, Collins, is the most moderate Republican on an investigative panel whose findings might one day result in calls for impeachment, and serves alongside Sen. Angus King, who was also on Capitol Hill in the summer of 1974, serving as a junior aide to Maine Sen. William Hathaway, whom Cohen successfully challenged in 1978. And Cohen thinks the pressures on them are in many ways even greater.

“Today, by virtue of what President Trump has done by accusing the media of lying and being corrupt and untrustworthy is to have fed the notion that nothing is the truth, that there are alternative facts, as (Trump spokeswoman) Kellyanne Conway says,” Cohen says. “Then it’s not facts, but just who do you believe. And that’s a very dangerous world.”

“That makes it much more difficult for people in office to say, ‘I am seeking for the truth and am getting the facts’ when you have an administration that has alternate facts,” he says. “You can have alternative interpretations of the facts but not alternate facts.”

Colin Woodard can be contacted at:

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