The Fred Thompson Watergate Myth

In addition to his former role on NBC's "Law & Order" as tough-talking, gruff-but-lovable and fair District Attorney Arthur Branch, pending presidential candidate and former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee has benefited from a reputation for having served as an aggressive prosecutor while serving as minority counsel for the Senate Watergate Committee, officially known as the Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, chaired by Sen. Sam Ervin, D-N.C. Thompson's own exploratory committee Web site, ImWithFred.com, even lauds this bit of his history.

"He gained national attention for leading the line of inquiry that revealed the audio-taping system in the White House Oval Office," his official bio says (LINK).

But the reality is far more complicated than conventional wisdom and campaign puffery would have it.

While some Democrats on the committee to this day profess respect and admiration for Thompson, he was seen as others as a "spy" for the Nixon White House -- an accusation buttressed, at least in part, by Thompson's own writings, which confirm that he tipped off the Nixon White House about internal happenings on the committee.

Moreover, new transcripts from the Nixon White House tapes reveal that the Nixon administration regarded Thompson as a useful idiot -- "dumb as hell," in President Nixon's words, but "friendly." At one point, the White House counsel told Nixon that Thompson insisted he wanted to help the president more than his patron and boss on the committee, Sen. Howard Baker, R-Tenn, would let him.

Neither Thompson nor anyone from his potential campaign were available for comment.

The Question

It was July 16, 1973, and the committee was hearing from Alexander Butterfield, a deputy assistant to President Nixon.

"Mr. Butterfield," Thompson asked, "are you aware of the installation of any listening devices in the Oval Office of the president?"

"I was aware of listening devices," Butterfield said, "yes, sir."

That question led to Nixon's unraveling and ultimately his resignation, as various crimes and cover-ups were captured on those tapes -- tapes the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately ruled the White House had to turn over to Congress. As Thompson hagiography would have it, it was this question -- from a conservative but independent-minded 30-year-old Tennessee prosecutor -- that led to the downfall of a corrupt president.

The Reality

Except it wasn't so simple. First of all, Thompson already knew the answer to the question, Butterfield having been interviewed by committee staff three days before, in closed-door testimony July 13, 1973.

"Somebody from the [Lyndon] Johnson administration told us that Johnson had a taping system," said Terry Lenzner, then assistant chief counsel for the Democrats on the committee. "So we as a matter of course we're asking every witness, 'Do you have any information about that?'"

Thompson's deputy, Donald Sanders, a Republican, asked the question of Butterfield July 13, 1973.

"What that reflects is we were sharing information," said Lenzner. "The overall tone [on the committee] was pretty bipartisan particularly compared to what's going on now."

When it came time for the public hearing, the Democrats' chief counsel, Samuel Dash, wanted to ask the question, but Thompson's patron -- Sen. Howard Baker, R-Tenn. -- insisted that a Republican gets to make the inquiry since it had been a Republican to make the discovery.

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