It's been a little more than 40 years since the Watergate break-in that led to the toppling of the presidency of Richard Nixon. For one Washington attorney, it also marked the beginning of a long career that continues today.
Bingham McCutchen partner James Hamilton started his practice at Covington & Burling after law school and did a lot of work for longtime partner Charles Horsky, who also served in the Kennedy and Johnson White House. It was Horsky who recommended Hamilton to Samuel Dash, the co-chief counsel for the Senate Watergate Committee alongside Fred Thompson.
"I had been doing complex litigation, and Sam thought this was going to be a document-heavy case and that I had some useful background," Hamilton said in a sit-down interview about his role in the Watergate probe. "We didn't know when we started off what we would find."
Hamilton's main assignment was the investigation of the Watergate break-in and cover-up, but he also handled all the committee's major litigation.
"Jim McCord, one of the burglars, sent a letter to Judge John Sirica saying there had been perjury at the first Watergate break-in trial and a cover-up of the involvement of a person of high rank in the break-in," Hamilton said.
From there, the committee started talking with John Dean, the counsel to President Nixon. Dean thought he was going to be made a scapegoat and disclosed conversations with Nixon and how there was indeed a cover-up.
"Dean went before the committee and testified for several days," Hamilton said. "At the time, this was the biggest soap opera on TV. The country was enthralled. Dean had told Nixon that there was a cancer growing in the Presidency, meaning the on-going cover-up."
The White House rebutted Dean, saying that he was not being truthful and critics accused Dean of trying to save his own skin. The watershed moment of the investigation came with the testimony of Alexander Butterfield, the deputy assistant to Nixon. It was Butterfield who revealed the existence of the Nixon White House tapes.
"This changed the course of the investigation, and it is fair to say, the course of history," Hamilton said. "The tapes in large part verified what Dean had said and led to Nixon's downfall. The Supreme Court's decision that required Nixon to turn them over to Special Prosecutor Leon Jaworski was Nixon's eviction notice. Several of the conversations showed that he participated in the cover-up. Dean's testimony was the flash of light that brought home the extent of Nixon's involvement."
Soon people started to call on Nixon to resign, which he did in August 1974.
Looking back, Hamilton said he is thankful for the opportunity to be part of such an historic investigation.
"At that time, this was about the best job in the country for a young lawyer interested in government and investigative work," Hamilton said. "It was a very fascinating experience because of the issues and people we dealt with, and it remains very vivid in my mind today."
But for all of the controversy surrounding the investigation, it involved a true bipartisan effort.
"While this was a very controversial investigation, it largely was done in a nonpartisan way," Hamilton said. "Republicans and Democrats in the main tried to act in an even-handed manner. The decision to subpoena Nixon for the tapes was unanimous. The decision to sue Nixon when he rebuffed the committee's subpoena was unanimous. And the decision to issue the voluminous Watergate report was unanimous. In Washington today, where there is so much partisan bickering, you would not achieve this type of unanimity."