Courage and Cowardice

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, June 11, 2005

Today I take the foolhardy step of stomping on the lion's tail, not once but twice, and in this order: The Post's "Deep Throat" stories, and the Senate deal on judicial nominees that gave America Priscilla R. Owen, Janice Rogers Brown and William H. Pryor Jr.

Deep Throat

At first I thought it was an oversight on my part. Maybe I hadn't read our stories closely enough: A key name seemed to be missing. So I searched The Post's archives from the date W. Mark Felt was confirmed as Deep Throat to last Wednesday's edition. I couldn't find the name. To be absolutely certain, I asked our crack news research department to perform the same task. This came back in an e-mail at 7:47 p.m. on June 8: "You were right, last mention of Frank Wills was in movie review of August 20, 2004."

My goodness. How is it possible that The Post could publish reams of copy rehashing the Watergate scandal, complete with detailed timelines, personal recollections, character sketches and portraits of characters -- living or dead -- related to Richard Nixon's downfall, and not once mention Frank Wills?

Without Wills's devotion to his job, there would have been no arrest of five men inside the sixth-floor offices of the Democratic National Committee in the early morning hours of June 17, 1972. It was Wills, a 24-year-old, African American, $80-a-week security guard who spotted masking tape on a door between a stairwell and a parking garage. He thought a cleaning crew might have taped over the door latch to keep it from locking, so he removed it. When he returned to the scene and saw new tape, Wills promptly called the police.

Were it not for Wills's suspicion of a break-in and his decisive action, the world most likely would never have heard the names E. Howard Hunt or G. Gordon Liddy. There would have been no "Deep Throat" and no "All the President's Men" by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. There would have been no Pulitzer Prize for The Post, no image of a disgraced President Nixon waving goodbye before liftoff on Aug. 9, 1974, no President Gerald Ford, Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, and probably no President Jimmy Carter to sweep into office on the heels of the 20th century's greatest Washington political meltdown.

But in all the stories written in The Post after Felt's admission, Wills did not get so much as an honorable mention.

It was pretty much the same way when he died of a brain tumor five years ago in an Augusta, Ga., hospital. Wills was penniless, unable to afford electricity or water and living alone in a shabby house his mother left when she died in 1993, according to an Oct. 1, 2000, Post story. The Democratic Party had recognized him with an award. So had the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. And he was given a role in the movie "All the President's Men," playing himself. But his fame quickly faded, even as most of the other white-collar Watergate elite -- crooks and journalists alike -- eventually went on to bigger and better things.

Well, for what it's worth, there are still a few of us around who can't think of Watergate without thinking of Frank Wills.

The Senate Sellout

I wonder what the late Clarence Mitchell Jr., the NAACP's Washington bureau director from 1950 to 1978 and the nation's most remarkable lobbyist for civil rights legislation, would think of the deal on President Bush's judicial nominees. Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid called it a "significant victory for our country." Oh, really? As of today, the "deal" has permitted President Bush to score major victories, winning confirmation of six judges who had been kept off the federal bench, including three deemed the most extremist: Priscilla Owen, Janice Rogers Brown and William Pryor.

Republicans dealmakers couldn't have done it alone. By agreeing not to support the talkathon against three of Bush's most objectionable nominees, seven Democratic dealmakers made those lifetime judicial appointments possible.

True, the Republican negotiators made up-or-down votes on the judges their price for abandoning the so-called nuclear option: a rule change allowing a bare majority to call the shots on judges. But here's where I get hung up: If those judges (particularly Brown and Pryor, who were singled out for their records on civil rights and race), are dangerous, right-wing zealots as charged by groups such as the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and People for the American Way, then why haven't those groups also denounced the Democrats who wittingly agreed to an arrangement that guaranteed those judicial confirmations? Why a free pass for them?

The Post reported that Reid had signed off on two of Bush's nominees in his private talks with Senate Republican leader Bill Frist, and the seven Republican and seven Democratic senators agreed to guarantee up-or-down votes for Owen, Brown and Pryor.

It goes without saying that the Republicans wanted those conservative judges. But the GOP couldn't have succeeded without Democratic acquiescence. By Democrats, I refer to negotiators Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.), Mary Landrieu (La.), Robert C. Byrd (W.Va.), Ben Nelson (Neb.), Mark Pryor (Ark.), Daniel K. Inouye (Hawaii) and Ken Salazar (Colo.).

How was the deal cut? When did the liberal groups know Reid and the Democrats were capitulating? Were they party to the deal or were they out of the loop? Either way, it's a telling commentary. What, if anything, did they do to stop it? Or did they just go along, telling themselves that they couldn't beat Frist so they would wait to wage war against Bush's Supreme Court pick?

Slam Bush and the Republicans -- as the liberal groups have done. But where's their call to hold those seven Democrats and Reid accountable for removing the roadblocks against judicial extremists? Bush cleaned their clock, and they don't even know it.

"Mitchell firmly believed that lawmakers should be praised when they did the right thing and damned when they didn't," wrote Denton Watson in his great book on the NAACP official, "Lion in the Lobby."

Ah, but that was when Mitchell roamed the halls of Congress with the likes of Joseph Rauh, Dave Brody, Marvin Caplan, Andrew Biemiller and Jane O'Grady. That was a time when civil rights groups were regarded as influential independent organizations guided by enduring principles and not as unpaid subsidiaries of the Democratic leadership or any political party, for that matter.

It was a time when civil rights lobbyists were courageous lions, and legislators -- on both sides of the aisle -- knew it.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company