This month marks the 50th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, a bungled crime at a D.C. hotel on June 17, 1972, that two years later led to the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon.
By Tuesday morning, news had leaked that Cassidy Hutchinson, an aide to former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, would be the witness.
In July 1973, the Senate committee looking into the Watergate scandal called only one surprise witness, and what that witness had to say blew the investigation wide open.
Alexander Butterfield was never a high-profile guy, not like Nixon’s attorney general turned campaign chief John Mitchell or White House counsel John W. Dean III. In 1968, he was an Air Force colonel stationed in far-flung Australia before using an old college connection to land a job in the White House. As a deputy assistant to the president, Butterfield was responsible for Nixon’s schedule, managing visitors and logging memos.
Soon after taking the job, Butterfield nearly quit. Nixon seemed to him “an ignorant boor, a bumpkin,” he later revealed to Bob Woodward for the 2015 book “The Last of the President’s Men.” Much of his job was spent managing the president’s fragile ego and strained marriage. But Nixon could also be charming and generous. So, in early 1973, when Butterfield vowed to get out of the White House “cesspool” and Nixon made him head of the Federal Aviation Administration, he still felt some warmth for and loyalty to the president.
Then he got subpoenaed.
The Senate investigation back then followed a similar protocol to the current House hearings: Witnesses were interviewed privately and exhaustively ahead of their somewhat choreographed public testimonies.
Committee staffers interviewed Butterfield behind closed doors on July 13, 1973. Going into it, Butterfield later told Woodward, he decided not to say anything about Nixon’s tape-recording system unless specifically asked.
The previous month, Dean, Nixon’s former White House counsel, had testified that he suspected his conversations with the president had been recorded, so the committee had begun asking witnesses about it. They hit pay dirt with Butterfield; in 1971, he had been put in charge of having it installed, arranging for the Secret Service to place microphones all over the Oval Office.
As soon as he revealed this to the committee staffers, he asked them not to call him to publicly testify. To reveal the existence of the tapes would be a threat to national security, he told them.
Three days later, on July 16, the committee announced a surprise public hearing. Butterfield was given a few hours’ notice.
Future senator Fred Thompson, then serving as counsel for the Republicans, did the questioning, and he cut right to the chase: “Mr. Butterfield, are you aware of the installation of any listening devices in the Oval Office of the president?”
Butterfield paused for five long seconds.
“I was aware of listening devices, yes, sir.”
The news stunned D.C., The Washington Post reported.
Less than a week later, the special counsel investigating the break-in subpoenaed the tapes. And the rest — Nixon’s refusal, the “Saturday Night Massacre,” the missing 18 minutes, “I am not a crook,” United States v. Nixon, the “smoking gun” tape, a disgraced president smiling and waving in front of a helicopter — is history.
Butterfield is still alive — as of 2015, he was living in San Diego. So is Dean, who first guessed about a taping system and is now a CNN commentator. On Monday evening, when the surprise hearing was announced, he recalled Butterfield’s testimony and tweeted, “The January 6 Committee is dealing with a very high historical standard in springing a surprise hearing and witness tomorrow. … Cancel now if you can’t match!”
A previous version of this story identified former senator Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) as a "future congressman." Since the term is primarily used for members of the House of Representatives, it has been changed to "future senator."