The sorry lot of the Capitol Hill junior staffer is to answer phones, pore over files, and make lunch runs. But for one glorious summer in 1973, interns and drudges helped change America — as the cogs turning the wheel that would ultimately result in Richard Nixon’s resignation. “They were doing literally all of the grunt work,” remembers former senator Lowell Weicker (R-Conn.), the last surviving politician who served on the Senate’s Watergate committee.
With the 45th anniversary of the Watergate break-in approaching on Saturday, several of these former staffers talked about what it’s like when your first grown-up job is bringing down the president of the United States of America.
Lee Cory: Committee staff intern
Allen Dale: Staff assistant to the deputy chief counsel Rufus Edmisten
Elisabeth “Lil” DeMarse: Staff assistant for committee chairman Sen. Sam Ervin (D-N.C.)
Gordon Freedman: Committee staff assistant
Michael Hershman: Investigator
Stephen Leopold: Committee staff assistant
Jim Rowe: Staff research assistant
Lowell Weicker: Committee member
Gordon Freedman: I was a student at Michigan State University when I became fascinated by Watergate. As the hearings were starting, I literally left class one day in my earth shoes and rainbow hippie belt buckle and drove to Washington. I stood in line every morning starting at 5:30 to get in to see the hearings. Finally after three days, a woman next to me in line said, “If you think this is so interesting, why don’t you try to get a job here?” And I said, “Here? With the committee?”
Lee Cory: I was working as an intern in Senator Talmadge’s office. I’d been there not very long, when someone from the committee called over and said, “We need someone who can read and write.” Basically, they just needed someone who could breathe. I was 18.
Stephen Leopold: I had a little experience as a Nader Raider and had a little experience with Canadian politics — I’d just graduated from McGill — and when I contacted the committee, they said they would be interested in my qualifications. I was 21. Most of us who worked on the committee were babes.
Freedman: I found a little brochure telling me who the committee members were, and I just started going door to door asking if anyone had a job: Senator Ervin first, then Senator Weicker. At Senator Talmadge’s office, a staffer overheard me talking to the administrative assistant and motioned me to come over. He said they had 10,000 backlogged letters from constituents and if I could organize them, then when I was done, they would put me on Watergate.
Leopold: It was like somebody who had always wanted to be a soldier suddenly dropped on the beaches of Normandy with no training.
Elisabeth DeMarse: I had no idea what I was doing.
Cory: The physical location of the committee was this old auditorium that had been made into cubicles.
DeMarse: It was in the basement. Room G-308 of what they then called the “New Senate Office Building” [Now Dirksen]. It had been a Senate caucus room. The lawyers were up on the dais; the rest of us were down on the floor. There was a guard outside; you had to show an ID to get in. It was a very cobbled-together place. Eventually they did create a placard for outside: Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities.
And then there were just mountains and mountains and mountains of subpoenaed boxes. Coming in from all over the place. Our job was to log them, open them, and see what was inside.
Cory: On my first day, they had just discovered there were tapes from the Oval Office. I ended up reading a bunch of transcripts — the famous ones where Nixon’s secretary said she erased several minutes.
Michael Hershman: The first thing that happened when I got down there from New York — well, the first thing that happened was, I thought, “I have to find a building called “the U.S. Senate.” The second thing was that my supervisor said, “You’re going to Florida to interview some Cubans who were involved in the break-in.”
DeMarse: . They told me I was going to read all of these depositions related to milk money and campaign finance. [ The dairy industry had donated to Nixon’s campaign in exchange for government subsidies]. I thought ugh, no, I want to read about the burglars.
But I sat down and I read the depositions. You would write down any names that person mentioned, and you would write down any dates that person mentioned, and then there was a huge matching game on a yellow legal pad: who was in what city on what date, meeting with who. These guys met at a lot of airports.
Cory: I got to feel like I knew these men like the back of my hand.
Leopold: The first week that I started, they handed out a phone list with everyone’s extensions on it. That week, there were something like 37 people on that list. Two weeks later, there were something like 74. I was an unpaid staff assistant, but when the first phone directory came out that had my name on it, it said, “Stephen Leopold: Investigator.” I thought, huh, I’m a Watergate investigator.
I had been there for four days and I ended up subpoenaing H.R. Haldeman’s schedule. I’m 21. And I’m subpoenaing the agenda of the president’s chief of staff.
Freedman: We found out that inadvertently, the Nixon administration had parked all of its campaign files in the National Archives — you can imagine if suddenly all of Trump’s files were in the Archives. And somehow I was put in charge of taking a team of law students and interns to go over there, every day.
It took weeks and weeks to go through those boxes, just looking for any leads. Is there anything in these files that had to do with the break-in? With dirty tricks?
DeMarse: I spent so much time with these boxes of files. While I was bending over one of them, my necklace fell in. It had been my 16th birthday present. I could never find it. Somewhere in the National Archives, my necklace is in a box with all the Nixon investigative documents.
Allen Dale: A lot of the work was just sitting and taking notes. If someone needed food, I was sent out to get food. If I was asked to sit with [White House counsel] John Dean or [White House deputy assistant] Alexander Butterfield — or if someone needed to find them a place to keep the press from talking to them, I did that.
Hershman: You know, the first couple of months, I wasn’t even sure we were doing the right thing. I was 27 and didn’t know much about politics. I said to myself, is what we’re doing good for the country? Is this overblown? Are we destabilizing America to be doing what we’re doing?
Leopold: You had people calling our committee room on a daily basis — on an hourly basis — floating Watergate theories and complaining about everything from whether they were getting their Social Security checks to Martians. We became the go-to place for the United States of America.
Freedman: The two best things you could be at that time were Woodward and Bernstein, or on the Senate committee.
Lowell Weicker: The committee used to receive hundreds of thousands of pieces of mail, and all of it had to be checked. You can’t just throw it away. I got a telegram from John Wayne once, kicking my ass around the block. He was a Nixon supporter. He’d come into focus by virtue of the fact that Nixon had called off tax audits on him. And then one day I got a telegram from him telling me I was full of s---.
Jim Rowe: People would just come up to the door and say, “I have a Watergate theory,” and they were very persistent. So my bosses started to say, “Get Rowe out here!” and I would take them down to the cafeteria and listen to them, and say, “Thank you very much.” I started to hear that a lot: “Get Rowe out here!”
Dale: You would sit through the hearings all day, and then you would go home and watch them at night. Which you would do, because you could see yourself on TV.
Freedman: The night of the Saturday Night Massacre I was in my car going to a party. I heard the news on the radio and made a U-turn to get back to the committee room because I was so afraid the FBI would come and seal our offices. I went in and got my files and put them on the front seat of my car, and then I was nervous the rest of the night.
Leopold: I usually didn’t bring documents home in my briefcase, but one time I did, and on that night my Volkswagen Beetle was broken into. My briefcase was stolen and my eight-track tapes were all stolen too. I called the police and said, “I’m a little embarrassed” — I kind of whispered it to them — “but here’s the problem. I’m on the Watergate committee and my car has been broken into and some things were stolen.” They asked what was taken. I said, some documents and some tapes.
The next thing you knew, there were 50 police vehicles — cars, motorcycles, scooters — surrounding my car, dusting for fingerprints. Later I realized they thought that Nixon’s tapes had been stolen. The tapes were Bob Dylan and Jefferson Airplane.
Rowe: It was a lot of hard work. For me, it really ended up teaching me a lot of life lessons.
DeMarse: It wasn’t until the following summer, when the committee report was published, that we fully realized what it meant and how it all fit together. Originally, I thought I’d been assigned something really benign, working on the milk money investigation. But it was really important.
Cory: I was just this lowly intern — you can’t get any lower on the totem pole. But later when I was in law school and having interviews, you could not believe how many people would sit bolt upright in their chairs when they heard I’d been on the committee. I am convinced that every lawyer job I ever got for the rest of my life — I am convinced that Watergate opened that door.
Lee Cory went on to become a corporate in-house attorney, and a conservation advocate. Elisabeth DeMarse, after achieving an MBA, went on to become the chief executive of BankRate.com, CreditCards.com and TheStreet.com. Allen Dale founded his own law firm, practicing white-collar-criminal defense in the Washington, D.C., area. Gordon Freedman served on two more congressional committees before becoming a film and television producer in Los Angeles. He now runs an education nonprofit. Michael Hershman founded Transparency International, an NGO combating corruption and money laundering. Stephen Leopold works in large-scale property development. Jim Rowe is the co-managing partner of the Mintz Group, which provides investigation services for businesses.
After three terms in the U.S. Senate, Lowell Weicker became the governor of Connecticut and retired in 1995.
Several of the former Watergate staffers have launched a project, watergatecommittee.org, with recollections and historical artifacts from the committee.