Even before Nixon went into Bethesda Naval Hospital, the estimate in Washington was that he could not weather Watergate. Yet this came at a time when the Senate hearings were faltering. The caucus room all week had a new atmosphere, of disaffection, boredom, almost disgust. The performances of the Ervin panel senators, the quality of their staff work were reviewed by journalists with mounting impatience. The press tables stood partly empty, and the front-row VIP seats were denuded a good deal of the day. At one of the long, semideserted press tables Wednesday afternoon a small child sat drawing airplanes and what looked like big bombs in red crayon on a sheet of yellow paper, which he then folded into a glider, unfortunately aimless. Photostats of the Mitchell logs lay around collecting dust; many who got them as a handout did not bother to take them home.
The credit or responsibility for this devastation belongs to John Mitchell, whose sodden-voiced testimony occupied most of three days that came to resemble eternity in its hellish aspect. Outside, early in the week, an airpollution alert had been sounded, as if in sympathy: people with eye or respiratory problems were warned to make no exertion and/or to stay indoors; according to rumor, a radio broadcast had told the population to refrain from drinking tea and coffee, though not, apparently, alcohol. There can be no greater boredom, I think, than that engendered by a steady dosage of lies. As Mitchell testified, the occasional laughter of the first day that met his toneless disavowals, the hiss that susurrated once through the room were replaced by an almost total sound vacuum, which in some dulled helpless way matched the calculated void of his contribution.
It was true that the performances of the senators—with one exception—and of counsel were poor, but they had had him Monday in executive session and thus got a preview of the public charade. That they had come out of that wilted and blanched was understandable, for there was nothing human or responsive in the element they had been immersed in. Stone-walling, Senator Weicker, the only brave man of the week, called it, borrowing the phrase, in fact, from the sinister White House lexicon. Trying to get a direct answer from John Mitchell was like beating your head against a stone wall. Faced with two diametrically opposed statements given under oath by himself, he blandly declined to see any contradiction. Weicker, angry: “Is this your definition, by the way, this kind of testimony, of, what is the expression, of ‘stone-walling it’?” Mitchell, insolent: “I don’t know that term. Is that a Yankee term from Connecticut?”
The fear of another perjury indictment—he has been charged already in New York—might seem to be a rational explanation for his obtuseness to any trace of contradiction when shown two of his own statements one of which cannot be true. Yet to play blind to a contradiction does not prevent others from …