Severin Beliveau sat in his top-floor office at One City Center in Portland on Thursday morning, thumbing through a cardboard accordion file in his lap. His Watergate file.

“The behavior of the Republicans today, compared to ’72, ’73, ’74, is dramatic,” Beliveau said without looking up. “Meaning back in those days, there was a real attempt to find the facts. And when the facts came out, there was no attempt to subvert or to resist the process. They discussed the merits.”

A presidential impeachment judged on its merits. How utterly quaint.

Almost a half century ago, before he became a founding partner of Preti Flaherty, one of Maine’s leading law firms, Beliveau and history collided on the sixth floor of the Watergate Office Building in Washington, D.C.

At the time, he was the 34-year-old national chairman of the Association of State Democratic Chairmen. The organization, which looked after the interests of Democratic Party chairmen in all the states and territories, had an office in the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee, headed at the time by longtime party strategist Larry O’Brien.

Severin Beliveau, right, at a forum in Portland in 2016. Joel Page/Staff Photographer

If you’re of a certain age, you remember the rest: On June 17, 1972, burglars working for Richard Nixon’s Committee for the Re-election of the President, also known as CREEP, got caught in the middle of the night inside the DNC headquarters as they attempted to replace a faulty bug they’d installed on O’Brien’s phone three weeks earlier.

What you may not know is that during their first break-in, on May 28, they actually planted two listening devices – one on O’Brien’s phone, the other on that of Spencer Oliver, executive director of the group headed by Beliveau.

It was the same phone Beliveau used when he was at the office in Washington, D.C. It was also the same phone Oliver used during his many telephone chats with Beliveau, who at the time also had a private law practice in his hometown of Rumford.

Meaning that for those fateful three weeks, CREEP operatives stationed in a Howard Johnson’s hotel room directly across the street from Watergate listened to, recorded, transcribed and filed away every phone conversation Beliveau and Oliver had.

“So one day I got a call from Spencer Oliver saying he just got a call from Larry O’Brien saying someone just broke into our office,” Beliveau recalled.

“What’s it all about?” Beliveau asked Oliver.

“I don’t know,” Oliver replied.

On the one hand, it was about a botched burglary – the jig was up when a security guard removed a piece of tape used to keep a door latch open, only to find another piece of tape on the same door during his rounds a short time later.

But on the other hand, it was the beginning of the end for a presidency as Nixon’s ham-handed attempts at a cover-up, his repeated stonewalling of Congress and a deep paranoia that consumed his every waking moment ultimately led to his resignation in the face of certain impeachment by the House and conviction by the Senate.

The break-in and ensuing contretemps were not without their challenges for Beliveau. G. Gordon Liddy, the ringleader of the so-called “Plumbers” unit run out of the White House to stop leaks and sabotage the Democrats, spread never-substantiated rumors that the Association of State Democratic Chairmen was running a call girl ring out of its Watergate office for the benefit of state party chairmen visiting the nation’s capital.

Asked about the rumor by police investigators at the time, Beliveau recalled with a wry smile: “My response was no. I was single back in those days. I didn’t need the help.”

Beliveau and several of his colleagues went on to file a $5 million lawsuit against CREEP and virtually everyone stained by Watergate – from the actual burglars all the way up to White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman and domestic affairs adviser John Ehrlichman. They eventually settled the case for $750,000, with Beliveau handing his share, about $25,000, over to the Maine Democratic Party.

Now, 47 years later, as the country finds itself on the precipice of another impeachment, Beliveau is astounded at the similarities between Nixon and President Trump – with one even more stunning exception.

History repeating itself: the sense of impunity emanating from the White House as Nixon’s minions, and now Trump’s, did anything and everything they could to  bolster their boss’s chances for re-election; the beyond-clumsy attempts at cover-ups once they got caught; the absolute fealty shown to the White House by attorneys general John Mitchell (Nixon) and Robert Barr (Trump); the smoking guns – Nixon’s Oval Office recordings and Trump’s infamous telephone call to Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky seeking dirt on rival Joe Biden; the drip-drip revelations of evidence that ultimately nudged public sentiment, then and now, toward impeachment and removal from office.

And history not repeating itself? See: Congressional Republicans.

Beliveau remembers a young, idealistic freshman congressman from Maine breaking from the Republican ranks on the House Judiciary Committee in July 1974. In a legacy-burnishing speech to his fellow lawmakers, then-Rep. William S. Cohen (Beliveau still refers to him as “Billy”) announced that he could no longer support a president who “allowed the rule of law and the Constitution to slip under the boots of indifference and arrogance and abuse.”

Today, we hear no such lofty rhetoric from the party of Lincoln. So far, at least, Beliveau sees on the Republican side of the aisle nothing more than a collection of “weaklings,” cowed by a president who uses his Twitter feed as a cudgel to keep them in line … or else.

Time will tell whether Maine Sen. Susan Collins, who remains tight-lipped about Trump’s impeachment, follows the route of Cohen, for whom she worked for 12 years as a legislative assistant, or that of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who announced on Friday that he was “taking my cues” from the White House on how to proceed with an impeachment trial.

Beliveau understands perfectly the “classic dilemma” in which Collins, New England’s lone remaining Republican on Capitol Hill, now finds herself: Vote to convict and suffer the wrath of voters who awarded Trump one of Maine’s four electoral votes in 2016; or vote to acquit and forfeit her long-cherished support among independents and more than a few centrist Democrats.

But in the end, as someone who once felt firsthand the impact of an administration that thought it was above the law, Beliveau would advise Collins to look away from her re-election and toward the same moral compass that guided Cohen all those decades ago.

Compared to Trump, he said, “Nixon looks like a choir boy right now.”


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

Kennebec Journal & Morning Sentinel news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.