By Alfred E. Lewis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 18, 1972
And so began Watergate, 42 years ago tomorrow. I was in my early teens during the last year of Richard Nixon’s first term, 15 when he resigned on a hot & humid August 9, 1974. I was certainly politically aware and had followed the course of the investigation during the two years from break-in to resignation; but I have to admit that at the time I don’t think I fully appreciated Watergate’s significance. From my POV, Watergate and the doings of CREEP – that’s right, CREEP - the Committee to Re-elect the President – were a string of related events and reactions, but not something that could be isolated as a singular historic event like an assassination or landing on the moon.
So, what is Watergate? It’s kind of like manna from heaven, it can be many things;
- the Washington DC apartment complex that housed the headquarters of the DNC – the Democratic National Committee
- the burglary and bugging of the DNC offices at the Watergate (twice actually)
- the denials and cover-up that followed after investigators connected the burglars to CREEP
- the discovery and exposure (Woodward, Bernstein, Rather, etc.) of the roles prominent members of the cabinet and advisers to the President played in investigating opposition to the President and how they used the executive branch for illegal partisan political purposes.
Finally Watergate is the President of the United States caught up in his own fears, insisting he’d done nothing wrong, but not being able to convince anyone outside of his most partisan supporters. Much of what Richard Nixon did wasn’t unique or pioneering in terms of political wrongdoing, stretching the bounds of credibility and abusing Executive Privilege, but as the expression goes; he got caught.
If such a thing is possible, I’m reminiscing here about the Watergate era because it all came back to me after watching Frost Nixon a few weeks ago; it was a memory tripwire. It wasn’t abstract history like watching a documentary or infotainment about McCarthy or Truman; I read and heard about Watergate (in all its guises) almost everyday as a teen (no need to add impressionable as a qualifier, it should be assumed.) The memories stuck. In the days before C-Span or CNN, we watched Sam Ervin preside over the televised proceedings of the Senate Watergate Committee on network TV while in school; ringside seats for Civics and US Government without needing a textbook. For all its low-points and revelations, we wanted to believe Watergate also had a lesson; that the system worked. That the independent branches of government worked, that the Press plays an important role in informing and examining, and that the interests of the public will be represented and discharged by elected public servants regardless of party and affiliation as exemplified by Senators Ervin and Baker.
The legacy of Watergate is political and cultural. For those of you too young to have observed it, you have Watergate to thank for the ubiquitous -gate suffix for any and all snafus and wrongdoings that have occurred since the mid 70s. There is also a legacy of film and literature that capture the timelines and complexities of the episode / era.
Frost Nixon [DVD]
Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) is the disgraced president with a legacy to save. David Frost (Michael Sheen) is a jet-setting television personality with a name to make. This is the legendary battle between the two men and the historic encounter that changed both their lives.
Frost/Nixon the original Watergate interviews [DVD]
“Includes in-depth interviews of U.S. President Richard Nixon by Sir David Frost in May, 1977 regarding the infamous Watergate scandal, followed by a segment, “Behind the scenes.” That final segment features footage from 2007 of Frost discussing “clinching the interviews, Nixon’s advisors, ground rules, on location, Nixon’s reaction, and the final meeting” he had with Nixon at San Clemente.”
All the president’s men / Carl Bernstein & Bob Woodward
The two young “Washington Post” reporters whose investigative journalism smashed the Watergate scandal wide open tell the whole behind-the-scenes drama the way it really happened. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were assigned to cover the breakin at the Watergate. The two men soon learned that this was not a simple burglary. Woodward and Bernstein picked up a trail of money, secrecy and high-level pressure that implicated the men closest to Richard Nixon and then the President himself.
Over the months, Woodward met secretly with Deep Throat, now perhaps America’s most famous still-anonymous source.
All the President’s Men [DVD]
Based on the book by Carl Bernstein and Bod Woodward whose roles are played by Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford.
The Palace guard / Dan Rather
The first Watergate book I picked up. Rather, the CBS News White House correspondent covering the Nixon White House, starts his recitation with an introduction to who was behind who in the administration. Not the Secretary of Defense or Head of the NSA (Henry Kissinger BTW,) but rather the men who controlled access to the President, set agendas, and (important to keep in mind in this case) provide the President plausible deniability; keep him officially out of the decision-making loop when the decisions are ethically (or legally) questionable. This was my first exposure to the likes of White House Chief of Staff H.R. Bob Haldemann, John Erlichman, Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs, and of course Henry Kissinger the President’s National Security Adviser. At the time they were euphemistically referred to as the Berlin Wall. Given his role in formulating international policy to the exclusion of all domestic politics, Dr. Kissinger seems to have avoided any taint by Watergate.
Washington Journal / Elizabeth Drew
“Forty years after the tumultuous events that led to Richard Nixon’s historic downfall, a new edition of Elizabeth Drew’s Washington Journal,
featuring a brilliant new afterword. Originally published soon
after Richard Nixon’s resignation, Elizabeth Drew’s Washington Journal is a landmark work of political journalism. Keenly observed and hugely insightful, Washington Journal opens in 1973 and follows the deterioration of Richard Nixon’s presidency in real time.”
Just a note. The Doonebury strip above appeared on May 29, 1973. In several newspapers Doonesbury was either dropped for a time, or moved from the Comics section to the editorial pages. The Washington Post didn’t show it at all, until last year.