What is the craziest thing about the Watergate scandal, over 45 years on? Is it that, seeking dirt on his opponents, U.S. President Richard Nixon approved a break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in June 1972, even though he was already 19 points clear of his nearest rival?
Is it that for over two years between 1971 and 1973 Nixon made secret recordings of his White House conversations – which turned out to be the petard upon which he was hoist – and whose existence only came to light quite by chance at a Senate Watergate Committee hearing?
Is it that Nixon’s discredited playbook – waging war on the press, political rivals and the judiciary by any means necessary – is now back in vogue?
Is it that 1972 remains the last time a group of “plumbers” happily agreed to a call-out in the wee hours of a Saturday morning?
Or is it that one of the darkest times in America’s modern history can be seen today as a moment from which to draw inspiration, a time when the checks and balances worked, when bipartisanship overcame party rivalries and the madman in the White House was ousted?
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That’s certainly one of the messages optimists can draw from Charles Ferguson’s six-part documentary “Watergate – Or: How We Learned to Stop an Out of Control President.” All four hours recently aired on the History Channel to surprisingly little fanfare, yet this deserves a wide audience – especially among those currently despairing in the age of Trump. See, things were much worse in the early 1970s, when they didn’t even have “Friends” on Netflix to distract from life’s miseries.
“Watergate” successfully navigates between being too simplistic or too wonky, and at its best grips like a particularly labyrinthine thriller. The show’s subtitle is not its only attempt at reinforcing similarities between the early ’70s and the current era. But the documentary is, generally, subtler than both that subtitle and the final words seen on screen – the oft-cited quote by Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Even 45 might consider that a little too on the nose.
Luckily, Ferguson has unearthed a treasure trove of footage from the Watergate era and landed numerous present-day interviews with many who were there at the time. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the majority of these interviewees were on the right side of history, with Nixon aide-turned-conservative commentator Pat Buchanan the lonely voice fighting in Tricky Dick’s corner.
The only real misstep here is the decision to stage reenactments of Nixon’s clandestine White House events, using actors to portray the dark dealings among all the president’s men (the dialogue is taken verbatim from Nixon’s secret tapes).
It’s always a dilemma, deciding how to recreate real-life events in a documentary (my vote would have been for a rap musical, but apparently Lin-Manuel Miranda now owns the copyright). Even so, surely they could have found someone who looked or sounded remotely like Nixon here? British actor Douglas Hodge doesn’t get close – not even in the same zip code. Compounding the problem is another miscast British actor, Elliot Levey, as Henry Kissinger. (Given Christian Bale’s upcoming performance as Dick Cheney in the film “Vice,” anyone would think American actors don’t want to be associated with dodgy right-wing politicians.)
The bad news is that these reenactments are used extensively in the first few episodes. The good news is that they feature less frequently as the congressional investigations become the main focus. Oddly, the only time a reenactment truly works is at the very beginning, when we get one hell of a cold open as Nixon tells his White House cronies: “Please get me the names of the Jews. Big Jewish contributors to the Democrats. Can we please investigate some of these cocksuckers!”
To be honest (as Nixon himself would never say), most of my knowledge of the Watergate scandal comes from the 1976 film “All the President’s Men” – Alan J. Pakula’s retelling of how Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein broke the story of the century thanks to thousands of phone calls, shoe-leather journalism and an embittered friend in a high place (FBI Deputy Director Mark Felt – aka Deep Throat).
That side of the story is well covered here, with both journalists entertainingly recounting their stories – including the threat from former Attorney General John Mitchell that “when this campaign is over, we’re going to do a little story on you two boys.”
While Woodward and Bernstein’s roles are well-known, Ferguson’s documentary is at its best when it spotlights Watergate’s lesser-known heroes. These include politicians like young Democratic Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman, who warned of America being on “the long road to tyranny” as she sat on the House Judiciary Committee investigating the affair; Rep. Peter Rodino, the Democratic head of the committee, described here as “the hero of Watergate” for his efforts to ensure the investigation was a bipartisan effort; and Lowell Weicker, who was the first Republican senator to openly call for Nixon’s resignation. There were many more heroes as well, including jurists, reporters and prosecutors.
The documentary’s most jaw-dropping footage comes from the televised Senate Watergate Committee hearings in 1973, which at its peak saw some 80 million Americans tuning in to watch the likes of former White House Special Counsel John Dean (whose 245-page testimony was described as containing a bombshell in every paragraph) and White House Chief of Staff H.R. “Bob” Haldeman provide insight or obfuscation in dealing with the famous question posed by Senator Howard Baker: “What did the president know, and when did he know it?”
Some of these scenes are still genuinely shocking – like when Haldeman is asked why he wrote the words “Good” and “Great” on an October 1971 White House memo, warning of potential violence and “extremely obscene signs” being displayed during a presidential visit to Charlotte, North Carolina. Others are outright funny, like Robert Odle, office manager of the Campaign to Reelect the President – the source of the funding for Nixon’s nefarious deeds – recounting how Watergate co-conspirator G. Gordon Liddy, carrying a foot-high pile of paperwork, “asked me where the paper shredder was. He later came out and said, ‘How do you make it work?’”
There are many moments here where you question whether you’re watching something from 1973 or a remake from 2018, especially when it comes to the scornful presidential treatment of the media. CBS’ then-White House correspondent, Dan Rather, is shown as the Jim Acosta of his day – unafraid to ask hard questions, and then being abused by the president for asking them.
There is also the chilling moment when, after a copy of Nixon’s infamous “enemies list” is presented at a Senate hearing, CBS correspondent Daniel Schorr is shown live on air reading from that list of 200-plus names and finding his own name there with the accompanying text: “A real media enemy.”
Then there’s the portrayal of a president who firmly believes l’Etat, c’est moi and dominates the news cycle to a ridiculous degree. “Every day he does something of interest. It’s sort of like a rat going around – you keep trying to kill it, and it gets away” could easily have been said about President Donald Trump, but these words were spoken by Gore Vidal back in 1973 about Nixon.
This fascinating history lesson also prompts one disturbing question: Would Nixon have suffered the same fate in the age of Fox News, with a team of right-wing hawks backing his protestations about witch hunts and conspiracies, and labeling every fact they don’t like “fake news”?
Still, at least the documentary highlights one difference between the two presidents. Nixon is constantly asking his henchmen “Has his income tax been checked yet?” in a bid to smear his rivals. At least we know Trump will never voluntarily bring up the subject of tax returns.