Thursday, July 31, 2003

Watergate: Shakesperean Tragedy as 'Epic Detective Story'

The last few summers, this one included, my wife Jule has laid down the law for our boys: the TV is gone, actually stored down in the basement, cable unplugged, and you guys go find something else to do. Like reading or doing puzzles, or maybe something impossibly old-fashioned like going outside and riding your bike or playing baseball at your buddy's house. Which of course means I too must suffer alongside through late-night cable TV news deprivation, with only the ancient tiny black and white set we bought almost 20 years ago to serve as the occasional receptor for over-the-air broadcast stuff. Which of course means PBS.

And last night, with both our boys--in a fit of good luck--gone for the evening, I was able to sit glued for two hours to drink in a PBS documentary that was, well, magisterial. Watergate Plus 30: Shadow of History, it was called. It was TV at its best, full of amazing anecdotal history, sweeping narrative, great stock footage and just plain wonderful storytelling.

For those of us just old enough to have watched Watergate unfold a little (I was 15 at the time, just beginning to focus on public affairs and read the paper), it was a great refresher. I remember being at least dimly enough aware of the importance of the Watergate hearings to be quick about my paper route and lawn cutting to get in and watch a little. If someone would have told me that almost precisely 10 years later I'd myself be sitting in Congressional hearing rooms, taking notes as a reporter, I'd have called them a liar.

The show last night opened with a great scene-setting, pregnant-with-meaning line by Nixon White House Counsel John Dean, on how the president utterly sets the tone for everything: "When the president has a fire going in the fireplace, everyone has a fire in their fireplace, too." The producers deftly weave stock video footage from the time with audio tapes from Nixon's infamous taping system and of course current recollections with a handful of the principals. Unfortunately, the cowardly among the main players who have survived, people like Henry Kissinger and Nixon tough guy Chuck Colson, reborn after a stint in prison as a fire and brimstone Christian minister, apparently declined to appear. A pity, that. But Kissinger is still nicely depicted on the Oval Office audiotapes in his reptilian, Machiavellian best, obsequiously stroking Nixon's ego and undercutting their enemies.

The two hours was nicely balanced between the colorful and pitiful Nixon rogues and the heroes who courageously stopped them. I saw enough of Senator Sam Ervin blasting away in his righteous indignation to remember why he came across at the time as such a crowd-pleasing, homespun guy, the very embodiment of the Constitution. Watergate prosecutor Sam Dash, too, gets in a few fine riffs. He recalls beginning to weep as John Dean unfolded the true scope of the coverup and Nixons' involvement in it, because he knew he would have to present evidence to the American people that their president was a criminal.

One talking head rightly called it "an epic detective story." And the 30 years later, it's indeed bracing to recall just how varied was the cast and how impossibly weird was the plot and some of the characters. Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, in his signature gravelly Boston-Brahman-meets-tough-Navy-veteran-and-former-street-kid patois, recounts how one of the Watergate plumbers, Howard Hunt, when caught and brought before the judge and asked for whom he works, at first whispered. After several times he was asked to speak up, eventually saying CIA. "And from there, the story blew up." But for sheer, technicolor weirdness, the real off-camera star of the show may have been the murderous plumber Gordon Liddy, who now has a national radio show. Jeb Stuart McGruder recounts how the former FBI man offered to liquidate not only external White House enemies, but White House staffers McGruder and Dean, too. Even better, John Dean recalled Liddy trying to talk Nixon Attorney General John Mitchell into a scheme involving using hookers to entrap certain high-profile enemies. When Mitchell hesitated at the tawdriness of that, Liddy snappily replied: "General, these are the finest women in Baltimore."

So I ask you: why do people bother trying to write fiction? Who in hell could ever have invented these characters or this larger story? In the end, the documentary avoids the pat wrap-up, ending on a more serious, thoughtful note. John Dean, while perhaps bragging a bit about his central role, offers the opinion that if he had decided to go along with the coverup rather than refusing to lie, "I have no doubt we would have gotten away with" the coverup. And Richard Reeves, a New York Times reporter at the time and now an author and historian, rightly notes that while we tend to focus on the positives from Watergate, that the press and the other branches of government did their duties in stopping an imperial, criminal presidency, later events at least raise doubts about how profound the reforms have been in its wake. "Have we solved the campaign finance problem? Is the government still spying on Americans? Is the president still refusing to respond to the other branches?"

When Watergate Plus 30 returns to your local PBS station, as it no doubt will, do be sure to catch it.


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