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Watergate: Truth & Lies

Posted on the 19 June 2017 by Christopher Saunders
Watergate: Truth & LiesAs someone who's spent an ungodly amount of time reading, studying and writing about Richard Nixon, I am probably not the target audience for ABC's new 20/20 documentary, Watergate: Truth & Lies. Aired this Friday, just before the 45th anniversary of the "third-rate burglary" that triggered the scandal, it also comes as the country sinks into another Presidential scandal. Compared to numerous extant books and documentaries on Watergate (notably the BBC's 1994 documentary series) it's positively simplistic. Therefore, it's undoubtedly best for viewers who know Watergate only as a pop culture punchline or a dim memory from a half-forgotten history lesson.
In retrospect, the high melodrama of Nixon's disgrace seems positively dignified compared to the moment-by-moment insanity we're currently experiencing, with new bombshells of presidential impropriety, if not criminal madness, exploding daily. Tricky Dick, whatever his failings, did not have a Twitter feed to vomit his Id upon an exasperated populace 24/7, contradicting his own spokesmen, staff and cabinet officials in the process. People were shocked when they learned, through released White House tapes, that their president swore like a sailor and used bigoted slurs in private. Today, it's practically a prerequisite for winning the Republican nomination.
Then again, Nixon's opponents consciously chose not to reveal Nixon's chicanery in the 1968 elections, where go-betweens like Anna Chenault convinced South Vietnam to break off peace talks with North Vietnam on the assurance that Nixon, once elected, would offer better peace terms. Nor, for that matter, had Nixon chosen to air his doubts eight years earlier about the suspicious circumstances of John F. Kennedy's victory. It was a time when even men as devious as Nixon, Lyndon Johnson and others fostered a belief, however tenuous or facile, in the basic decency of the Presidency.

Watergate: Truth & Lies

Sam Ervin and friends

Watergate changed all that. As Watergate: Truth & Lies reminds us, the slow, spoiling spectacle of the scandal, dragged out over two years, eroded public confidence in our elected officials, our very system of government, cementing a cynicism that's never completely vanished. The show makes it clear that, despite the prevarications, defenses and half-truths of Nixon's apologists, there is ultimately one man to blame for Watergate.
Thus the 20/20 producers spend a lot of time building up Nixon's resentments: his hardscrabble childhood, his meteoric political rise, his resentment of the Kennedys, the intellectual class, the press, the Eastern Establishments and Democrats and Jews whom he felt snubbed, abused, insulted him. Even casual viewers will have no problem charting Nixon's raging insecurities, which made Watergate (or something like it) more than inevitable. Nixon staffer Roger Stone, in the strongest defense the show offers, emphasizes his determination, work ethic and willingness to win at any cost.
Afterwards, the show touches the expected points: Nixon's staffers, Bob Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, insulating him from the outside world while encouraging his misdeeds; the Pentagon Papers, whose disclosure convinced Nixon to create the Plumbers; the latter's mixture of Keystone Kops bungling and raging insanity (Gordon Liddy, in an archival interview, gloats over his plot to murder Jack Anderson); the break-in (unraveled by a badly-taped door lock, an attentive security guard, and a lookout who watched Attack of the Puppet People rather than the police), the subsequent cover-ups and investigations. Tapes, video footage and interviews, old and new, recount this familiar tale while offering damning evidence and detail.

Watergate: Truth & Lies

John Dean and wife

And ABC organizes a remarkable coterie of interviewees. Many are familiar faces: Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein rehash their investigation (accompanied by clips from All the President's Men); the show smartly recognizes that their articles' main contribution was catching Congress's attention. John Dean, who's made a career as a reformed rat fink, recounts his role in the cover-up and damning Senate testimony. Alexander Butterfield, whose revelation of the taping system proved the investigation's turning point, discusses his agonized choice between loyalty and truth. And ABC's own Sam Donaldson, who covered the Ervin Hearings, offers detailed perspectives.
But there are others whose presence is unexpected. I was surprised to see William Ruckelshaus interviewed about the Saturday Night Massacre; I wasn't aware he was still alive. Elizabeth Holtzman and Trent Lott, members of the House Judiciary Committee, share their thoughts on the impeachment process. Nixon loyalists Roger Stone, Pat Buchanan and Ben Stein offer insight into the White House's siege mentality; even the officers who arrested the Watergate burglars get their say. On the other hand, why gasbag pundit Bill O'Reilly's on hand for banal observations about presidential power is anyone's guess.
The show covers the basics in broad detail, accompanied by 20/20's melodramatic music, graphics and editing. We can't criticize the show for not covering everything, but some omissions or interpretations are odd. While the Ervin Committee receives lengthy treatment, the impeachment hearings (despite Holtzman and Lott's presence) are an afterthought. Surely it wouldn't have killed the producers to include Barbara Jordan's thundering denunciation of Nixon? The absence of figures like Chuck Colson and Spiro Agnew is odd, though forgivable. And allowing W. Mark Felt's daughter to label him a "superhero" neatly glosses over his shady role in COINTELPRO and his petty motivations for informing against Nixon.

Watergate: Truth & Lies

Elizabeth Holtzman

Fortunately, 20/20 keeps parallels with contemporary events between the lines, aside from Sam Donaldson using one of our president's cheesier neologisms. The condemnation of presidents who can't, or won't sort truth from lies, facts from "alternative facts," is damning enough without invoking a certain orange Muppet. Historian Timothy Naftali comparing Nixon's actions to The Sopranos is no more of a facile cultural reference than our constantly comparing current politicos to Voldemort, Sarumon and assorted Game of Thrones villains.
Hopefully, Watergate: Truth & Lies will teach audiences about an event which grows dimmer yet remains important. The further removed we get, the easier it is to dismiss Watergate as a minor event of little import. That very cynicism makes it hard to mobilize effectively against evil; if we assume everyone in government does it, what's the big deal? While the Watergate scandal shows that systemic corruption's hard to combat, it also shows that an active citizenry, engaged press and conscientious lawmakers can indeed make a difference, if only they try. God help us if we aren't willing to try.
Watergate: Truth & Lies
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