The fad for true-crime documentaries continues with this investigation into the grisliest and most unpunished true crime of all. In the course of a mammoth, horribly absorbing four-hour film from Charles Ferguson we are immersed in a world of milky TV news footage, big lapels, bulbous combovers, dirty tricks, sweat, jowls and guilt. It was a time when the nation learned its president had compiled a deadly serious “enemies list” that included Paul Newman. This was the time when the US felt its face get covered by a five o’clock shadow of shame.
America’s Watergate ordeal lasted from the first break-in at the Democratic party headquarters in Washington DC on 28 May 1972, and lasted until 8 August 1974, with Richard Nixon’s blandly impenitent resignation, tendered in return for a promised presidential pardon from his successor Gerald Ford, exempting him from the criminal prosecution that put his co-conspirators behind bars.
Yet Ferguson doesn’t need to labour the point that Watergate carries on still, with the aftermath of its central mythological moment: the appointment of a special prosecutor to examine Watergate, Archibald Cox, whose existence was supposed to appease the press until the media storm blew over. But it didn’t. And then Nixon fired Cox, which simply made matters worse.
The current incumbent is all too clearly aware of the Nixonian model of bad faith and is learning from it. Don’t fire your special prosecutor – but wait, wait, wait, until the mood changes, wearied and muddled by endless denigration and chaotic pronouncements. Nixon barked his boorish insults and grotesque bigotries into secret tapes; Trump megaphones them via Twitter. Perhaps Trump has also studied that other teachable moment from the Watergate era when, at the end of the Yom Kippur war, Nixon took the nation to Defcon 3, the highest state of nuclear readiness, in a quarrel with the Soviet Union over its ships supposedly bringing nuclear weapons into Egypt. The details have never been made available. But the moment passed and the public stayed stubbornly interested in Watergate.
What an extraordinary story it is. Weirdly, though, Ferguson doesn’t spend that long on the central mystery: why on earth did Nixon install the tape recording machines in the first place, making what the formidable congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman compares to “mafiosi wiretaps”? Nixon may have been inspired by the fact that Lyndon B Johnson did the same thing (although Ferguson doesn’t mention this); he clearly intended to release those tapes or transcripts that put him in a good light and later may also have wished to undermine hostile witnesses by revealing tapes that showed a discrepancy between the recordings and their sworn testimony. But mostly he was just a paranoid control freak, an OCD bully who loved stockpiling material that could be used against his enemies, and did not foresee the blowback. The Watergate break-ins were, after all, a bugging expedition.
Ferguson gives us the nastiest moments from the tapes – the obscenities and antisemitic rants – and dramatises key scenes with actors, chiefly Douglas Hodge as Nixon himself. There is a weird fascination in those conversations between Nixon and chief of staff Bob Haldeman and domestic affairs advisor John Ehrlichman, in which they exchange bland statements, each suspecting the other of an incriminating trap. The resulting dialogue sounds like a cross between Beckett and Mamet.
As for Ferguson’s interviewees, there is White House counsel John Dean, who, although up to his armpits in the cover-up, got a reduced sentence in return for being a vital prosecution witness – the Henry Hill of 20th-century politics. He appears before the cameras here like a greybeard lawyer or academic, almost as if he was on the same team as Woodward and Bernstein. Good ol’ boy Nixon strategist Pat Buchanan also appears, cheerfully confident that he is not in the frame. The big no-show is of course Henry Kissinger, about whom there appears never to have been any question of involvement, a remarkably atypical example of Kissinger avoiding the inside track.
Some stars of the Watergate era were unknown to me before this film, particularly Barbara Jordan, the first African American woman from the south to be elected to the House of Representatives, who made a blazingly influential speech at the House judiciary committee hearings during Nixon’s impeachment proceedings. In the end, Nixon fell because of democratic opposition, especially from Republicans. Even sabre-toothed rightwinger Barry Goldwater was appalled at the consequences of the president’s squalid and pointless burglary. That, too, is a lesson waiting to be learned.
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