By Liam Lacey
We owe a lot to the language of the Watergate scandal -- Deep Throat, Saturday Night Massacre, the 18½ missing minutes, the all-purpose scandal suffix “-gate.” But the details can get a bit murky, even for those of us old enough to remember when it was fresh news.
Who were “the Cubans” again? The Plumbers? The President’s men? And was there really a Republican organization called CREEP? (Yes, the Committee to Re-Elect the President.)
If you’ve got four hours to spare (shown in two separate films), check out Charles Ferguson’s new documentary, Watergate. The director of No End in Sight (2007), on the Iraq War, Inside Job (2010) on the economic crisis, and Time To Choose (2014) on climate change, has the ability to provide nuanced clarity to complex, subjects and his Watergate film is no exception.
In the details, it’s a story of luck, pluck and the grotesque dishonesty of people in the circle of power. The story starts in June, 1972, when five men, working for a secret White House dirty tricks group, were arrested while attempting to plant bugging devices in the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate office complex in Washington.
By May of the next year, the televised Senate Watergate hearings began and a special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, was assigned to look into possible presidential improprieties. After dozens of indictments and a prolonged battle over the White House tapes, it ended in August of 1974 when Nixon resigned from office
The results are what might be best called “solid” journalism, with the occasional eye-brow raising surprise (Nixon wanted to firebomb the Brookings Institute?) There’s a wealth of archival, often familiar, television clips along with fresh interviews with some of the first-hand witnesses and participants.
They include the prosecution’s key witness, John Dean, journalists Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, Dan Rather and Leslie Stahl and anti-war activist Daniel Ellsberg. Countering the boys’ club tone of other accounts, the film pays special attention to two women politicians, the “rock star” Elizabeth Holtzman (think of her as the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of her era), who was only 32 at the time, and the late African-American congresswoman, Barbara Jordan (the forerunner to Maxine Waters) who delivered the eloquent opening speech of the televised impeachment proceedings.
The one arguable misstep is Ferguson’s use of dramatic re-enactments as a way of using material from the Oval Office tapes in a fresh way. There’s something unavoidably jarring about watching a bulky-looking actor (British stage veteran Douglas Hodge) doing an impression of a Nixonian whispered growl, planning his dirty tricks and offering anti-Semitic conspiracies. Fortunately, there are fewer of these distracting enactments in the second half, as the increasingly beleaguered, Nixon through television addresses, takes center-stage in all his awful, petty self-aggrandizing glory.
What was Watergate? Near the end of the film, the voice of Bob Woodward repeats a formula he has used in writing before, summing up Watergate as a series of overlapping wars -- against the anti-Vietnam War movement, the news media, against the Democrats, the justice system and against history. That might suggest Nixon’s resignation represented an armistice but currently that doesn’t seem to be the case.
Watergate is in the air these days for the obvious parallels to the current American presidential crisis. Leon Neyfakh’s Watergate-themed podcast, Slow Burn, was a significant hit, and Steven Spielberg’s The Post (2017) covered similar territory. Although the T-word is never mentioned in the documentary, Ferguson’s film closes with an earlier tagline: “Watergate: Or How We Learned to Stop An Out-Of-Control President.”
The problem is that Watergate, while good at getting into the muck and weeds, fails in providing overview. The success of Watergate prosecution seems to have owed at least as much to luck as to Nixon’s dogged and virtuous political, legal and media adversaries.
Although the 37th president may have been “uniquely and pervasively corrupt,” (to use a phrase of Woodward and Bernstein), he was also the product of a system where presidential power and national security encourage deceit and corruption, a fact that has been implicitly recognized and largely tolerated since then.
In the post-Watergate era, we’ve seen an American president, Ronald Reagan, who wasn’t impeached for cutting a secret arms deals to finance a secret war in Nicaragua and another, George Bush Jr, who wasn’t impeached for lying to the world as an excuse to launch a war costing thousands of lives.
The “lesson” from Watergate, is that Nixon wasn’t stopped until his own party felt he was a political liability.
Unless that system changes, the door is open for more “out-of-control” presidents to hold criminal levels of power.
Watergate. Directed by Charles Ferguson. With John Dean, Dan Rather, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Watergate shows at the Ted Rogers Hot Docs Theatre as two separate films. For a complete schedule go to http://www.hotdocs.ca.