If You Think Things Today Are the Worst They’ve Ever Been, You Really Oughta Watch History’s ‘Watergate’ Series

Over the past 20 or so years, the Watergate scandal has become one of America’s historical abstractions, like the Great Depression or the Roaring Twenties.

People who were there think they know all they need to to know. So do people who weren’t.

The fact we tack the suffix “–gate” onto every passing scandal, however fleeting, renders the original more abstract.

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President Richard Nixon in the Oval Office.

Those are some of the reasons why the best thing you could watch on television this weekend is Watergate, a three-night, six-hour quasi-documentary premiering at 9 p.m. ET Friday on History.

The main writer for the series is Richard Nixon, who was president for the two years during which the Watergate scandal exploded, 1972–1974, and whose secretly taped Oval Office conversations form the backbone of the narrative.

Watergate ended, of course, with Nixon resigning in disgrace.

The History channel dabbles a lot these days in subjects that stretch the original brand. Finding an occasional vintage item in a hock shop doesn’t really make Pawn Stars a show about history.

Watergate is pure history. The scandal laid bare some of the worst in American politics and America’s elected leaders, but more to the point of this series, it reflected how political action is shaped by events and culture.

That was true during Watergate. It was true a hundred years ago and 200 years ago. It is true today. Watergate doesn’t spell out all the connections because it doesn’t have to. You can’t miss them.

We see what happened in the early 1970s and we’re seeing a dizzying number of things that are still happening now, starting with an angry ideological divide.

At the same time, Watergate also reminds us of something else.

Commentators today often declare that America has never been so divided or so tribal. Watergate dusts off news clips and other material from the late 1960s into the mid-1970s that suggest the divide then was just as angry and often more violent.

It’s not a competition. One era doesn’t win by being more troubled. The point is that when we start declaring that what we see today is unprecedented, much of the time we are forgetting, ignoring or unaware of history.

That reminder alone would make it worth watching Watergate. Another reason is that it’s riveting drama, revolving around a president who is insecure, paranoid and a liar. He also seems to spend much of his time angry, convinced that his real mission as president is to beat his enemies.

In keeping with tradition for these kinds of retrospectives, History has actors playing the roles of Nixon, foreign affairs guru Henry Kissinger, aides Robert Haldeman and John Ehrlichman and everyone else Nixon was secretly recording. It’s straight re-enactment in which the actors have only one mission: not to get in the way of the lines they are speaking.

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Those re-enactment scenes complement interviews with living participants: John Dean, the White House counsel who was part of the bad stuff until he blew the whistle; Daniel Ellsberg, the former government worker who leaked the Pentagon Papers, which detailed our multiple screwups with the Vietnam War; Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the Washington Post reporters who famously bulldogged the story from a curiosity to a worldwide scandal; plus various historians and ex-government officials.

No one defends Nixon, and it could be argued this is an historical gap. Nixon was applauded for some of what he did in office, including opening relations with China, launching the Environmental Protection Agency and proposing treatment over prison for drug addicts.

But Watergate isn’t about an assessment of the Nixon presidency. It’s an autopsy of the scandal, in which operatives hired by lower-level officials in the Nixon White house clumsily broke into Democratic national headquarters and the administration, including Nixon himself, got busted for trying to cover it up.

By telling the story in a straightforward chronological manner, Watergate gets to drop in a lot of fascinating factoids and historical tidbits. Some of these involve Watergate itself and some help explain the context in the Nixon White House.

We hear about the number of insiders who warned all along that we couldn’t win in Vietnam. We hear the flat-out lies Kissinger fed to Nixon about Ellsberg after the Pentagon Papers came out.

Morton Halperin, a former Kissinger deputy, recalls how supplying arms to the South Vietnamese army was largely an illusion. A third of South Vietnamese soldiers were secretly members of the opposition Viet Cong, he says. Another third were corrupt and turned around to sell those new weapons to the VC.

So two-thirds of American rifle shipments to our allies were really supplying the enemy, says Halperin, and even if his estimates aren’t perfectly accurate, the syndrome is sobering.

On the concrete side, we hear Nixon saying things like “Get me the names of the Jews” who are funding Democrats. We’re reminded that seven million tons of bombs were dropped on Vietnam during the war, 50% more than fell in all of World War II.

Mostly we’re reminded that Nixon, like most presidents, was reactive. He was elected with the promise he would deliver “peace with honor” in Vietnam, but as the war went on and started feeling like his own, he became obsessed with not losing it. He did anyway. He also lost almost 40,000 more American lives and many more Vietnamese.

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Like Lyndon Johnson before him, he fell into a situation neatly summarized when Watergate plays the opening lines of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” sung by Jimi Hendrix: “There must be some way outta here / Said the joker to the thief. . . .”

Many details of the late ’60s and early ’70s were unique to the time. What isn’t unique is the anger radiating both from millions of citizens and government leaders.

Commentator Pat Buchanan argues here that speeches he wrote for Nixon’s Vice President Spiro Agnew, blasting the television networks for their coverage of the administration, launched the anti-media wave that rolls across America today. Whether or not that’s entirely true, they certainly fanned suspicion and distrust.

Watergate, besides telling a sad and fascinating story, shows us we’re not alone in those feelings. We got them from our parents and grandparents — who very likely inherited them from theirs.

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