Watergate in Pop Culture

Fifty years ago this weekend, five men were arrested after breaking into the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters in the Watergate office complex in Washington, D.C. The five men – Virgilio “Villo” R. González, Bernard Barker, James McCord, Eugenio Martínez, and Frank Sturgis – were arrested and charged with attempted burglary and attempted interception of telephone and other communications. The story was given scant attention until it was revealed that McCord was the head of security for the Committee to Re-Elect the President (CRP or “Creep”). Initially, the White House denied any advance knowledge of the break-in; eventually, it was revealed that the burglary was sanctioned by the highest levels of the Oval Office. Sixty-nine people were indicted for crimes related to the break-in and the resulting cover-up; forty-eight people – many of whom were top White House and CRP officials – were indicted. President Nixon, his impeachment looming, resigned from office on August 8, 1974; President Ford pardoned him thirty days later.

One of the biggest political scandals in US history, Watergate found its way into the zeitgest. The Senate Watergate hearings were broadcast live on television; an estimated 85% of Americans tuned in to their TV sets for at least a portion of the proceedings. National Public Radio, then in its infancy, broadcast gavel-to-gavel coverage of the hearings, allowing people to listen at their workplaces and in their cars. Watergate was as much a cultural event as a political one. As with other political events that capture the nation’s attention – JFK’s assassination, for instance – there are plenty of pop-culture depictions of Watergate to choose from. Here are just a few:

  • All the President’s Men

By the time the Watergate break-in became a major political scandal, The Washington Post had two of its best reporters – Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein – investigating the story. Their work is the gold standard in Watergate reporting. Woodward and Bernstein were initially hesitant to write the book but committed once Robert Redford expressed interest in a film adaptation. According to Woodward, Redford was instrumental in switching the story’s viewpoint from the Watergate co-conspirators to the reporters themselves and the Post‘s investigative and editorial process.

All the President’s Men was the book that made me want to be a journalist; I didn’t become a journalist, obviously, but that doesn’t change how it made me feel at the time. If you haven’t seen Alan J. Pakula’s flawless film adaptation, you’re in for a treat (it’s available to stream on HBO Max, by the way). All the President’s Men earned eight Academy Award nominations and won four Oscars: Best Supporting Actor (for Jason Robards’ brilliant portrayal of Post executive editor Ben Bradlee), Best Adapted Screenplay (William Goldman), Best Art Direction, and Best Sound. It should have won Best Picture but Rocky – shockingly – took home the top prize (I would also have accepted Network). In 2015, The Hollywood Reporter interviewed hundreds of Academy members about some of the more controversial Oscar decisions from years past; the voters indicated that All the President’s Men should have beaten Rocky for Best Picture. Oscar nonsense aside, All the President’s Men is a gripping, superbly-acted thriller that is at least as relevant today as it was in 1976.

Among the brilliant supporting cast is Hal Holbrook, who played Woodward’s confidential source “Deep Throat”. Deep Throat’s identity was kept hidden for more than thirty years, but rumors swirled: the top contender was former White House Associate Counsel Fred F. Fielding. Some opined that Deep Throat was a composite of several sources, or that Woodward and Bernstein fabricated the story. In 2005, former FBI associate director Mark Felt’s family attorney confirmed that Felt had been the informant, which Woodward and Bernstein then confirmed.
  • Slow Burn, Gaslit, The Martha Mitchell Effect

“I’m convinced if it hadn’t been for Martha, there’d have been no Watergate” – Richard Nixon

Martha Mitchell’s story is equal parts fascinating and heartbreaking. I begrudgingly admit that I wasn’t as familiar with it as I should have been, but I understand it all too well now. Mitchell was the wife of former Attorney General John N. Mitchell, who at the time of the Watergate break-in was Nixon’s reelection campaign manager. Outspoken Martha – the pride of Pine Bluff, Arkansas – was always a bit of a thorn in Nixon’s side, despite the fact that she fully supported the president and his reelection campaign. That all changed in the days and weeks after the break-in. You see, James McCord – one of the five men arrested at the Watergate that June morning – had worked at one time as a bodyguard and driver for the Mitchell family; Martha was quite fond of McCord and John Mitchell knew that Martha would recognize him. At the time of the break-in, the Mitchells were in California for a campaign fundraiser. John Mitchell hurried back to Washington to help clean up the mess, leaving Martha behind with former FBI agent Steve King (over Martha’s objections). Martha was essentially held hostage in a hotel room and denied access to any media. Five days after the break-in, Martha made a frantic phone call to UPI reporter Helen Thomas; before the phone call abruptly ended, Thomas could hear Martha say “You just get away”. A few days later, another reporter – Marcia Kramer of the New York Daily News – tracked Martha down and discovered she had massive bruises on her arms. Martha relayed to Kramer her astonishing story – after attempting to escape from the hotel balcony, five men physically accosted her and held her down while a doctor injected her with a tranquilizer. The White House went into damage control mode, painting Martha as an alcoholic with mental health issues in an attempt to discredit her (they almost got away with it). John Mitchell abandoned his wife in September of 1973, taking their pre-teen daughter with him. In 1975, Martha was diagnosed with multiple myeloma. She passed away on May 31, 1976, at the age of fifty-seven. Eventually, James McCord admitted that everything Martha had said was true. In 1988, psychologist Brendan Maher coined the term “The Martha Mitchell Effect”, defined as “the process by which a psychiatrist, psychologist, mental health clinician, or other medical professional labels a patient’s accurate perception of real events as delusional, resulting in misdiagnosis”. More recently, we’ve adopted the term “gaslighting” to describe the process of making someone question their own reality.

A chrysanthemum arrangement reading “Martha was right” was sent to Mitchell’s funeral; no card was attached.

All three of the above titles revolve around Martha’s story. The best of the bunch is Slow Burn, based on the podcast of the same name. Slow Burn is a six-episode docuseries that tells the lesser-known stories related to Watergate, including Martha’s. The series makes extensive use of archival footage, as well as new interviews with folks like John Dean and Eugenio Martínez. I was shocked to learn how much I didn’t know about Watergate; I was thoroughly entertained and enlightened throughout. Slow Burn is available to stream on Epix, which I subscribe to because their docuseries game is on point; you can also purchase the season from Amazon for $10.99.

Fun fact: Slate‘s Slow Burn pod covers a different storyline each season. Subsequent seasons have covered topics such as Bill Clinton’s impeachment, the Iraq War, and the 1992 Los Angeles riots that resulted from the police beating of Rodney King. I’m hoping the Slow Burn docuseries will cover some of these topics as well. I’d watch as many hours of that as they could crank out.

On to Gaslit, the Starz original series that concluded last week, which I am entirely ambivalent about recommending. I wanted to love it, and I did love it about 75% of the time; it’s just that the other 25% of the time I kind of hated it. Let me preface this by saying that Shea Whigham is brilliant as the idiosyncratic and unapologetic G. Gordon Liddy, but the darkly comic Liddy sequences border on slapstick and the tone is out of sync with the rest of the series. And Sean Penn’s hammy portrayal of John Mitchell is as terrible as his make-up; I found him to be excruciatingly distracting. That being said, Julia Roberts is magnificent as Martha Mitchell; her performance is so convincing that I often forgot I was watching Julia Roberts. Roberts should and will be nominated for all sorts of awards. Dan Stevens is charming enough as White House Counsel John Dean, but his scenes really come alive when he is with the glorious, gorgeous Betty Gilpin, who plays Dean’s wife Mo and who also should be nominated for all sorts of awards. The talented supporting cast includes Allison Tolman, Hamish Linklater, Chris Messina, and John Carroll Lynch, but none of them is given enough to do (I would have especially loved more screen time for Tolman, so lovely as Martha’s friend and biographer, reporter Winzola “Winnie” McLendon).

And finally, to Netflix’s The Martha Mitchell Effect, which was just released on Friday. If you’re looking for a tidy summary of Martha’s story, this forty-minute documentary will get the job done (it also clarified a couple of things that confused me in Gaslit). Do yourself a favor and spend a little time in Martha Mitchell’s world; she’s earned it.

  • Dick

If you’re looking for a more light-hearted take on the Watergate scandal, try Andrew Fleming’s delightful 1999 romp, Dick. The film stars Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams as Betsy and Arlene, two teenagers who inadvertently foil the Watergate break-in, then are offered jobs as presidential dog walkers to ensure their silence. Ultimately, the two decide to come clean, sharing what they know with Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Yes, that’s correct: Betsy and Arlene are Deep Throat. Dunst and Williams are adorable and the supporting cast features comedy legends like Dan Hedaya (Richard Nixon), Harry Shearer (G. Gordon Liddy), Dave Foley (as H.R. Haldeman), Bruce McCulloch (Bernstein), and Will Ferrell (Woodward). You can stream Dick on Hulu.

  • Nixon

Oliver Stone’s Nixon is a love-it-or-hate-it kind of film. Critics, including Richard Nixon’s family, have lambasted both the historical inaccuracy of the film and Anthony Hopkins’ campy portrayal of Nixon (his accent, which sometimes sounds Irish, is especially perplexing). But the film also garnered four Oscar nominations: Best Actor for Hopkins, Best Supporting Actress for Joan Allen (as Pat Nixon), Best Original Screenplay (The Usual Suspects rightfully took home that award), and Best Original Score for John Williams. Biopics tend to play fast and loose with the facts, so the historical inaccuracies bother me less than the film’s run time: a butt-numbing three hours and twelve minutes.

  • Frost/Nixon

Frost/Nixon, on the other hand, clocks in at a far-more-reasonable two hours and two minutes. Based on the stage play by Peter Morgan, Frost/Nixon reenacts David Frost’s 1977 interviews with Richard Nixon. Plenty of dramatic liberties are taken here too, but Frost/Nixon features a far more convincing Nixon (Frank Langella, in a commanding, Oscar-nominated performance). And while Nixon may not have revealed nearly as much to Frost as the film suggests, Frost/Nixon is riveting nonetheless. Langella received all the accolades, but Michael Sheen is also terrific as Frost.

  • Secret Honor

I’ll admit I’ve never seen Secret Honor, which stars the late, great Philip Baker Hall as Richard Nixon, but I can imagine how awesome his performance must be. Robert Altman directed this adaptation of the one-man play of the same name. Roger Ebert called Secret Honor “one of the most scathing, lacerating and brilliant movies of 1984.” You can stream Secret Honor on the Criterion Channel or rent it for $1.99 on Amazon.

  • The Final Days

In 1976, the same year All the President’s Men arrived in theaters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein published their second Watergate book, The Final Days. The sequel continues where All the President’s Men left off: in April of 1973, with John Dean’s firing. It chronicles the events of the next fifteen months and ends on August 9, 1974, the day Nixon left office. In 1989, The Final Days was adapted into a mini-series starring Lane Smith, Ed Flanders, Richard Kiley, Gary Sinise, and David Ogden Stiers. The series was nominated for four Emmys, including Outstanding Miniseries or Made for Television Movie. Smith was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Actor – Miniseries or Television Film for his portrayal of Richard Nixon.

  • The White House Plumbers

FIlming for this upcoming HBO limited series ended in October; no word yet on a release date. The series will document the story of E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy, and their covert White House Special Investigations Unit (AKA The White House Plumbers). The unit was formed a week after the publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971; their job was to stop the leaks coming out of the White House (hence, “plumbers”). Several of the plumbers went on to work for CRP, including Hunt, Liddy, and Frank Sturgis. Given their work on Veep, showrunners Alex Gregory and Peter Huyck will likely give the proceedings a comedic edge. The cast – including Woody Harrelson as Hunt, Justin Theroux as Liddy, Domnhall Gleason as John Dean, and John Carroll Lynch as John Mitchell – is fantastic. I’m pretty excited for this one!

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