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Watergate: A Fresh Look at the Most Influential Political Event of the Past Half Century

As the 50th anniversary of the break-in approaches, a recent book charts the transformation of the Nixon administration’s bungled burglary to a redefinition of America’s relationship with its leaders and institutions.

Richard Nixon speaking on TV.
Watergate at 50: A June 1972 break-in to the Democratic National Committee headquarters led to an investigation that revealed multiple abuses of power by the Nixon administration.
(flickr/szmilo)
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Cover image of Watergate: A New History by Garrett M. Graff.
Cover image of Watergate: A New History by Garrett M. Graff, a single volume retelling of the political scandal that undermined Americans’ trust in institutions.
(Avid Reader Press/Simon & Schuster/February 2022)
Growing up in the 1980s in a family of journalists, Garrett Graff’s sense of Watergate was shaped by the on-screen exploits of Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman in All the President’s Men, in which they portray Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, respectively. But when the recent impeachment of Donald Trump prompted him to take a fresh look back at the Nixon administration, Graff stumbled onto “a weirder, zanier, bigger, and different” Watergate story than the one that resides in popular history. In his recently published and highly readable book, Watergate: A New History, Graff not only explores the full scope of the scandal, but outlines why he considers the Nixon presidency to be “the hinge on which the American century turned.” Graff recently spoke with Governing Editor-at-Large Clay Jenkinson. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.


In a 2014 CBS News segment, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein reflect on the extensive shoe leather journalism that undergirded their coverage of Watergate. A new history of the scandal claims that famous original reportage was too narrow and missed a “weirder, zanier, bigger, and different” story.


Governing: Why, nearly a half century later, another book about Watergate?

Garrett Graff.
Garrett M. Graff, journalist and historian, is a former editor of Politico Magazine and author of three books, including his latest about Watergate.
(garrettgraff.com)
Garrett Graff: We have this standard version of the burglary, Woodward and Bernstein, John Dean, Sam Ervin, Nixon’s resignation. A lot of that stuff is important and meaningful, but a clear-eyed look at the Woodward and Bernstein matter shows that they had a pretty narrow slice of the story, in the fall of ’72. They kept the story alive long enough for the government investigations to kick in, but there were three other teams of journalists who broke the biggest stories that fall. The book shows how Watergate became less an event and more a state of mind. It shows how Nixon’s dark, paranoid, conspiratorial, and criminal mindset came to dominate his White House.

The result was a shaggy set of distinct but interrelated scandals with semi-overlapping sets of players that unfolded from the campaign of 1968 through Nixon’s resignation in ’74.

Governing: The 18-minute gap in the Nixon tapes rocked the country, whereas the seven-hour gap in Donald Trump’s Jan. 6 phone log has received much less of a reaction. What’s changed?

Garrett Graff: Watergate was the story of how power moves and shifts and plays out in Washington, and how the system of checks and balances and Articles I, II, and III and the Bill of Rights all came together to force Nixon from office in a way that none of those institutions could have done on their own. Not the media, not the FBI, not the Justice Department, not the House, not the Senate, not the District Court, not the Appeals Court, not the Supreme Court. It took every lever in the system. The clearest dividing line between then and now is that you saw Congress at that time acting as a co-equal branch of government whose members, whether Republican or Democrat, were members of Congress first. Their actions were calibrated not as partisans, but as a co-equal branch of government trying to hold another branch of government to account, which was their constitutional duty.

Governing: For all of Nixon’s crimes, he exhibited some sense of the need to play within the boundaries of constitutional norms. He turned over the tapes, for example. It’s difficult to see Trump doing that. Nixon had a vision of the country. He wasn’t a nihilist.

Garrett Graff: When you get to the personal level, that’s one of the major differences between Nixon and Trump. Nixon cared about the country and democracy. And leaving aside some of the questions around tax fraud and presidential home improvements and things like that, one of the notable aspects that people argued at the time about the Watergate scandal was that while these were all criminal abuses of power, no one was in it for themselves. There was remarkably little personal benefit. Nixon was actually quite the opposite of a nihilist in that he saw himself as a great man. And he almost was. No president came closer in the 20th century to being a great president while falling short. If the coverup had held in one of the half dozen places where it almost held, he might have triumphantly stepped down from office in January of 1977.
The Watergate complex.
Now a historical landmark, the Watergate complex is a group of six buildings in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood of Washington, D.C., and was the site of the June 17, 1972, break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters.
(museum.gwu.edu)
Governing: There’s no evidence that Nixon had prior knowledge of the Watergate operation, but he also denied knowledge of or involvement in the coverup, a claim that was demonstrably false. Why would he deepen the crisis by issuing such a statement?

Garrett Graff: There’s a story in the book that I attribute to Henry Kissinger of a Russian serf who is commanded by the czar to teach a dog to talk in 30 days. If he’s successful, he’ll get all sorts of riches, but if not, he and his whole family will be killed. His wife says, “What on earth are we going to do?” And he says, “Well, life’s long. Who knows what’s going to happen in 30 days? Maybe he’ll forget. Maybe he’ll die. Maybe the dog will talk.” I thought a lot about that over the course of the book because you see Nixon, and many of the other players, just keep going along, even as the path gets more treacherous and escape becomes less and less possible. Nixon thought he could steamroll his way through, right up until the moment that he couldn’t.

Governing: The Nixon White House also made false denials concerning offers or knowledge of offers of executive clemency for Watergate defendants.

Anna Chennault
Anna Chennault, a private citizen who helped President Richard Nixon win the presidency by scuttling Vietnam peace talks on the eve of the 1968 election.
(louisianadigitallibrary.org)
Garrett Graff: You see a lot of this “Who will rid me of the troublesome priest?” behavior from Nixon, as well as from Donald Trump. But what’s really been remarkable as we have gotten access to the Nixon tapes is the number of times that Nixon went far beyond that, such as with the Chennault Affair and the Brookings fire bombing plot. For 50 years, the mantra of Watergate has been that the coverup was worse than the crime. But what you come to realize in the Nixon story is that while the coverup turned out to be not very good, the crimes were quite myriad, quite troublesome, and quite awful.

Governing: How does Vietnam play into all of this?

Garrett Graff: When you look at Watergate in its full scope, the Chennault Affair is the original sin of the Nixon administration. It’s this incredible moment that we didn’t really understand until new documents were declassified in the last decade. In the fall of ’68, private citizen Richard Nixon, the former vice president and current Republican presidential nominee, interceded with the South Vietnamese government to stall the Paris peace talks and keep the Vietnam War going. It’s as close to a serious allegation of outright treason as we have against any political figure in the 20th century. You have a presidential candidate interceding to keep American servicemen dying in the jungles of Vietnam for his own political benefit by telling the South Vietnamese, “If you wait to make peace with me, I will give you a better deal.” Lyndon B. Johnson learned about this in the final hours of the campaign. He confronted Nixon and Nixon denied it, but Johnson knew he was lying. The issue was even messier because Johnson had found out through NSA (National Security Agency) wiretaps of the South Vietnamese embassy, an awkward thing to talk about. After the election, Johnson decided to bury the whole thing because it would undermine Nixon’s moral authority, and it would undermine the presidency as Nixon came into office. Viewed through one twisted lens, that was an incredibly honorable decision. But Nixon knew that Johnson knew, and that ate away at Nixon. He was terrified throughout his presidency that this information would come out.

When the Pentagon Papers were released, the Chennault Affair was not mentioned, which should have been a moment of great celebration for Nixon. The Pentagon Papers, after all, trashed both Johnson and Kennedy, his two worst political enemies. But Nixon was so afraid that it was going to tip out the news of the Chennault Affair that he went crazy and created the plumber’s unit. He brought in G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt, figures who a year later would lead the Watergate burglary. And in the summer of ’71 Nixon ordered the bonkers plot to break into the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank whose safe he thought contained papers related to the Chennault Affair. Nixon’s team came up with the idea of first fire-bombing the building, and then using burglars disguised as firefighters to break in amidst the chaos and steal whatever was there. It was one of the craziest things to ever emerge from any White House. Liddy later said that the plot was canceled not because it was both insane and criminal, but because the White House was too cheap to buy the fire engine for the burglars. Brookings was the plot that created the plumbers. Everything else unfolded from there.

Governing: That Nixon and Kissinger would prolong a war that both knew couldn’t be won seems like an appalling failure of basic presidential responsibility.

President Richard M. Nixon with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger
President Richard M. Nixon with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger on Oct. 8, 1973, in Washington in the Oval Office of the White House.
(nixonfoundation.org)
Garrett Graff: Richard Nixon is the hinge on which the American century turned. That legacy — Vietnam, the Pentagon Papers, Watergate — was the moment that America lost faith in its institutions and lost faith in the presidency. No one in 1972 thought the president would lie to the country. At a basic level, America trusted its presidency, and trusted its institutions. And the press trusted the presidency. That’s part of what brought in the era of Woodward and Bernstein and Seymour Hersh and the other reporters who helped break the Watergate scandal. Most of the press that heard Nixon say he had nothing to do with Watergate just said, “Oh, okay. He had nothing to do with Watergate.”

Governing: Was Nixon afraid of other revelations from the early ’60s that might come out?

Garrett Graff: He was, and that was part of the general mess that grew into Watergate. Every single person in the Nixon orbit, up to and including most of the senior officials at the FBI, were engaged in distinct but related criminal schemes and abuses of power. They kept defaulting to a coverup because they couldn’t come clean without outing some other criminal plot. Part of the reason that they defaulted to covering up the Watergate burglary was the fear that it might uncover the burglary of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist that the plumbers had carried out the summer before. Every time they turned around, they were bumping into another one of their criminal plots and trying to hide everything as best they could.

Governing: You say in the beginning of the book that what happened with Watergate, the loss of respect and faith in our basic institutions, in some sense leads to Donald Trump. How does a nation come back from this decades-long spiral?

Garrett Graff: My short answer is that I’m increasingly less optimistic. My longer answer is that there is a very clear and simple path forward. It begins with criminal prosecutions of people who abuse office. It continues with Congress re-establishing its own legislative prerogatives as a co-equal branch of government. And it includes myriad big and small political reforms, not the least of which would be doing away with partisan primaries. A lot of the partisan nation and polarization of Congress stems from the rise of increasingly gerrymandered districts where the outcome is chosen, not in the fall election, but in the primaries, where an incredibly small percentage of people actually vote. Just getting back to the campaign finance laws that we passed in the wake of Watergate, and undoing Citizens United, would be pretty remarkable reforms.




You can hear more of Clay Jenkinson’s views on American history and the humanities on his long-running nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast, The Thomas Jefferson Hour, and the new Governing podcast, Listening to America. Clay’s new book, The Language of Cottonwoods: Essays on the Future of North Dakota, is available through AmazonBarnes and Noble and your local independent book seller. Clay welcomes your comments and critiques of his essays and interviews. You can reach him directly by writing cjenkinson@governing.com or tweeting @ClayJenkinson.
Clay S. Jenkinson is the editor-at-large of Governing. He is a humanities scholar, historian and founder of the Theodore Roosevelt Center. He can be reached at cjenkinson@governing.com or on Twitter at @ClayJenkinson.
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