Leon Neyfakh on Slow Burn, Slate’s new podcast on Watergate.

Revisiting Watergate’s Most Incredible Stories

Revisiting Watergate’s Most Incredible Stories

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Nov. 29 2017 10:04 AM
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Revisiting Watergate’s Most Incredible Stories

Leon Neyfakh on finding the parallels between the Nixon era and today in his new Slate podcast, Slow Burn.

President Richard Nixon addresses the nation on TV about the Watergate.
On April 30, 1973, President Nixon addresses the nation on TV about the Watergate.

Bettmann/Getty Images

As the Trump-Russia scandal progresses, comparisons to Watergate have become commonplace. But how much do you remember about the burglars, or the hearings, or Nixon’s fall? When did the American public—and the people involved—come to realize that the story would bring down a president?

That’s the subject of a new Slate podcast miniseries called Slow Burn: A Podcast About Watergate. In this S+ Extra podcast, which is exclusive to Slate Plus members, Chau Tu talks with host Leon Neyfakh about talking to people who experienced the saga from up close and the parallels he sees between Watergate and the current administration.

Subscribe to Slow Burn here.

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This transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Chau Tu: Do you feel like you knew a lot about Watergate before working on those podcasts?

Leon Neyfakh: I did not. I knew pretty much nothing, I’m not ashamed to say. Honestly, all I’d had exposure to was All the President’s Men. And not even the book, just the movie, which I’d seen probably multiple times. But usually only so much you can glean from any movie. And actually, as I realized once I started researching this, the movie covers like the first five minutes of this whole thing. It ends with sort of a montage of newspaper headlines that were printed over the course of the, roughly, year and a half after the movie ends. But really that plot you see unfold in this film covers just the first, what? Five months of the scandal. Starting with the break-in which was June 17, 1972, and ending a little bit before the election, which was in November.

My sense of it was basically just that there was a break-in at someplace called the Watergate Hotel. For some reason, the Democratic Party was headquartered at this hotel. I knew that Woodward and Bernstein had figured out that there was a money trail and they followed it, connecting the burglars to the committee to re-elect the president. And then I had some vague sense that some time later Nixon resigned in disgrace. But that just barely scratches the surface of what happened.

Right. How did you know where to begin? How did you start your reporting on this?

I just started reading what struck me as the definitive books on the topic. There’s obviously a million books written about Watergate. I asked around for recommendations from people who know this stuff. The book that I began with is called Nightmare: The Underside of the Nixon Years by a journalist who’s no longer alive, J. Anthony Lukas, who wrote quite a bit about Watergate for the Times magazine in the ’70s. His book is just like detailed to the point of distraction, almost. You can get lost in the digressions because there’s so many amazing ones. But it also gives you the backbone, which is really what I needed when I started.

Another book I read early was The Great Cover-Up by Barry Sussman. He was the city editor at the Washington Post and he worked with Woodward and Bernstein. He wrote a fantastic book about everything that happened and that was really helpful as well.

What was something that surprised you when you were starting to do your research and reporting?

Gosh, so much. Broadly speaking, I was surprised by how much I found surprising. Reading some of these books—and I have this whole shelf now—there’s something on every single page that I wanted to write down and tell people about. My test for whether I wanted to include something in the show has generally been like, “Do I want to tell my friends about this? Is this gonna play at a party?” So I’m hoping that the show reflects that. Obviously we’re talking about very serious, grave events that really tested this country but, boy, a lot of it was really fun to hear about. Or, is fun to hear about now.

As far as specific crazy things, you’ll hear a lot of them on the show. One thing that I think I can probably now include, that is fresh in my mind because I just read about it, is that towards the end of Nixon’s presidency, when it was clear that he would have to resign or else be impeached, and that his vice president, Gerald Ford, would be replacing him, Nixon’s friend and then White House Counsel Len Garment wrote a letter. Or maybe just sent a memo; I forget, exactly, this format of communication, but he basically told Ford that Nixon’s mental and physical condition was really kind of under a lot of pressure, given everything was going on. And that he basically implied that if Ford didn’t agree to preemptively pardon him, he would kill himself.

Who knows if that’s true or if that reflected any reality about Nixon’s state of mind. It could have been just a desperate plea to get that pardon. But there’s other stuff I found indicating that Nixon really was very low during this time. Even earlier. In my essay announcing the series, I talk about this meeting that Nixon had with two of his top aides on the day he was going to fire them, because he knew that they had to be cut loose in order to protect the presidency. Nixon was really, really not looking forward to these conversations and in both of them he made comments about how he might not be alive for much longer. Or, that he had gone to bed the night before hoping that he wouldn’t wake up in the morning.

So between all those little data points, it suggests that Nixon was really taking this hard. And that’s not surprising. You asked me what was surprising—that’s not surprising, but it’s still really jarring to hear it, I think.

It seems like Watergate’s one of those events that people have stories. When you talked about those people come up and they have their own recollections of this. Right?

Totally. It’s been really fun to discuss the project with people, especially people who are over roughly 60, people who were basically teenagers at the time of the scandal. They generally have a lot of memories, especially of that summer of 1973 when the Senate Watergate hearings were going on and everybody was watching them. They were playing live during the day. They were repeated at night. Teenagers were off from school so they got to watch them live if they were interested, and a lot of them were.

There’s just a seemingly endless cache of memories that people have that I’m hoping some of our listeners will share with us. We’re going to post a phone number for people to call and share their most vivid memories of Watergate. I hope people take us up on that so we can share it back with you guys. [Editor’s note: If you have your own story about Watergate, you can leave a message for Slow Burn at (646)665-7382.]

Talk about some of the people that you have spoken to for this podcast.

That’s been sort of the best part, is talking to individuals who were part of this saga. It sort of happened just long enough ago that, while a lot of people have passed away, a lot of them haven’t. Like a lot. I’m been really pleasantly surprised with how many people I’m able to call up and ask about this stuff.

We’ve had a mix of people that we’ve interviewed. There’ve been journalists who covered the scandal, including Bob Woodward. But also Elizabeth Drew, who was great. She wrote about it for the New Yorker and wrote a great book about it as well. Leslie Stahl from 60 Minutes, who covered it for CBS News when she was just a rookie. Dick Cavett, the talk show host who had a lot of the main actors on his show during 1972 and ’73.

We’ve also talked to a lot of people working in government who investigated the break-in, in one capacity or another. There’s a guy, Curtis Prins, who I spoke to. He was a congressional staffer and was one of the first people on Capitol Hill to look into the issue. He was exciting to talk to because when I called he was like, “No one’s ever called me about this. I’m so glad to finally have these memories go somewhere.” That was really exciting for a reporter. I talked to this lovely married couple, Mary DeOreo and Marc Lackritz who were girlfriend/boyfriend when they moved to Washington, D.C., in 1973 and started working as investigators for the Senate Watergate Committee. I think people are gonna really fall in love with them, as I did. A number of other people gave interviews who were involved in those hearings. People who were investigators or people who were lawyers who were involved in preparing questions for the various witnesses.

And, of course, we’ve also talked to historians who have studied the period. They’ve been extremely helpful as far as grounding some of these details I’m digging up in the broader narrative.

So, not to spoil anything on the podcast, but do you feel like you’ve seen any parallels to what we’re experiencing now in 2017?

Absolutely. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything because we go pretty light on the comparisons in the show. We made a decision early on to have it be in the background, the reason we’re doing this. The reason we’re talking about these events is that they remind us of what’s happening in the news today, or maybe they give us some hints as to where it’s going. But we found that just actually charting the parallels was more trouble than it was worth. They’ll just be obvious, I think, to most readers to the extent that they’re there. But they are. I think that they are.

Just from the basic fact of the underlying crime that people are trying to get to the bottom of was messing with an election. The Watergate break-in was part of a much broader effort by the Republicans to intervene—by the Nixon campaign specifically—to intervene on the 1972 presidential election. And it went back to the primaries when the Nixon people were trying very hard to sabotage Ed Muskie. Who they thought was the biggest threat to Nixon’s reelection. So the Watergate break-in was part of that campaign. Though there are some debates about whether the break-in was literally part of the same campaign in the sense that it was paid for by the same money. It doesn’t really matter, in my opinion. It was clearly the result of a mindset and an overall strategy.

But your question was, are there parallels? The answer is yes, we’re talking about elections being messed with in improper ways, and trying to figure out who was responsible. Aside from that, the way the Trump administration has dealt with the press is very, I think, reminiscent of how Nixon and his press people tried to combat the negative stories that were coming out. They didn’t have the phrase “fake news” back then, but they found other phrases. “Shabby journalism,” that kind of thing. You know, casting the Washington Post as an agent of the McGovern campaign and trying to convince people that this was all just a political witch hunt.

And, let’s see, what are the other parallels? Oh, I guess just the personality of the main character. Nixon is a sort of sui generis figure, as is Trump. But they certainly share some character traits. Paranoia. An appetite for conspiracy theory. I say like, a lack of perspective. One of the things you think about when you listen to the Nixon White House tapes is how did this guy devote so much of his time to thinking about this issue when he had the country to run? And that’s sort of what I always think about when I imagine Trump watching Fox or reading the papers about the Russian investigation. It’s like, how are you doing anything else?

So, in that sense, I feel like there are some echoes. And finally, Nixon had this crew of loyalists around him. People who were willing to do just about anything to protect him and protect his presidency. I think, obviously, there’s been a lot of revolving door with Trump. A lot of people leaving. But, at the end of the day, I see his administration as a clan of loyalists. Family, quite literally, who’s just trying to keep their guy out of trouble.

For the podcast, you’re also planning on releasing these bonus episodes that are exclusive for Slate Plus members. What are you planning for those right now?

Oh, we got a lot of great stuff. The episodes that will be available publicly are quite short. We kind of wanted to do the show as something that you could listen to on the way home from work or on the way to work, so they mostly come in under 30 minutes. But that meant that a lot of the interviews we’ve done, most of which lasted like an hour or more, don’t get used.

So we’re allowing ourselves to put some of that wonderful material we collected and put it out to the Slate Plus readership. There will be extra interview material every week, plus I’ll be discussing stuff I found that didn’t make it into the episode with Jeffery Bloomer, who runs our video team here. He stepped up to be my co-host and he’ll be asking me to go back into my notebook and find the cool stuff that we weren’t able to use.

Follow the entire Slow Burn series here.